By Javier Garza Ramos
Martha Ramos’ future was shaped the moment she stepped foot in a newsroom. “The noise, the smoke…” she recalls. “It was a determinant. It was also absolutely misogynist.”
It was the mid-1980s and Ramos was still in college. She had intended to study Sociology at the National University of Mexico, but switched to Communications. A year before graduating, she landed a job translating telex dispatches at El Universal, one of the largest and most influential newspapers in Mexico City.
That was the beginning of a career that has led her to run the editorial side of the Mexican Editorial Organization (OEM), the largest chain of newspapers in Latin America. Now, as a senior editor in Mexico, Ramos is deeply involved in press freedom issues, promoting journalist protection, and denouncing impunity in crimes against the press.
Ramos has been elected president of the World Editors Forum (WEF), a post to which she brings extensive experience on a wide range of issues affecting journalism, from technological change and violence against journalists, to gender awareness.
She is the third woman to head WEF, following on the successes of Ruth de Aquino from Brazil’s Globo and Gloria Brown Anderson from the New York Times in 2000 and 2004, respectively.
Rising through the ranks
Ramos faced obstacles in her chosen career from the start, when she discovered she was not the newspaper’s union-preferred candidate for the translator job. “That was my first taste of labour politics,” she reveals.
She took to different beats, and rose rapidly within different sections at El Universal. By the late 90s she was chosen to lead a new project to launch regional editions of the newspaper in states bordering Mexico City.
She used her first position of authority in the newsroom to instil an awareness of gender issues within reporters and editors, drawing on her own experience of bias and discomfort in the newsroom, when men saw women as objects, and she had to change the way she dressed to conform to existing perceptions.
Ramos has been on the frontline of technological changes in printing techniques, digital publishing and newsroom disruption. She recalls how, at the turn of the century, just before newsrooms began downsizing, she was promoted to Metro editor, with a staff of 22 journalists. “I had more people in just that section than many newsrooms have in total today,” she reflects.
Her last position at El Universal introduced her to the burgeoning new world of digital journalism. In 2006 she became part of the team that managed the fusion of the print and web newsrooms. They had been two separate entities and in their merger she began to see and appreciate the true potential of the internet.
After El Universal Ramos took a break from the newsroom to work at the Fondo de Cultura Económica, the largest book publishing house in Mexico. Then, in 2010, Raymundo Riva Palacio, one of Mexico’s most respected journalists, called her up to join in the launch of a new local daily, 24 Horas. “He told me to end my sabbatical,” she says, admitting that project attracted her: a free newspaper, heavily curated by editors. The newspaper never really took off though, and Ramos decamped for Publimetro, a mass-circulation tabloid focused on local news – until, in 2016, the OEM came calling.
Facing new challenges
With 46 newspapers across Mexico, OEM is the largest newspaper chain in the country and in Latin America. But it was in a period of transition after the death of longtime owner Mario Vázquez Raña and the arrival of his grandson, Francisco Torres Vazquez, as CEO.
Ramos was called to implement a new Content Management System – “Nobody understood it or knew how it worked,” she explains – and she stayed on as editorial director of the entire chain.
She faced entrenched interests in the regional editors, which she had to break by pushing her goals of streamlining newsroom operations. She says her advantage is in having a boss – Torres Vázquez – who has “a vision for the future, knowledge of international media, a desire to see that reflected in the company, and also the youth and desire to experiment”.
The new CMS she implemented allowed a central newsroom to standardise design across print and digital, and take over common sections like National, World or Entertainment, thus freeing local editors to focus more on the news in their communities and markets.
She has been a witness to technological changes in the last 35 years, both in printing and digital publishing, when reporters traded the typewriter for a computer, and newspapers launched their websites.
She thinks most editors did not take the Internet seriously at first: “There was some arrogance in the media. Editors jumped because everyone jumped but very few bothered to understand it. That lack of vision is why now we don’t know how to charge for the content we publish. How can we charge for something we always gave away for free?”
After two decades of intense competition for quantity (readers, page views, subscribers), Ramos says the focus is shifting to quality, because the newspaper industry had to change its focus from advertisers to readers.
Her role at OEM bought Ramos into contact with WAN-IFRA, and she joined the World Editors Forum in 2017. She has participated actively in the Women in News, Press Freedom, and Digital Media activities, contributing on issues like women’s leadership in the newsroom and the challenges of fighting violence and discrimination. She is also part of the WIN committee for Latin America.
Ramos plans to bring all that experience to her new role at WEF, at a moment when journalism is facing challenges and threats. Having lived through hard times for journalism in México, she is an advocate of press freedom and journalist safety. In her role managing the largest chain of newsrooms in the country, she has been in a position to influence the culture of safety.
Bringing that experience to WEF, “will galvanize support and focus our attention on the situation facing colleagues in México,” said Andre Heslop, director of Press Freedom at WAN-IFRA, recalling that for years journalists have been targeted in a spiral of violence.
She will certainly now continue and strengthen the energy that WEF has put on press freedom and the safety of journalists.
As the first woman from the Global South to chair the Board in almost 20 years, her input will be unique.
The author Javier Garza Ramos is an independent journalist in Torreón, northern México and an expert on journalist safety. He is the founder of the local news platform EnRe2Laguna. @jagarzaramos