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.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. It needed to be said. El Nacional’s quality has been for some time, quite frankly, crap. Yes, it’s an absolute disgrace that chavismo has tried to kill it, and the fact that the printed edition will stop will mean the end of the big free national newspapers.

    But let’s be honest, El Nacional is just absolutely terrible now. Its website sucks. Its Twitter page is on par with LaPatilla in terms of awfulness. Its articles, more often than not, are short and provide very little information, and most of those that read like decent pieces are copy-pasted from more competent sites. Its editing it’s terrible, articles are sometimes full of mistakes, and when they correct them, they don’t even acknowledge the mistake was there on the first place.

    It’s true, chavismo started the end of the free press here, but they’re aren’t exactly responsible for the decay in quality of the newspapers where they haven’t infiltrated their editorials.

  2. “It gets credit for being the last major national newspaper not to be sold to shady, government-friendly entrepreneurs”
    No it doesn’t. Nelson Rivera, the editor of Papel Literario has been a long-time shill for Derwick and Associates. Look up “shady” in the dictionary and you might as well find pictures of El Nacional board members Juan Andrés Wallis, Antonieta Jurado, Danilo Diaz Granados among others.

  3. even if its not the exemplary journalistic media it once was , which of the printed existing media would we trade it with , el universal, ultimas noticias ??, the basic question to ask is which other of the existing papers would we rather read……..??

  4. I used to get out the door early to get a copy of El Nacional from a roadside kiosk in Barinas. That, and an empanada and a great coffee. If for whatever reason I was late and they were sold out, I’d be bereft. The paper at its best was interesting throughout. Everything from hard news, long form studies and interviews, book reviews, even a recipe collection. It was also a touchstone of sanity when everywhere else it seemed people who ought to know better had lost their minds (as was this website).

    As I recall, when it published photos from inside Bello Monte morgue, that’s when it became public enemy number one. It was a classic case of a newspaper shattering the self image of an autocrat and becoming a target.

    I stopped reading it a few years ago for all the reasons you described.I’m sure I am idealizing it in retrospect, but at its best it was ambitious and stood up well with other good newspapers in the Americas. And the true test was this: any edition lying around got read several times by the end of the day, with various sections of it trailing all over the house.

  5. “…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.”

    ————-

    This is where things get cloudy, since newspapers are still a business. They HAVE to appeal to the lowest common denominator to survive, and those journalists have to bow to it.

    The majority of people the world over, including the U.S., don’t consider themselves intellectual elitists, and need their news presented “a certain way.” This, from people on both sides of the political aisle. The result has been the dumbing down of news outlets, both print and broadcast. Only online offers the opportunity, timeliness and space to present comprehensive journalism, but how many people do individual websites reach anyway? Pitifully low.

    We can say that as much as some of us bitch about much of the content here on CC, it is still, by FAR, the best and most comprehensive coverage of VZ anywhere. Yet, let’s face it. The traffic is abysmal here compared to Bloomberg or the New York Times.

    I don’t think there’s an answer. The technologies, and our inabilities to see the coming downsides (not our fault and impossible to predict anyway), have changed things for the worse.

    For now, anyway.

  6. There is no place in Chavismo/Marxism for an El Pueblo that is engaged and intelligent. What this philosophy requires is silent, obedient consent. Keep your contrarian opinions of your Dear Leaders to yourself, wave the flag patriotically, show up to work, and pay your taxes.

  7. Martyrdom: a display of feigned or exaggerated suffering a ”martyr” (aka El Nacional) to obtain sympathy or admiration from us. The readers of so much BS.

  8. The best piece I’ve read on El Nacional’s demise. I will honestly say that I started to hate that newspaper back in 1998 when it became a mouthpiece for the Chavez campaign. Someone should look for their editorial op/ed on the final day of that year’s election campaign. Miguel Henrique Otero’s leadership of his grandfather’s business has been awful, to say the least: He sold it to the Chavez campaign in order to look for political advantage, then the strategy backfired. He never had a vision for the newspaper such as the one described on the article: make it a multimedia enterprise, heck, I guess that in Venezuela, in all fairness, to do something like that with the worst Internet access in the world, let alone the whole economic debacle, is utopia. However, they could have done it before the excrement started to really hit the fan. But they didn’t. They were too busy gazing at their own navels. El Nacional is not a martyr of a dictatorship, it is more of a perfect example of “así paga el diablo a quien bien le sirve”.

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