With sales down, Mexican news sellers still put their trust in paper and ink

Jose Mario Mercado sells Metro and Reforma newspapers at the intersection of Monterrey and Chapultepec avenues in Mexico City on June 13, 2018. Photo by Natalie Schachar.

ON A RECENT WEEKDAY IN MAY, Jose Joel Marquez perches himself at an intersection near Mexico City’s iconic Angel of Independence, hustling the news.

The headlines on May 14 run the usual gamut: Presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador vowed to scrap the country’s education reform; hackers had successfully extracted hundreds of millions of pesos from Mexican banks; and the World Cup was only 31 days away.

But if sales are slow, it’s no cause for despair.

“When there’s real news, you sell,” Marquez says, taking a break from paper-peddling as cars idle at a red light.

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By that metric, “real news” is a soccer championship; when a drug capo is snagged, or an important politician killed; or when the dollar rises against the peso. “There are different newspapers you sell at different times,” he explains. Marquez was wearing a maroon uniform emblazoned with the logo of the daily newspaper Excelsior. “You don’t make a lot, but believe me when I say I like it.”

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Such are the sentiments of news sellers in Mexico, the ranks of whom can still be seen hawking the printed word at stoplights and street corners and braving the elements, even as fewer people buy their papers.

The people that make rebozos, sarapes, there are a lot. They don’t want to lose their origin. Same with the people who make sombreros, trajes de charro. Not everyone can do that. Artisans don’t want to lose their tradition. We count ourselves in that.

Mexico City news sellers begin their workdays around 5am when they pick up the morning haul and get to their respective locations, regardless of frequently incessant rain. More than a few sellers have been hit by motorcycles and bikes. Some have turned to hawking cigarettes and World Cup sticker albums to complement sales. And many have moved their locations to adapt to the synchronized traffic lights, which lets cars sail through intersections and means no one stops to buy a paper. 

So it may come as a surprise that some Mexican news sellers still say they like their job.

“We’re proud of this,” says Ernesto Garcia, the external secretary of the news vendors union and a former seller himself, calling his colleagues the last link in the “chain of freedom of expression.”

“The people that make rebozos, sarapes, there are a lot. They don’t want to lose their origin. Same with the people who make sombreros, trajes de charro. Not everyone can do that. Artisans don’t want to lose their tradition,” he says. “We count ourselves in that.”

There are currently some 7,500 union members, and an estimated 20,000 total sellers in Mexico City when additional family members and kiosk workers are counted—a number that has held steady in recent years. Some workers say the job continues to prove attractive because people enjoy the flexibility, or want to carry on a family tradition, or simply like ink and paper. But there’s a familiar problem: Sales are down.

The union estimates business has declined by about 30 percent since 2010 due to digital audiences and the constant stream of online news. Meanwhile, larger chain stores now sell newspapers, and younger readers presage a dismal financial outlook for the future of sales.

“Anything that happens in any part of the country, you can find it on Facebook or Instagram,” says Omar Hakeem, an 18-year-old walking by a corner newsstand on a recent afternoon with hardly a glance. “For example, the earthquake yesterday. You don’t have to buy the newspaper, because you know about it at the same second,” he says, referring to the 4.9-magnitude quake that had struck the city a day prior.

Once, a news seller would have been at the crux of such current events. Adriana Pineda, a history professor at Michoacan University of Saint Nicholas of Hidalgo, says vendors’ visibility increased under the regime of Porfirio Diaz, which implemented controls on the press around the turn of the 20th century. Protection for news sellers was enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1917, stating that “laws shall contain whatever provisions may be necessary to prevent the imprisonment of the vendors, newsboys, workmen, and other employees of the establishment publishing the work denounced.”

News Seller Day was established in 1953. Vendors enjoyed a surge in sales in subsequent decades when newspapers printed up to four editions daily. And former President Ernesto Zedillo was himself once a news seller, according to the union.

That’s because in contrast to the US, where subscriptions are still a common way to receive daily news, Mexican news consumers have historically gotten their print news from the street sellers, instead of delivered. Journalist Javier Garza, who worked for years as the editorial director of El Siglo de Torreon, suggests street selling in Mexico caught on because of the country´s underdeveloped infrastructure and limited economic opportunities. “In the Mexican case, there’s not really a culture of paying upfront,” he says.

Even with sales down, street selling is still a reliable way to make a living in Mexico City. The only requirement for selling news is accreditation from the union, and vendors pocket about 30 percent of the cover price of most issues. There’s also no loss at day’s end when unsold newspapers are returned. “It’s very noble,” says Sergio Mendoza, who has worked at the same newsstand on the corner of Insurgentes and Puebla in the Roma Norte neighborhood since he was 11.

On a recent day, he watches foot traffic meander past. Some people stop to chat or ask for directions; others scan newspapers hanging by plastic clothespins or look at an  extensive array of sweets, which include Milky Ways, Oblea mini-wafers, and Chiclosos de Cajeta. “In a certain way, you appreciate this because it’s the family business,” Mendoza says, noting that his father has sold newspapers for about 60 years.

At the nearby intersection of Avenida Chapultepec and Sevilla in Mexico City, Fermin Martinez wears a neon green-and-red uniform and matching hat with the “Metro” logo written across the front. “I always liked selling the newspaper,” he says. “I´d rather be in the street than shut in a factory.”

Later in the day, Martinez will start a different shift at the Indio Verdes Metro station, where he works nights changing lights and advertisements, but figures he can hustle at his intersection awhile longer. By mid-morning, he determines that sales have been OK; he’s hawked five Reformas and 20 Metros for a total of about 260 pesos, or $13. He will also receive a commission from Metro for wearing the uniform.

Garcia, the union secretary, says the uniformed street sellers are mostly a way for newspapers to have a presence. But it’s also a tradition.

“We were part of the events of the history of Mexico, of our folklore,” Garcia says of news sellers. “We will not disappear.”

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Natalie Schachar is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.