For readers, Extra communicates reality, or versions thereof, in a broadly drawn and thus legible way. Stories are dramatic, casting real-life characters as archetypal heroes and villains, narrating a popular moral order. “He Died in the Motel and Revived at the Hospital!,” published on August 13, 2008, led: “Unfaithful husband and brother dies twice while making love with his sister-in-law. His heart stopped in the Las Palmas motel, but it began to beat at the morgue. At the hospital, everything ended.” The story condemns, but savors a sense of divine justice; at the end, it invokes the popular wisdom that bad guys get what they deserve, saying “nothing is hidden in life, and just at the moment that they gave into sin, his heart deceived him.”
Omar Rincón, director of graduate studies in journalism at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and a media critic for the Colombian daily El Tiempo, has studied sensationalist press throughout Latin America. Sensationalist media inarguably have a penchant for hyping social ills and stereotyping marginalized social groups—in Ecuador, Afro-descendents, indigenous people and Colombian migrants are regularly blamed for crime, backwardness and subversion. Nonetheless, the motivation behind the learned class’s perfunctory disdain is, for Rincón, suspect. “It is a rebellion of the popular classes to mock the prudent classes, the celebrities. It is a rebellion of popular expression, melodrama, magic, mysticism; it’s a form of expressing oneself in the public sphere,” he says.
Editor Henry Holguin boasts that Extra is the common man’s paper and rejects accusations of poor journalistic practices. “Every death, every corpse, everything we publish is absolutely confirmed and absolutely true,” he said. Although his critics call him a sensationalist, he wears the term as a badge of honor. “The sensationalists don’t lie and the yellow journalists do.”
Holguin, a short, stout Colombian veteran of Latin American tabloids, is bursting with energy and provocative anecdotes. His friendliness is unnerving. Fernando Checa, with a mix of admiration and concern, calls him a “guru of sorts.”
He has long been drawn to scandal. As a city councilor running for mayor in Cali, Colombia, he says that he survived nine assassination attempts. The last attempt, in 1987, left him shot multiple times, an attack he was lucky to survive. “I’m like a railroad map all over, with the scars,” he said. “Five centimeters taken off of my arm, two meters less intestine.”
Rincón chuckled when I asked him what he knew about Holguin. “He’s super famous in Colombia from when he worked at [the tabloid] Cromos. He invented stories, but they were great.” He recounted the story of a rare and vicious Amazonian creature that Holguin discovered, la machaca. The only cure for the animal’s bite was to make love within twenty-four hours. Decades later, the story is still a hit, having inspired several salsa and merengue songs and a popular expression, Me picó la machaca (the machaca bit me).
Holguin says that he has apologized numerous times for making the story up. In an e-mail, he enigmatically pledged that la machaca was an isolated incident of make-believe. But Rincón says, and Holguin acknowledges, that the lie was a marvelous one: “The reader wants stories, stories that have a certain verisimilitude to the realities that we live. In Latin America, we live in the jungle, the Caribbean, in magical stories. These are the stories we want to see.”
By 1988, Holguin was looking for a new home, and promised Extra owner Galo Martinez Merchan that he could turn his paper around. The magic formula, of course, was dead bodies and soft-core pornography.
At the time, Extra was a small local paper in the coastal city of Guayaquil, offering a standard fare of reporting on politics, business, and sports. Under Holguin’s leadership, the paper’s circulation increased from an estimated 17,300 in 1988 to 112,602 in 1990. By 1999, Price Waterhouse certified that Extra had a circulation of 190,000. The paper now reaches from coastal villages to the Andean highlands and the Amazon rainforest, claiming a circulation of 200,000—including thousands of copies, Holguin says, put on daily flights to immigrants in New York, Spain, and Italy. By any measure, the paper is Ecuador’s most sold.
I spent two days with Extra’s three-person reporting teams, visiting Guayaquil’s morgues and crime scenes. As I shadowed teams across the city, it was remarkable to watch how eager people were to speak with Extra and play a part in the reporting, as though they were walking into the pages of a book they had been reading all of their lives.