Earlier this year, I visited Mexico to get a better sense of the vast importance of independent media in the country. At a critical juncture, the media faces pressure and constraints from all sides. Security risks to journalists are all too real, which has the practical impact of suppressing investigative journalism. Financial constraints make it further difficult for journalists to build their technical and reporting skills.
Recently our team had the opportunity to interview Mael Vallejo, a young journalist emblematic of the potential for journalism in the country, but also the risks and dangers. With luck and support, his vision could be the future of journalism in Mexico. From Internews’ decades of experience nurturing journalists just like Mael, I’m optimistic that change can come.
‘Something truly different’
After every single person he worked with at a prominent magazine was fired and the digital footprint of the story they had produced together was erased, Mael Vallejo started rethinking his career as a journalist.
The magazine was Esquire Mexico, a subsidiary of the well-known American men’s lifestyle magazine owned by Mexican media giant Televisa. The story, published in June 2014, was a groundbreaking investigation of what police had labeled a shootout with gang members in the small town of Tlatlaya. In a major scoop that rocked the Mexican media and political worlds, the story found – and Mexico’s Human Rights Commission later confirmed – that there was no shootout. Mexican soldiers had gunned down 22 teenagers and young people, at least 12 execution-style.
The explosive story shattered the facade of a competent campaign against drugs fostered by then-Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and catapulted Vallejo into the public consciousness – and out of a job.
Televisa, dependent for its survival on a vast stream of advertising revenue from the highest levels of the Mexican government, distanced itself quickly from the story and the team of reporters and editors who brought it to light. The journalists had run directly into one of the biggest obstacles to quality journalism in Mexico: much of the media is so addicted to government advertising that it is co-opted by the institutions it covers.
“Esquire was very successful, and working there had been a very smooth existence,” Vallejo said. “We had a lot of money to work with, but the problem was that it was not truly independent media. After what happened at Tlatlaya, well, that was the first time I thought, if I had an actual independent media outlet, one not dependent on the government, I could do something truly different.”
That is exactly what Vallejo is trying to do right now. As editorial director of fledgling online media site, Mexico.com, the 33-year-old dynamo is trying the seemingly impossible in Mexico. In rented WeWork offices on the 36th floor of a high rise overlooking Mexico’s famous Angel of Independence monument and the hope it represents, Vallejo has ambitions of making money and producing great journalism at the same time. It won’t be easy.
How to survive and stay independent
Much is reported around the world about the dangers faced by Mexican journalists, as violent drug cartels have taken hold of Mexican life and have consistently targeted reporters. And those threats are perilously real. Forty-five journalists have been killed in Mexico for doing their jobs since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
But Mexico is a vast country. Violence towards journalists by drug traffickers and gangs have been concentrated along the U.S.-Mexico border and in the rural states where narcotics are grown and transported. In Mexico City, where the country’s farthest-reaching media companies are based, the most serious threats to quality journalism are financial.
Working feverishly at computers crammed tightly together, Vallejo, 24 other journalists and four other staffers are trying to beat the odds. Their gambit is to balance hard-edged, investigative journalism designed to gain them readership with softer, lifestyle stories, which they hope will pay the bills. They are aiming to launch the website in September. On June 4 they launched a preliminary beta version.
To get off the ground, Mexico.com secured major financial backing from some Mexican and Spanish entrepreneurs, and are seeking advertising from Mexico’s fashion, video game and restaurant industries. In contrast to traditional media companies in Mexico, who underpay their reporters leading some to turn to taking money from the institutions they cover, Vallejo is committed to paying his staff well.
Vallejo says they will seek voluntary donations from readers and also offer some paid content. And in a calculated risk, given Vallejo’s aversion to government alliances, they plan to solicit advertising from Mexico’s federal and state tourism ministries.
“Our goal is to avoid the pitfalls of Mexican censorship,” Vallejo said. “The challenge is implementing a business model that works. We know how to do journalism. We have really good reporters. The problem is how to make this financially stable, how to stay independent and at the same time earn money.”
“For me, it’s important that young journalists start to take risks; that they graduate from universities and think not only about working for the big legacy media, but also about starting new media outlets. If what we are trying to do can be transmitted to other young journalists, that will be great.”
“I don’t know if we are going to succeed,” Vallejo said. “But at least we have tried.”