When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was rumored to be gravely ill four years ago, his socialist government was tightlipped about the diagnosis. Then in June 2011 a source in Havana, Cuba, where Chávez was being treated, told Nelson Bocaranda, a veteran columnist for the Caracas daily El Universal, that the president had cancer.
Fearing a backlash from the government, which has been cracking down on independent media, El Universal balked at running the story, Bocaranda said. "They didn't dare publish it," the journalist claimed in a video and Web interview in March, on the second anniversary of Chavez's death. "So I figured, 'OK, I will post this on my own Web page.' " Shortly afterwards, El Universal and other outlets published the story.
That's why one of the biggest journalistic scoops in recent Venezuelan history was published by Runrun.es, an online news site Bocaranda had founded just eight months earlier. It was a sign of things to come. With traditional Venezuelan news outlets shying away from critical coverage of the government, a handful of upstart websites have vigorously assumed this watchdog role, journalists and media analysts told CPJ.
"Right now there is a boom in news websites," Marianela Balbi, director of the Caracas-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS), told CPJ. "I feel better informed than ever."
The websites include everything from Prodavinci, which provides news analysis by historians, scientists, and scholars, to Poderopedia, which publishes profiles of Venezuelan powerbrokers, and Armando, which provides investigative reporting. Most are fiercely critical of the Nicolás Maduro administration, but several pro-government news sites have sprung up, including Contrapunto and Misión Verdad.
Elsewhere, technological advances, changing business models, and evolving cultural habits drove news companies and journalists to transition to the Internet. Those factors played a role in Venezuela too, Balbi said, but the explosion in online news sites was also the result of government efforts to crack down on or co-opt TV, radio, and newspapers.
Some newspapers have reduced circulation and pages, or switched to an online format amid shortages of newsprint, state advertising boycotts, and reduced private sector advertising amid the country's economic crisis. Many radio and TV station owners appear to steer clear of controversial stories out of fear of losing their transmission licenses. And Venezuela's two biggest newspapers, El Universal and Últimas Noticias, as well as the TV station Globovisión, appear to have toned down their coverage following their sale to owners rumored to be close to government officials, some journalists at the outlets told CPJ.
El Universal and Últimas Noticias did not respond to CPJ requests for comment about claims coverage has been toned down. After Globovisión was sold, reporters were told the station would continue to cover all sides of the news.
One of the few upsides is that many journalists, fed up with the restrictions they faced at traditional news outlets, have found work at websites that are willing to investigate government wrongdoing.
"Other countries talk about the transition from print to the Internet as an evolutionary process," Venezuelan journalist and new media expert Luis Carlos Díaz told media training and outreach group, The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, last year. "In Venezuela it was done through crisis, through trauma. Journalism moved online because it was the only place it could survive."
One example is Globovisión co-founder Alberto Ravell, who moved on to found La Patilla, a news aggregator fiercely critical of the government, but which also posts plenty of "click-bait" photos and celebrity news. It is now one of Venezuela's top-10 websites, according to Web-metrics provider Alexa.
Another refugee from the traditional media is Nathalie Alvaray, director of content for Runrun.es. A veteran reporter at Últimas Noticias, Alvaray told CPJ that she left the newspaper last year after its parent company, Cadena Capriles, was sold and reporters who tried to write about sensitive issues claimed they were being censored. Runrun.es now has 12 reporters and continues to break stories, such as an investigation last year into allegations of massive cost overruns and construction delays at six state-run hospitals.
But there are downsides to new media. Alvaray said readers of Runrun.es mostly hail from the middle or upper classes, who generally have a low opinion of the government. By contrast, she said, Últimas Noticias circulates more than 300,000 copies per day and is read by the working and lower classes that form the base of the government's support.
"Our audience is not very diverse," she told CPJ. "We are preaching to the converted."
Runrun.es counts on the financial backing of Miguel Ángel Capriles, one of the former owners of Cadena Capriles, as well as some advertising income. But it is unclear whether its business model, or those of other upstart websites, will keep it afloat in the long term, IPYS director Balbi said.
For public interest journalism website Efecto Cocuyo, which went live in January with the goal of becoming a Venezuelan ProPublica, it was the reputation of its founders that helped the site secure funds. Laura Weffer, a former investigative reporter for Últimas Noticias, and Luz Mely Reyes, former editor of the Caracas newspaper Diario 2001, are both highly respected journalists, which helped attract a small amount of start-up capital from Caracas investors.
"We found some tremendous journalists here who can create value," Carlos Aguiló, one of the site's investors, told CPJ.
Aguiló said Efecto Cocuyo plans to pay for its journalism through crowd-funding and by selling content to third parties. What's more, the distortions of Venezuela's economy sometimes work in favor of the website. Although the news site's initial call for donations at home and abroad brought in only one-third of the $75,000 goal, Weffer told El Estímulo that those dollars doubled in value in local currency in recent months due to the rapid depreciation of the Venezuelan bolívar.
"Our budget for the first year is just $35,000 and that has already been covered," Weffer told CPJ.
The other benefit of going online is that it provides news organizations with a greater degree of protection from government repression. "We don't need paper. We don't need a broadcasting license. There's little they can do to squeeze us," Ravell told The Wall Street Journal last year.
Still, the government is finding ways to target the Web.
In 2013 it ordered Internet service providers to cut access to websites publishing details of the black market exchange rate, in a move that led some journalists to say they feared the order could be extended to any site critical of the government or policy. And in April, National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello filed a lawsuit against three media companies, including La Patilla, for republishing a news story alleging that Cabello is linked to drug trafficking. That prompted a Caracas judge this month to prohibit 22 news executives--including Ravell--from leaving the country.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of online news site Runrun.es.