Chile Politics — 27 September 2015


Walker Rowe

Here in Chile, print newspaper are fat with advertising.  This is in stark contrast to the USA where the internet has killed off most print media.  Only The New York Times remains profitable in the USA.  Even The Washington Post, the newspaper that famously brought down President Nixon, sold out to Jeff Bezos, the owner of He can afford to operate at a loss.

What killed The Detroit Press Press, The Seattle Times, and sent the Los Angeles Times into bankruptcy was the digital format.  The problem on the internet is there is no room on a web page for full-page glossy ads from department stores.  Instead of dominating a whole page, the best that the advertiser can do is place a small ad on the side of the page. On a mobile phone, there is not even room for that.  Those small ads do not pay big prices.

There is only one newspaper in the USA that can avoid the insolvency due to the digital format and lack of advertising by actually charging customers for a subscription:  The Wall Street Journal.  The Washington Post charges customers too, but not many pay. The readers just read a handful of articles until they reach their limit.  Then if then know how to clear out the cookies in the browser they can keep reading.  Otherwise they wait until the next week. The same is true with The New York Times.

I know a reporter here in Chile who writes for Paula magazine.  They recently paid him $2,500 and bought plane tickets to fly down to Tierra del Fuego to write a story.  (He went to a town so far south at the tip of bleak and barren, windswept Chile that he said even the mayor says he does not want to live there.) I told the reporter that no magazine would pay for that in the USA, unless it was perhaps The New Yorker, because they are barely able to pay their staff and the light bill.  Then I offered him $25 to write an article for me.

The impending demise of print newspapers and magazines is probably a decade away in Chile for lots of reasons.  Most people have smartphones, but most don’t read ebooks. As to whether they read enewspapers, I am not sure.  Plus Chile has one of the world’s most expensive cellular service, falling just behind Mexico.

So there is no profit risk for the two largest newspapers in the country when they put their papers online for free.  You can read every word of La Tercera there.  You can read El Mercurio too, but they do not publish their paper like a web page.  Instead they take a photograph of each printed page and put that online.  That format is hard to read unless you read it on a wide screen monitor.

That is what I do.  Here in the countryside there is no home delivery. So I read the print edition of El Mercurio on an external TV attached to my computer.  You cannot see the whole page at once.  There is an arrow to zoom in and out.  To read the bottom of the page you move the graphic around with the cursor.  It’s awkward.  But a far as the newspaper businesses goes it might be good for El Mercurio as the advertisements show up in their full size. But you cannot read that on the iPhone.  So there is no future for that format, especially as Google and Apple are going to banish the Adobe Flash Player from their browsers, making El Mercurio no longer work there.

El Mercurio on the weekend is filled with thick catalogs printed by Paris and other department stores.  These color catalogs cost a lot of money to print.  So those inserts are added to the newspaper only in Providencia, Nuñoa, Las Condes, and Viticura.  People living in less wealthy areas, like Maipu, do not get these inserts added to their paper at all.  The advertiser reasons that there is no point if those people are not going to shop at Parque Arauco, the upscale mall.

When I was a kid growing up in South Carolina, I used to pay $5 in advance to get a copy of The New York Times each Sunday.  Someone flew down 100 or so copies from New York on Eastern Airlines and sold them at the pharmacy each week.  Then I spent the whole day absorbed in the book review section, Arts and Leisure,  the news, and the Sunday magazine. This fat paper must have weighed 5 pounds.

Here I to do the same thing with El Mercurio, except I don’t spend all day it as reading Spanish for me is not as easy as reading English.  When I can, I go into town to buy a fat print copy.

What stands when you read El Mercurio is how partisan it is.  The New York Times has a policy that the editorial and news staff cannot work on the same articles.  Here there is no apparent difference.

El Mercurio is open and brazen in their attacks on the Bachelet government.  They are quick to attack any idea that does not match their UDI and RN political party affiliations, nor the prevailing views of business. These are all the same crowd as most business people here are conservative.

To cite some examples, this week the Colombian President Santos announced that his government had forged a peace agreement with the FARC army.  The next day El Mercurio ran a full page interview with President Uribe,  President Santo’s main nemesis and backbench bomb thrower.

Another example is marijuana legalization.  Marijuana legalization is about to come law here.  Every day for a week El Mercurio ran articles talking about the negative impact of marijuana on young people, while the congress debated the law. I mean every day.

The other issue is education reform.  Education is a lucrative business. Parents here have to pay to send their kids to so-called public schools.  The other big problem is the high cost of university education and the huge debt students amass in student loans.

President Bachelet came to power promising to make grammar school and university education free.  For that she needed to raise taxes.  She has already passed tax reform, made grammar school free, and managed to find money to pay for 1/2 of all students to go to the university free. Now she is tackling the issue of whether striking employees can be replaced. But the details all of this will take several more years of congressional rule making to implement.

Each step of the way she has had to battle with El Mercurio.  Once she even lashed out at the paper but without specifically mentioning their name. Every day the newspaper rolls out some so-called expert from Stanford or Harvard to weigh in against the government’s plans. (El Mercurio must think that every American is a genius, so why don’t they interview me?) Then they print word-for-word what the presidents of the UDI and RN have to say about the legislation under discussion.  They give the banks and the stock analysts free reign to attack all of these proposals.

A newspaper is supposed to print news and clearly label opinion as “opinion.” Even The Wall Street Journal, whose opinion page is decidedly pro-business, says its editorial policy is to print nothing-but-the-facts.  El Mercurio has no such policy.  It prints what serves it agenda.  Still, I enjoying reading it. There is no other alternative really, except La Tercera, which is thick too, but not as thick, and it does not have much international coverage. The Clinic is good to read too.  People tell me those two are partisan as well, but that is not so apparent and maybe not even true.



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