Best-Selling Newspaper

Headlines from the tabloid newspaper Trome feature sports and scandals. The paper appeals to an audience with a desire for social mobility. Photo by Alonso Chero. 

Made in Peru

By Liz Mineo

Mabel Cueva makes a living selling Egyptian tarot decks, self-help books, pirated Paulo Coelho novels and other bestsellers in a makeshift book market in downtown Lima. When the day is slow, she reads a cheap tabloid filled with splashy headlines, coupon promotions, cash prizes and gossip news about local celebrities. 

“I read it to pass the time,” said Cueva, 34, a mother of an eight-year-old boy. “It’s entertaining.”

Called Trome, named after a word for “ace” or “champion” in Peruvian slang, the popular paper prides itself in offering “entertainment for the whole family,” and according to Cueva, it delivers. 

Like most tabloids, Trome lives off celebrity scandal and entertainment news. It runs photographs of scantily clad women, but unlike most tabloids, it lacks gory pictures or sensational crime stories on the cover; those are sent to the inside pages. It devotes entire sections to beauty and health tips for women, love and sex horoscopes, gossip columns and educational material for schoolchildren.

This sassy concoction has made Trome a “family tabloid” and the best-selling newspaper not only in Peru but also in the Spanish-speaking world. With 734,000 copies sold daily, Trome sells more than Peru’s El Comercio (90,000), Argentina’s Clarín (280,000), Spain’s El País (325,000) or Colombia’s El Tiempo (400,000). 

How a cheap Peruvian tabloid (at only US$0.20) bucked the worldwide trend of declining newspaper sales is a story of difficult beginnings and big-time success featured by street-smart editors and marketing researchers, who seized on opportunities in Peru’s roaring economy. Trome is now a case study taught at business schools all over the world. Curious editors from other countries often descend on Lima to learn about the winning formula. But it is a recipe that might work only in Peru. 

Trome was launched in 2001 by the owners of El Comercio, Peru’s oldest newspaper and the group’s flagship publication, which is read by high-income earners. The tabloid’s introduction was an effort to attract the new middle class that has emerged amid Peru’s high economic growth, mostly made up of small entrepreneurs of lower-class origins. According to research by companies hired by El Comercio, the new middle class yearned for a media outlet that could speak their language and meet their needs for social advancement. 

“It’s not your traditional middle class,” said María Elena Otiniano, manager at Grupo El Comercio. “They’re more like the new middle class in China or India. They are very pragmatic, success-oriented and focused on acquiring material goods. They want a new car, nice furniture, a better house, anything that helps them improve their status and their lives.”

These new consumers also lack interest in politics, a legacy of the civil war that ravaged the country in the 1980s and Fujimori’s 10-year reign of corruption in the 1990s, which fed Peruvians’ traditional distrust of government. 

Trome’s editors understand this new market panorama. But it wasn’t always like that. Six months after its publication, sales were disappointing and executives were scratching their heads not knowing what to do. A case study, “Trome—News for the Base of the Pyramid,” by researchers Guillermo D’Andrea, Javier J.O. Silva and Maricruz Prado from Buenos Aires’ Austral University, tells the story of a tense meeting in those early days. An editor is quoted as saying, “Why don’t we stick to a style we know works? I’m sure our readers want content that is similar to those offered by our competitors, with a focus on sex and violence.”

The editor was fired. New management was brought. Carlos Espinoza and Víctor Patiño, who were lured from Aja, another best-selling tabloid, to be Trome’s editor–in-chief and managing editor, paid attention to research showing that target readers were fed up with most Peruvian tabloids and their staples of crime stories, lurid prose and racy pictures of half-naked women. They wanted a cheap paper that was suitable for home reading, one that didn’t offend housewives or hurt children’s susceptibilities. 

The new editors decided that instead of crime, gossip will rule, and that, unlike in most tabloids, stories must be based on true facts. As for the racy photos, they were sent to the back page. Under the title “Malcriadas,” or naughty girls, local women who volunteer to be photographed in suggestive poses wear skimpy clothes—but they’re never naked or topless. Including local women was a far cry from the stock catalog of pictures of half-naked women, all with blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes the paper used early on. 

“The malcriadas could be your next-door neighbor,” said editor Patiño. “The other ones looked like they were from Sweden.” 

To the new touches of local color and priority to scandals and sports instead of crime, the paper added promotions and prizes. To reward readers the paper holds musical festivals with health caravans to allow attendees to listen to their favorite local bands, undergo a Pap test or have a dental checkup. Every day the paper offers promotions such as daily cash prizes, new car raffles or write-in contests for complete dining or living room sets. Some critics say those promotions are the main reason behind Trome’s soaring sales, but editors argue they address their readers’ needs.

