The Other Media Crisis

Quico says: Everyone knows that the Big Crisis affecting Venezuelan journalism is that the news business just doesn’t gel with a government congenitally allergic to criticism. Chavismo now openly advocates substituting a free and vibrant press with a subservient, quasi-statist “community media”. But the open intimidation and harassment the private media faces is only one aspect of the problem, and perhaps not even the biggest one. The biggest one is that, today, essentially every news-gathering organization in the country – except for one – is losing money.

Circulation figures for major newspapers are a tightly held secret in Venezuela. Reliable sources tell me that El Nacional, for instance, is now circulating fewer than 20,000 copies every weekday. Yes, you read that right. El Universal I don’t know about, but is unlikely to be far above that.

In fact, the only Venezuelan newspaper that is financially viable these days is Ultimas Noticias, which rides its tabloid sensibility to a respectable (yet far from awesome) circulation tally in the low-to-mid six-figures on weekdays. That allows them to break even while everybody else is losing money.

Tal Cual? A money hole. Globovisión? A charity case. Notitarde? Beyond hopeless. Every news organization in the country except for Ultimas Noticias loses money.

In effect, this means that organizations lacking a powerful financial backer – like Tal Cual – operate under insanely tight constraints. Our newspapers are precarious operations run on a shoestring by badly underpaid staff perennially one fine away from going under.

Meanwhile organizations enjoying the support of powerful, deep pocketed backers can keep operating, not as commercial enterprises but rather as personal projects. El Nacional exists purely because Miguel Henrique Otero subscribes to the kamikaze school of financial management, no other reason. El Universal survives because Andrés Mata thinks poking Chávez in the eye is good fun. If these products were run as by purely commercial standards, they would’ve closed years ago. And however outsized their martyr complexes might be, even the Zuloagas and Oteros of this world will run out of money eventually.

Except, of course, if your backer has the largest oil reserves in the Western hemisphere. One of the scary things of this phenomenon is that soon we may face a reality where the only newspapers that survive are Ultimas Noticias and Chavez-propaganda pieces such as Diario Vea, supported by the inexhaustible budget for government advertisement and its barely-hidden policy of rewarding favorable editorials.

While tempting to blame this, too, on Chávez, the financial crisis afflicting our newspapers is merely the Venezuelan expression of a worldwide phenomenon. Circulation is falling everywhere. Advertisers who can go on Craig’s List for free have no reason to hand over their hard earned cash to a newsroom. Eyeballs are moving off the page and onto the web, and this would be happening even if Luisa Ortega Diaz had never been born.

Underlying global trends in media consumption patterns could be doing as much to doom Venezuela’s traditional news organization as Chávez is. And the Venezuelan media – barely able to survive in the incredibly hostile atmosphere chavismo creates – just don’t seem to have a plan to deal with it at all.

To be fair, they’re not alone. The SF Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer couldn’t crack that nut either. When even Conde Nast is closing magazines and firing staff, it’s clear that the media can run, but they can’t hide.

Over the next few years, people worldwide are going to have to get used to a radical shift in the way news gathering is financed and organized, and a lot of commentators are talking in horrified terms about a kind of “gap”: a period after the legacy-model is dead and buried but before anything rises up to replace it.

How that shakes out, I don’t know. I do know that, if we’re to survive the twin onslaughts of chavismo and the Other Crisis, “Citizen Journalism” is going to have to kick it up a notch and complete the transition from meaningless catchphrase to working model of news gathering in a big hurry.

Juan Cristóbal and I will do our part. Will you?