Photo: Human Right's Watch

Who Pays for Venezuelan Journalism?

We usually talk about harassment and censorship, but there’s another threat we don’t mention often: the problems the media has to face to support itself, in Venezuela and the rest of the world

Every household used to have one. I especially recall the one that was at my grandmother’s house. It looked like a wooden bench for a giant. A very heavy box, with a carved backboard with a funerary style. As you lifted the heavy lid, the sarcophagus revealed its true nature: an old newspaper cemetery. Endless copies of El Nacional and El Universal—Venezuela’s most traditional newspapers—that would pile up until they were retired for some sort of domestic function; from ripening avocados to protecting the Christmas ornaments in January. It smelled of dust and morning news, and I miss it so much.

In every home, the newspaper was bought daily, plus two or three magazines per month. It was just another transaction, like buying a pack of cigarettes or a coffee down the street. Every office had a corporate subscription, and waiting rooms, barbershops and hair salons, would have the latest issues of Vanidades or Exceso, to name just a couple of local magazines.

One of the paradoxes we usually talk about is that Venezuela is thrown into mainstream world tendencies for all the wrong reasons. While the large newspapers in the U.S. and Europe would squirm at the birth of online press, in Venezuela digital media was replacing newspapers because of state violence and all the problems they faced to stay alive and operating: from paper shortages to the persecution of their journalists and directors. At the same time, the media landscape was being eroded, TV stations were suddenly shut down, threatened, or bought by people close to the government. People who had no intentions of developing these outlets, not even for profit; their payday was already covered through the purchase order that came from above. Their mission was to buy them and let them die.

The erosion of the traditional media system set the path for other types of media, supported by technology and creativity, to fill the void left behind. A good example is El BusTV, journalists that hop on buses to tell the daily news. There are different approaches and formats, but one common problem: who pays for this?

The Easy Bait Problem

The answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as it used to be, when saying “well, who else? The consumer, the sponsors!” was enough.

And that’s where the idea that haunts us comes into play: since the media started to open their content, even though some of them managed to earn enough income through advertising, the readers’ perception changed, because they left behind the idea that you actually have to pay for journalism, that journalists also have to get paid for their work, buy groceries, pay for their children’s schools, just like anyone else. Journalism has never been free: we always paid for newspapers we read or the radio we listened to. And in television, we paid for it when we bought advertised products or services, and that publicity investment was paid for by the consumer in the price of the product. As for printed media, what we paid for barely covered the printing and distribution costs: the income from media companies always came from advertisement. As that investment circuit broke down when the internet arrived, the problem of financial support for content became quite clear. People stopped paying for newspapers and buying magazines in the corner newsstand, but advertising also gravitated from printed and audio visual media to social media.

We’ll see how that goes, but bringing these models to Venezuela seems almost impossible.

Something similar happened with music and movies at different moments in the past 20 years, but both the movie and music industries actively fought against this phenomenon that was shrouded under the shadow of piracy. On the other hand, digital news media didn’t put up that fight. On the contrary, many of them became content generating machines that depended on clicks to generate income. Plenty of free content to raise as much traffic as possible, since the amount of traffic was directly linked to the amount of money generated (without a philosophy or brand “conscience” behind the decision to associate with this or that media), it didn’t matter if it was girls in bikinis, gossip, or fake news. Clickbait became king.

The problem with the internet and advertisement is that the temptation to use clickbait is just too big, and this impacts directly the quality of journalism. Recently, as a consequence of these practices, Venezuelan media outlet Caraota Digital casually headlined: “Gay doctor dies of coronavirus in his husband’s arms.” WTF. The other issue with ads is that reader experience is terrible. News sites turn into digital trinket stores, where it’s easier to end up in a phishing scheme than reading the whole article.

Fishing for a Solution

There are alternatives, of course, and many journalists are experimenting with different platform options, such as Patreon, a virtual sponsorship system, where several tiers of experience are offered, from a greeting on social media to personalized advice. But these schemes sometimes feel like they’re a stopgap that doesn’t solve the root problem: the most expensive and most valuable content, the cream of the crop, is free and it’s used as bait. Therefore, a free product with a very high production cost is used to sell another product, which can also be of good quality, but in many cases isn’t as necessary as the one that is handed out for free. It’s not ideal.

This leads us to paywall models. A little over a year ago people talked about the success of The New York Times’ transition, which managed to turn into a profitable media outlet through online subscriptions. Just a few days ago, the paper was reporting that its digital subscription revenue surpassed its traditional paper sales. Although it was a breath of fresh air for news portals, Spanish speaking media remains on the fence–after a short life, the Spanish version of The New York Times shut down because it wasn’t considered profitable. Everybody is familiar with NYT’s porous paywall, meaning that the reader has a limited amount of articles to read for free each month and then the obnoxious message “You have reached the limit of free articles per month” pops up. Other media use the freemium model, where they offer certain types of free content to lure the readers in.

