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WEAVING THE WEB

Reporting from Mexico: A Conversation with Ronald Buchanan
by Ron Mader

CONVERSATIONS

Born in Scotland, Ronald Buchanan is a Mexico City-based journalist and the publisher of Palapa, a daily web guide to what the international press publishes about Mexico.

 

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How did you start Palapa?

The idea came to me out of my own experience as a working journalist. Long before the Internet, newspapers were deluged with copy. Editing was -- and is -- the job of sifting through all that's available in order to come up with the mix that will best inform, challenge and entertain the target audience.

I thought it would be a good idea to do the same with the Internet ... edit the web, in effect, for those who want to, or have to, monitor foreign press coverage of Mexico (and also of Latin America).


Previously, you were the managing editor of the Mexico City Times. What happened to that paper?

It's a long story for those of us who were involved in it. I lasted from before the launch to the second anniversary, more or less, but the work got harder all the time because of constant reductions in the editorial budget. After I and most of the others left, it struggled on with a skeleton staff for about two more years before it was closed. The basic problem was a lack of a sound business strategy.

How do you select the news items that appear in Palapa?

I only have about three hours to do this, so it's not necessarily very scientific. When several papers cover the same story, I generally kick out those whose stories are written by agency. Not that agency reports are necessarily bad -- it's just that I reckon that much of my target audience is likely to have seen what they have to say. Likewise, I tend to rule out versions written in New York, London, Miami or Madrid of events happening in Latin America. And last, but by no means least, I try to include only those who have something new or original that day.

What is the difference between national and foreign coverage of Mexico?

National coverage very often suffers from too much detail -- the failure to see the wood from the trees. Likewise, it often assumes encyclopedic knowledge of the nation's politics and economics. So much so that probably only about 1 percent of the population understands what the papers are talking about. As a result, most Mexican national papers have extremely low circulations.

By contrast, the foreign press often contains a wealth of information that is superfluous to those of us who follow Mexico closely but is needed in order to put the general reader in the picture. They tell us, for example, that most Mexicans are poor or that the country has recurring financial crises. There's nothing wrong with that -- it's perfectly correct for the market in question -- but in Palapa I tend to assume that readers know the basics.

In the past decade, have you spotted any trends in how foreign papers cover Mexico?

The principal trend is the coincidence of world view of those in the government and those in the foreign press. Which is not surprising, since both groups come from essentially the same educational background.

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What are the must-read newspapers in Mexico?

You have to sift through mountains of dross to find just a few lumps of coal. The only papers that have credibility are La Jornada, Reforma, El Financiero, Milenio and El Universal.

And finally, who are the must-read columnists?

The must not-read far outnumber the must-read. How anyone has the time or interest to read all these columnists beats me. Some of the best are Luis Rubio, Denise Dresser, Sergio Sarmiento, David Shields, Jorge Fernandez and Javier Ibarrola -- not necessarily because I agree with their views, but because I can learn something from reading them.


AUTHOR

Ron Mader is the responsible travel correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.


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