Residents in a Valencia apartment block watch a rally on the street below in March 2014. Several of the city's critical newspapers have been forced out of circulation amid Venezuela's economic crisis and newsprint shortage. (AP/Fernando Llano)
Residents in a Valencia apartment block watch a rally on the street below in March 2014. Several of the city's critical newspapers have been forced out of circulation amid Venezuela's economic crisis and newsprint shortage. (AP/Fernando Llano)

End of the print run for Venezuela’s regional press as supplies dry up for critical outlets

The lobby of El Carabobeño includes a display of vintage cameras, engraving plates and paper cutters from the 1930s when the newspaper was founded in Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city. But now El Carabobeño’s modern printing press could be added to the exhibit.

Amid a nationwide newsprint shortage that Venezuelan journalists blame widely on President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government, El Carabobeño published its last print edition in February. Although it continues to publish online, the newspaper has lost nearly all of its advertising, has cut staff down to the bone, and is fighting for survival, said editor Carolina González.

“I am very angry about what’s happened,” González said in an interview at the largely empty three-story building that houses El Carabobeño. “But we’re still here.”

The radical downsizing at El Carabobeño, which is one of the few independent news outlets in Valencia willing to criticize government officials, mirrors the crisis at regional newspapers across Venezuela.

Due to the newsprint shortage and a dearth of state and private advertising amid Venezuela’s worst economic crisis in recent history, 24 newspapers have stopped circulating since 2013, including seven in the past year, according to the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS). Mariengracia Chirinos, an IPYS analyst, said that that 10 of the 24 newspapers shut down altogether and 14 continue publishing online.

Many of the survivors “have shifted from large editorial operations to having very small teams of reporters that are now providing a lot less news,” Chirinos told CPJ.

Even large Caracas newspapers like El Universal and El Nacional often publish editions with as few as 16 pages. But the crisis is especially acute in the provinces

Of the 24 newspapers on the IPYS list that are no longer in circulation, Chirinos said that 20 are–or were–based outside of the capital. The casualties include La Noticia de Barinas in central Barinas state, El Diario de Sucre in eastern Sucre state, and Diario Antorcha in the oil-rich state of Anzoátegui.

The national media in Caracas often relied on these outlets and their reporting teams for information from Venezuela’s interior, but now these sources are drying up, said Joseph Poliszuk, a founder and editor at Armando, an investigative news website based in the capital.

“The news media [are] becoming almost nonexistent in the interior,” Poliszuk told CPJ. “Before, we could call up these journalists to find out what was going on. But a lot of them have left the country or are no longer practicing journalism.”

There are numerous reasons behind the demise of regional newspapers, but editors and journalists with whom CPJ has spoken say the newsprint shortage, which began in 2012, triggered the crisis. Venezuela does not produce newsprint so it has to be imported from the United States and Canada. But strict government currency controls mean that imports are sometimes blocked.

González said that when El Carabobeño purchased on credit nearly US$1million of newsprint from a Canadian company in 2013, the government refused to sell El Carabobeño the U.S. dollars it needed to pay the bill. El Carabobeño was unable to pay its debt or to buy more newsprint from that company.

Supplies tightened in 2015. That’s when the government centralized newsprint imports through a newly created state company called Alfredo Maneiro Editorial Corporation. However, numerous newspaper executives told CPJ that the company has either refused to sell them newsprint or has provided much less than they require, and does not provide a reason why.

CPJ’s calls to Alfredo Maneiro and the government’s communications ministry were not returned.

Xabier Coscojuela, the editor of the combative Caracas daily Tal Cual, told CPJ that the paper stopped receiving newsprint supplies from Alfredo Maneiro last year. It switched from a daily to a weekly in 2015 then gave up the print edition and moved exclusively online in November. He said that he believes the Maduro government induced the shortage in a bid to strangle independent newspapers.

El Carabobeño‘s editor, González, said the newspaper has paid a price for its critical coverage.

The paper often publishes exposes about government waste and corruption, and its use of social programs to allegedly coerce people into supporting the ruling socialist party. In 2013, the newspaper sparked a scandal by publishing photos of a public hospital in the nearby city of Maracay that was allegedly so short on medical equipment that it was placing newborn babies in cardboard boxes rather than cribs. [Health officials denied the claim.]

Although Alfredo Maneiro initially sold El Carabobeño a small amount of newsprint, González said that it quickly cut off supplies. State companies have also pulled ads and several privately owned firms that had been advertising stalwarts, such as the telecommunications company CANTV, stopped buying space after they were taken over by the government, González said.

El Carabobeño has responded by shrinking from a broadsheet format to a tabloid. Last year, the newspaper moved online except for a weekly edition. But, after using its last newsprint in February, the weekly edition was also canceled.

Along the way, the newspaper’s five regional offices shut down and the staff has been cut from 60 to 14 reporters and editors. Due to hyperinflation and the collapse of the currency, many of them earn the equivalent of just a few dollars per month. Among them is Ana Gómez, a university student and part-time editor who said that she plans to move to Argentina next year.

“Some journalists still have hope and want to keep working in Venezuela, but most of us want to leave the country,” she told CPJ.

González, however, is determined to stay put even though she was injured while covering anti-government protests in July. She said that while heading back to her Valencia apartment to seek refuge from the mayhem, a member of the National Guard shot a tear gas canister in her direction. The canister missed González but shattered a glass door and shards hit her right eye and face. After several operations, she now sports an inch-long scar on her cheek and has problems with her vision.

Still, González declared, “I’m not going to let this stop me from going into the streets and reporting.”

[Reporting from Valencia, Venezuela]