From Distant Glory Days to Utter Degradation, El Nacional Mirrored Venezuela

At its zenith in the 1960s and 70s, El Nacional was the foremost clearinghouse for our country’s rich, vibrant intellectual life. That was decades ago. The paper that just shut down was very different.

Photo: El Nacional, retrieved.

El Nacional, one of Venezuela’s main newspapers, has now stopped its print run after 75 years, to become a web-only media. Shockingly, some 55 newspapers have gone out of circulation since 2013, including Tal Cual. But El Nacional isn’t just another paper getting shut down. It’s the end of an era.

At its peak, El Nacional wasn’t just an undisputable news source, but also a respected intellectual hub for some of the country’s brightest minds. Besides Otero Silva, there was Manuel Caballero, José Ignacio Cabrujas and Arturo Uslar Pietri, who served as its editor in chief from 1969 to 1974. El Nacional Style Guide was the point of reference for journalists, translators and writers and its annual short story contest showcased some of the best literary talent the country could offer, from Guillermo Meneses and Ana Teresa Torres, to more recent recipients such as Gabriel Payares and Fedosy Santaella.

If there was a journal deserving the title of Newspaper of Record, it was El Nacional.

Fast forward to the Chávez era, and especially to the last decade, and the story is different. And although the paper came under relentless pressure from chavismo —which El Nacional supported at first, but distanced from very quickly— its decay can’t be solely blamed on them.

El Nacional isn’t just another paper getting shut down. It’s the end of an era.

Founded in 1943 by writer Miguel Otero Silva—along with his father, Henrique Otero Vizcarrondo and the poet Antonio Arráiz—El Nacional made a point on embracing a more progressive, intellectual outlook than its rivals, starting in its first edition with a passionate editorial against fascism.

According to Otero Silva, as quoted in a biography by Argenis Martínez, they started out in a rundown two-floor building with second-hand printing presses, rusty linotypes, a government uneasily embracing the idea of liberties, and shortages of ink and paper due to World War II.

“To create a newspaper under those circumstances, and with such haphazard equipment, seemed insane,” said Otero Silva. “Every rational person in the country predicted our immediate, undisputable failure.”

And despite being closed down by the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship and nearly driven to bankruptcy in the early 60s (a boycott to Otero Silva’s leftist views), El Nacional rose to become the liberal Le Monde Diplomatique to the conservative El Universal’s Le Figaro.

You can sit and talk for hours about different periods and try to pinpoint a moment where it wasn’t as good as it used to. Criticism about a quality drop have been going on since Miguel Henrique Otero, Otero Silva’s son, took over the editor position in the mid-90s. And yet you’d also have to consider the crisis faced by newsprint media everywhere, since the 2000s. If The Village Voice folded and The Guardian struggles, then what can you hope for a journal under a hugely authoritarian magnifying glass?

Today, El Nacional is less than a beacon of renaissance.

Today, El Nacional is less than a beacon of renaissance. It gets credit for being the last major national newspaper not to be sold to shady, government-friendly entrepreneurs, but you wonder if it’s more a matter of personal pride than of social responsibility. Under someone with more vision, El Nacional might have developed a strong online presence and, like Spain’s El País, become a cross-media platform that would have helped to an easier transition into the online world, a serious challenger to the work by Efecto Cocuyo or Armando Info.

Instead, El Nacional has been falling into irrelevance and clickbait, just when strong, independent press was needed the most. Misleading headlines, vapid journalism, quantity over quality with articles that are just one or two paragraphs long, and built-up around a video or a tweet, or just copy-pasted walls of text, constantly repeating the same three or four pieces every few minutes. Just compare it to the feed of Colombia’s El Espectador. Its editorial staff, once several-hundred-strong, has been cut to the bone: just a few dozen journalists milling around a mostly-empty newsroom. It’s been ages since anyone heard anyone heard anyone say “Did you see what came out in El Nacional? Está arrechísimo!”

The website still has a mid-2000s look and, until recently, it was difficult to browse due to constant glitches. Is this where El Nacional leadership hopes to make a second life?

In 1980, Miguel Otero Silva pondered on what exactly makes a newspaper. “It’s not built on money, or printing presses, or business relationships that guarantee advertising income, nor government protection  (…) all the advantages and privileges are reduced to ash without the presence of a handful of journalists with professional skill, human touch and a love to their trade.”

Whatever happens to El Nacional from this point on, let’s hope these words are not forgotten and, at the very least, honor its own legacy as a valuable archive, preserving 75 years of national memory.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.