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Venezuela’s Independent Media Decimates by Country’s Years-Long Crisis

"It was a course we couldn't get away from," Jorge Makriniotis, manager at the 75-year-old El Nacional

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FILE - The General Manager of Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional Jorge Makriniotis speaks during an interview with the AFP, at its printing press in Caracas, June 14, 2019. VOA

Starved of advertising revenue and battling a stranglehold on the newspaper industry by the government, Venezuela’s independent media have been decimated by the country’s years-long crisis — with many migrating online to survive.

“It was a course we couldn’t get away from,” Jorge Makriniotis, manager at the 75-year-old El Nacional, told AFP.

The newspaper ran its last physical edition — which had already dropped from 72 to just 16 pages — on December 13 last year.

Like many other former print media, it is only available on the internet now.

Venezuelas, Media, Crisis
FILE – A woman buys printed newspapers at a kiosk in Caracas, Venezuela, July 3, 2019. VOA

In 2013, Venezuela’s socialist government created a state-run company to control the import and distribution of paper.

Carlos Correa, director of the Espacio Publico non-governmental organization, said the move created “discriminatory dynamics” that saw pro-regime media favored — while others were starved of printing paper, and advertising revenue.

Since then, 58 daily newspapers have ceased circulation, Correa says.

“There’s never been an official response” to the claims from independent media, said Gisela Carmona, the director of El Impulso — one of the papers that has migrated online, requiring an investment of more than a million dollars.

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After 100 years in print, the newspaper disappeared from the streets in February 2018, having received no paper for 12 months.

Beyond controlling paper supply, critics accuse the Venezuelan government of oppressing dissenting media voices across the board.

The national union of press workers has denounced a “systematic policy” of asphyxiation as dozens of independent radio and television stations also closed.

“Over the past years, the Government has attempted to impose a communicational hegemony by enforcing its own version of events and creating an environment that curtails independent media,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a report on Venezuela earlier this month.

Venezuelas, Media, Crisis
Starved of advertising revenue and battling a stranglehold on the newspaper industry by the government, Venezuela’s independent media have been decimated. Pixabay

One example from 2018 saw El Nacional lose a case brought by Diosdado Cabello, widely regarded as the most powerful regime figure after President Nicolas Maduro, for having published drug-trafficking allegations made against him in the Spanish press.

The economic crisis had a major impact on the media too, as on all businesses.

Five years of recession and rampant hyperinflation — which the International Monetary Fund expects to reach a staggering 10 million per cent this year — have decimated advertising revenues.

Carminda Marquez opened a kiosk in Caracas 18 years, selling dozens of newspapers and other publications.

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“Now I sell three or four,” said the 80-year-old.

Regional newspaper Panorama, which served Venezuela’s second city Maracaibo, struggled on until May 14 when “a perfect storm” of massive power cuts finally sounded it’s physical death knell, its editorial director Maria Ines Delgado told AFP.

Panorama never had to lay off any journalists as one by one they resigned and left for foreign shores.

“Every time we replaced one, another left,” Delgado said from a near-empty editorial room.

Like El Impulso, Panorama is now fed by banner advertising.

The move online has not solved independent media’s myriad problems, though, least of all the ability to reach readers.

Between frequent power outages, patchy internet and the second slowest connectivity in Latin America — after landlocked Paraguay — readers have trouble loading pages, especially on smartphones.

“We know nothing any more,” complained Belkis Nava, who used to read Panorama.

Despite the difficulties, some journalists have launched new media directly on the internet, such as El Pitazo.

Specializing in investigative journalism — it won the prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize awarded by Spanish newspaper El Pais this year — El Pitazo supported itself through a 2017 crowdfunding campaign, director Cesar Batiz told AFP.

However, like other news websites, El Pitazo has come under cyberattack — four times over two years.

Before the first attack in 2017, El Pitazo had 110,000 visits a day. Traffic has since dropped by more than half, and 65 percent of that comes from abroad.

“People aren’t receiving information,” said Melanio Escobar, the director of the Redes Ayuda (Network Help) NGO. (VOA)

Next Story

U.S. Media Industry Going Through A Bad Phase

On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite, but this is not the reality

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US, Media, News, Downfall, State
Some front pages and section fronts of the Orange County Register are seen in the newsroom in Santa Ana, Calif., Dec. 27, 2012. VOA

On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite and over-the-air radio, and yes, even printed newspapers. But the reality is different.

There is an oft-quoted line from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press to the stability of the newly formed United States: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he wrote to a colleague, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Almost always, though, the words Jefferson wrote next are forgotten. He added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

His insight was that a press free from government interference is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy, but not a sufficient one. A free press isn’t very useful if nobody has access to relevant reporting on the issues that affect them.

If Jefferson were able to look at the media landscape in his country today, particularly at the local level, he would almost certainly be worried.

Consolidation

News sources, particularly local ones, are increasingly controlled by a limited number of companies that have bought up smaller news organizations and consolidated them.

This is perhaps most visible in the world of newspapers. Twenty percent of the newspapers that were active 15 years ago have been shut down, according to the University of North Carolina, leaving hundreds of locales without a local paper.

