The Sheets of Laredo

Laredo’s two English-language newspapers are fighting a duel to the death.

Along the highway into Laredo from the northeast, the first thing a visitor sees is a beige metallic building with a tall sign identifying it as the headquarters of the Laredo News. Prominently displayed on the sign is the newspaper’s slogan: “Keeps You Ahead of the Times.” As is so often the case in South Texas, there is more to this than meets the eye. It is less a slogan than a declaration of war, aimed at Laredo’s other daily newspaper, the Laredo Morning Times. Of all the cities in Texas, Laredo is the least likely site for a newspaper war. Statistically it is the poorest of the nation’s 305 metropolitan areas. A third of its households qualify for food stamps. Its population of 91,000 is more than 90 per cent Hispanic, and Spanish is the language of the street and the home. Successive peso devaluations have wrecked the economy that depended on trade from much larger Nuevo Laredo. Billboards all over town plead, “Believe in Laredo,” but most of the money in town is old money and those who have it aren’t about to risk it locally. It would be hard for one English-language newspaper to thrive here, much less two. Yet the war has been going on since 1977, and no end is in sight.

On an average day a visitor would find the papers indistinguishable. Each displays its name on a blue background. Each is a seven-day, full-size, morning paper. Each has at least one page written in Spanish. Each does a better job than the average small daily of letting the reader know what is going on in town. But in the things that count in South Texas—roots and political connections—the two papers couldn’t be more different. The Times has been around for 103 years, the News for just 7. The Times is a chain paper whose heritage has been Anglo, from the founders to the current owner, the Hearst Corporation. It is staffed mostly by reporters from Laredo. The News is locally owned—founded by Tony Sanchez, a wealthy Hispanic oilman and banker, and co-owned by his son, Tony Junior. Today the News is closer to the power structure, but that has not always been the case.

When Laredo was still a one-paper town, the Times was part of the old guard, whose political personification was J.C. “Pepe” Martin, mayor and political boss of Laredo for 24 years. Martin’s chief instrument was the Independent Club, a misnomer for a group to which anyone in town with aspirations in business or politics belonged. Among its functionaries had once been Tony Sanchez. In a town where government was often the employer of first and last resort, Martin kept control by dispensing public jobs and money. None of that was evident, or even hinted at, in the Times. The paper’s local coverage ranged from nonexistent to spoon-fed. Often the front page consisted entirely of wire service stories. On Saturdays the paper didn’t publish at all; the rest of the time it was an afternoon paper. This suited the old patrones just fine. But it did not suit Tony Sanchez.

In the mid-sixties Sanchez, then the owner of a small typewriter and office supply shop, had begun buying oil and gas leases after talking to Mexican geologists operating on the south side of the Rio Grande. When gas prices exploded in the early seventies, Sanchez formed his own company and got rich in the South Texas boom. In 1975 he added control of a local bank to his growing empire. He began to have ideas about Laredo that were different from those of the old patrones. Sanchez wanted growth, industry, jobs, and found himself growing estranged from the old guard that feared outsiders, from the machine that ran on patronage financed by oil company taxes, and from the newspaper whose social columns referred to him as Typewriter Tony.

Sanchez decided that to change the town he had to change the newspaper. After trying, and failing, to buy the Times, he decided to start his own. “There is only one reason for the News‘ being in existence,” Sanchez says. “This town was hearing only one side. If ever a community needed to hear both sides, this one did.” For the first sixty days the News was delivered free to every home in Laredo, and the war was on.

The News was barely a month old when, with the help of a maverick taxpayers’ group that the Times had ignored, it broke a story about serious discrepancies in the accounts of the city street department. Two weeks later it revealed that the street department, which possessed just 86 vehicles, had listed payments for 686 batteries. The effect was like seeing the emperor’s new clothes; as soon as the youngster talked, no one else could ignore the facts—not even the Times. Once aroused from complacency, the daily had no trouble scooping its semiweekly competitor on street department corruption stories. But while the Times stuck by Martin, the News attacked the mayor in front-page editorials. In late October Martin announced that he would not seek reelection. It had taken Tony Sanchez fewer than twenty issues to bring down the machine.

The battle was over, but the newspaper war was just beginning. Reporters joined the hostilities. Once a News staffer, worried that the Times had better information on a story, called the afternoon paper, posing as a reporter from Dallas. A gullible Times reporter spilled all. Then there was the parrot caper. Irked that the News filled out its semi-weekly editions with stories picked up from the Times, two Times editors wrote a fictitious story about a woman arrested at the international bridge for smuggling two rare Mexican parrots in her bra. The name the editors chose for the parrots was in-house slang for a female unmentionable, and the story was full of double entendres. Sure enough, the News fell for it.

After the fall of Pepe Martin the war settled into the trenches. The News became a daily

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