Wouldn’t it be better to just focus on what we do and charge for the content?

We are seeing how some media in Spanish, such as El País from Spain, are experimenting with the NYT subscription model and their infamous porous paywall (that’s the dream). We’ll see how that goes, but bringing these models to Venezuela seems almost impossible.

Two Strange Fish in the Sea

Obviously, the best example we can give is what we’ve done with Caracas Chronicles and Cinco8. When we decided to “formalize” CC it was a 14 year old blog—remember, by 2002, Quico was already ranting and telling our gringozuelans what was going on in Venezuela.

To start off, while looking for options and talking to different advisors, we were told that Caracas Chronicles was a “charity case”. That our best bet was to try and establish it as a non-profit and apply for grants from different international organizations. It made sense in a way, since it was a website that was analyzing in English the situation in Venezuela. Many other Venezuelan outlets have found interesting sources of financial support in journalistic grants.

But the truth is that when we decided to take this step with Caracas Chronicles we always thought of it as a business. Stubbornly and without looking back. So, the first thing we did was to find a flagship product that could hold the entire operation, which would allow anything else we did to become gravy and allow the partners to do this full time. So we created the Political Risk Report (delivered weekly) and a consulting division which would answer precise questions on the Venezuelan conflict. We also added an online store with t-shirts and merchandise to put our eggs in different baskets.

But after the hoops we jumped through to support ourselves as a news and analysis outlet, we go back to the most basic idea: Wouldn’t it be better to just focus on what we do and charge for the content? That’s why we have a special place in our hearts for what we call voluntary subscribers: those people that subscribe and pay a monthly fee even when the content is open. The fact that there are still folks who understand the cost of producing journalism, of course, encourages us to keep on working towards a more sustainable model for the future.

Many ideas have come up along the way. For example, not long ago I was talking to Dariela Sosa, the director of Arepita (a newsletter that wraps Venezuelan daily news), about the possibility of monetizing media through packages, or bundles. Something like a journalistic Netflix, where several media could join and charge for access. Obviously, we were not the first ones to discuss that idea and find obstacles to achieve it (each outlet is a Netflix in itself). But we always come back to the same problem: are there enough people capable of holding a subscription interested in Venezuela?

The costs in Venezuela are on the rise and the team is scattering all over the world. When we began our model, a voluntary subscription could easily pay for one article; but now that’s not even close. But we knew that this would eventually happen, although we hoped that the rise in costs would be determined by an improvement of the economic conditions in the country. Today, we still depend more than we would like to on the generosity of our allies and the investment of time of some of the partners of Caracas Chronicles and Cinco8

We always come back to the same problem: are there enough people capable of holding a subscription interested in Venezuela?

We’re happy with the independence that our model has brought us, which has until now supported the weight of both outlets on its shoulders, but we can’t close down and limit ourselves to what we have. We’ll most likely continue to add new things (advertising, grants) while we find the ideal model. We have to keep thinking and looking for a way to adapt and evolve. It’s not easy to break the barrier of the intangibility of online services. We see it on social media all the time, like when people reacted negatively to Caramelos de Cianuro or Desorden Público, two of Venezuela’s most popular rock bands, when they wanted to charge a small fee for an online anniversary concert. Although, we’re also paying attention to other successful efforts, like a podcast for young Venezuelans (Escuela de Nada), which sold 17,000 tickets for a virtual event. What separates one experience from the other? From different conversations we’ve had with different media directors in the past few weeks, the answer seems to be in developing and connecting with your community of consumers.

In addition, we can’t shut the door to other formats. It’s been important for us to defend and maintain the written word, but we’re also looking at other platforms and other types of content. 

Reaching the paywall dream in Latin America isn’t easy, much less so in Venezuela. Today, more than losing the habit of paying for press, many families just can’t afford it. Besides, the bolivar’s loss of value not only makes it difficult to pay for the news, but also to charge for it. The harassment against the media in Venezuela has turned journalism into a public service. So any model has to take this social dimension into account.

It’s not easy, but it’s a conversation that we must have. Because one thing is clear: this model is not sustainable—probably none of the media models in Venezuela are.

The trunk of old newspapers in my family doesn’t really make sense in today’s world, not in Venezuela or anywhere else. Our screen dependence has shrunken our attention span so much that now we discard with a look of adolescent indifference any novelty or topic that demands a certain amount of time. The digital revolution got us used to—in just a few years—seeing journalism as something ethereal, something that is there because of inertia, which doesn’t need to be preserved. We don’t want to see it end up in a chest.

What isn’t intangible, or ethereal, is the money that those who go out to the streets in search of a story deserve to earn, those who get the images, those that put everything together so that they can explain the world that surrounds you. The problem of who pays for journalism is still there, and it has to be solved.

Because the alternative is to lose journalism, to be left alone with Maduro, and the fibs you get through WhatsApp.