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A specialist works at the post that handles Gannett on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Aug. 5, 2014. VOA

Employment in newspaper newsrooms has fallen by 47% since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, companies like GateHouse Media and Gannett  control hundreds of publications using centralized news gathering that decreases the focus on their communities.

In August, the two companies announced a plan to merge, a deal that would create a company controlling more than 250 daily newspapers, as well as hundreds more weeklies and community papers. The merged companies would be several times larger than the next biggest newspaper company, Digital First Media, which in 2018 owned 51 daily papers and 158 other publications.

Digital First, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has been at the forefront of another troubling trend: buying up newspapers, laying off newsroom staff, and liquidating the papers’ real estate assets.

Digital First, which also goes by MediaNews Group, or MNG, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA. However, in response to a Washington Post story earlier this year, the company said “MNG is committed to the newspaper business and a long-term investor in the space. MNG’s focus is on getting publications to a place where they can operate profitably and sustainably and continue to serve their communities.”

Job cuts, quick profits

“They’re owned, essentially, by private equity companies, or even hedge funds at times, and they don’t particularly care about the quality of the journalism,” said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of The New York Times.

US, Media, News, Downfall, State
Two New York Daily News employees leave the newspaper’s office after they were laid off, in New York, July 23, 2018. VOA

“What they’re there to do is to strip mine these properties and get as much profit from them as they can in the short term. And that is very bad for journalism. It’s very bad for journalists, because it often means round after round of job reductions, cutting costs in really draconian ways that hurt the news gathering process.”

Newspapers are not typically seen as a major profit-making venture. While they generate significant cash flow through advertising sales, that is offset by high production costs of personnel and the logistics of printing and delivery. Many are run by family foundations and other organizations that place some value on their public mission.

The strategy of many investment firms buying up newspaper chains has been to increase profits by slashing personnel costs.

In the broadcast world, the story is similar. Large companies have been buying up local stations and cutting costs by centralizing the production of much of the content they air. Most notorious among them is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 193 stations across the country, reaching up to 40% of the U.S. population.

Sinclair is known for enforcing a sharply conservative political slant on its broadcasts, providing “must-run” content that appears on every station the company owns. It regularly requires its stations to air commentary by Boris Epshteyn, a friend of President Donald Trump’s family and a former political consultant to the president.

Last year, a video went viral in which dozens of Sinclair anchors could be seen repeating, verbatim, a script that echoed Trump’s complaints about “fake news.”

Easing antitrust

Rules that formerly limited the ability of individual companies to own a dominant share of the media outlets in a specific market have been slowly eased over the years. Then, in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission gutted many of the remaining restrictions, opening the door to single companies dominating individual markets in both broadcast and print.

US, Media, News, Downfall, State
Hundreds of old newspaper vending machines are shown in a vacant lot near the former offices of the Alaska Dispatch News in Anchorage, Alaska, Sept. 11, 2017. VOA

The resulting consolidation has been “disastrous for local communities,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an organization that advocates for the decentralization of media. “We’ve gone from a more diverse localized media system to one increasingly controlled by a small handful of companies.”

 

“You used to get in your car in New York and drive to, I don’t know, Phoenix,” said Aaron. “Everywhere along the way, you would get incredibly different local voices, local flavors, local music. Now, you’re much more likely to get the same hit songs and Rush Limbaugh. So, we’ve lost some of that, you know, which I think has huge cultural value.”

The impact goes beyond culture, though, as Aaron and others have pointed out. It also has a direct impact on how Americans govern themselves.

“When sources of local and regional news dry up or go away,” Sullivan said, “there’s research that shows that the way people engage politically changes. They are going to be less likely to vote, they become more polarized, because for many years, the local newspaper might have been a way that people in that community were sharing a set of facts. Now, that’s gone or diminished.”

Last year, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Universityassembled a list of academic studies that tied the loss of local news sources to a decline in both the quantity and quality of citizens’ civic engagement.

Social media news

To fill the gap, Sullivan said, people turn to less objective sources of news, like Facebook, or politically partisan cable television programming.

US, Media, News, Downfall, State
An iPhone displays the app for Facebook in New Orleans, Aug. 11, 2019. VOA

“It is really a very damaging thing for the way we talk to each other, the way we feel as a community and the way we deal with politics,” Sullivan said.

Identifying the disease and cataloging the symptoms is one thing. But finding a cure that will return the U.S. to a more Jeffersonian media model won’t be easy.

Sullivan argued that the growth of nonprofit news organizations is a hopeful sign that an alternative to corporatized media may be available. Groups such as Report for America provide funding so that young journalists can work in local media outlets, providing them important training while supplementing understaffed news outlets.

Some nonprofit publications like The Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego have been able to make important contributions to their communities.

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But nonprofits can’t bridge the gap entirely, and Sullivan and others worry that the advertising-dependent business model of traditional journalism — particularly newspapers — has been so thoroughly broken by the rise of digital media that trying to rebuild it on the same design will be impossible.

That’s why Aaron and his organization want the federal government to get involved. Free Press argues for a return to tighter federal restrictions on media consolidation, including the breakup of existing conglomerates. They also call for federal investment through grants or tax incentives to support local news.

“If local journalism is important to making sure democracy survives, then we need the policies to actually match that need,” he said. “And right now, we don’t have them.” (VOA)