“We’re very much aware of their desire for social mobility,” said Víctor Patiño, the tabloid’s general editor, at his office in downtown Lima, a print of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe hanging on the wall and copies of the day’s newspapers on his desk. “That’s why we sell more than news to them. Our readers are aspirational consumers.”

Tabloids have always sold well in Peru not only because of cheap prices (often less than US$1) but also because their mix of lowbrow content and use of slang holds a strong appeal to their working-class audience. 

In the 1950s Ultima Hora shocked Peru’s stiff, highbrow and conservative media landscape with its use of slang in bold headlines, gruesome crime scene photos and celebrity scandals. In the 1970s and 1980s Ojo and Correo followed in their steps, but in the 1990s, tabloids became a political weapon. The Fujimori government funded and controlled a handful of tabloids called “chicha” (a nod to the culture of indigenous migrants in Lima’s misery belts) and added to its usual mix of violence, celebrity gossip and half-naked women, vicious campaigns against Fujimori’s political opponents. 

Like its predecessors, Trome’s success lies in having found a target audience: taxi drivers, street vendors and small shop owners that make up Peru’s emerging middle class. It’s a group that is expanding both in Lima and the interior, where the tabloid is selling like hotcakes. Between 2009 and 2013, it doubled its sales in the interior. In the same period, El Comercio’s sales in provinces declined.

Reporters and graphic designers work in the tabloid's ultramodern newsroom. Photos by Alonso Chero.

After its August 2013 acquisition of a controlling interest in Epensa, a publishing company of high-circulation tabloids, Grupo El Comercio now controls 80 percent of the Peruvian newspaper market. The buyout has ignited a debate about media concentration in Peru. 

As sales rose, so did Trome’s political influence. Luis Favre, an advisor who worked in the campaign that carried Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to victory, said that Trome readers can decide elections, and that those who run for office should read it to learn what make voters tick. 

Politicians always agree to talk to the newspaper, said Patiño, who writes a column under the pseudonym “The Owl” in which he denounces politicians, laments the state of the national soccer team or extols Oscar Wilde, John Dos Passos or Charles Bukowski, his literary heroes. His column is the only highbrow content found in the paper, and Patiño, who studied history at Peru’s San Marcos University and loves both literature and popular culture, said he writes his columns for himself. Surprisingly it’s a hit with uneducated readers. 

“The Owl always tells the truth,” said Joel Navarro, a taxi driver who reads the paper every day. “He tells it like it is.”

Some worry the paper’s content of entertainment, gossip, crime and scandals reinforces readers’ low educational levels. Most Peruvians prefer to read newspapers rather than books and if they read books they’re used, inexpensive or pirated, but nonetheless it’s uncommon to see hordes of customers in the makeshift book market in downtown Lima. But still, book readership does not approach the levels of Argentina and Chile, where more than half of the population reported reading books, according to the United Nations. 

“This paper wouldn’t work in Uruguay or Chile,” said Mario Munive, journalism professor at Lima’s Catholic University. “And I wonder whether Peruvians would read Trome if their cultural and educational levels were higher.”

Trome’s most popular stories deal with local celebrities' cheating scandals and scoops on the new stars of television reality shows but also with any gossip about international stars such as Rhianna, Jennifer Lopez or Kate Middleton. A few weeks ago, some of the most read stories boasted the following headlines: “Jennifer Lopez Was Comforted by Former Husband Marc Anthony After Breakup with Her Boyfriend,” “Pictures Show the Duchess of Cambridge’s Bare Bottom” and “Rihanna Caught Twerking in Transparent Dress.” 

The paper has been a hit with women, who make up more than half of its readership. Navarro, the taxi driver in Lima, said his wife reads Trome every day. 

Cueva, the bookseller in downtown Lima, feels the same way. The mix of gossip and scandals helps her escape from boredom as she waits for customers in her modest stall in a gritty and not-so-safe corner of downtown Lima, but it isn’t lost on her that the tabloid’s effects are fleeting.

“I’m entertained when I read it,” Cueva said. “But after I’m done, I don’t remember anything.” 

Liz Mineo is an independent journalist covering immigration and Latino issues for AP’s Spanish Service from Boston. She covered drug trafficking issues in her home country of Peru and writes about Peruvian immigrants in the United States for La República newspaper in Lima.