Journalists move online in Venezuela as government pressure on media companies grows

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  • October 13, 2014

By Dylan Baddour

Increasing pressure on traditional media in Venezuela over recent years has forced journalists critical of the government to move online in search of refuge. The transition has spurred the creation of several small publications online and has changed the way that Venezuelans, especially those critical of the government, share and receive information.

“Other countries talk about the transition of media from print to the Internet as an evolutionary process. It wasn’t like this in Venezuela," Luis Carlos Díaz, a Venezuelan journalist and new media guru, told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in an interview. "In Venezuela it was done through crisis, through trauma. Journalism moved online because it was the only place it could survive.”

What has become a diverse set of online media in Venezuela could only have developed, Díaz added, with the implementation of an invaluable tool used to curate data for the public masses: Twitter.

With 4.2 million Venezuelan users, the platform has become crucial to journalism in the country, as it allows the public to search for the news that they believe is important and promote it among their followers.

“It is not the news sites that inform most young people,” Díaz said. “It is the curated information that their friends put up on social media.”

Government opposition has been largely expunged from mainstream TV and newspaper industries in recent years, raising concerns over the state of press freedom in Venezuela. Notably, a number of dominant newspapers and TV stations have changed ownership in recent years and, as a result, abandoned reporting that is critical of the State. While TV stations have been closed down on legal grounds, a nation-wide newsprint shortage has hindered prominent newspaper operations.

Díaz added that many Venezuelans no longer trust TV stations for news.

As pressure on media outlets increases across Venezuela, many journalists have chosen to move their work online. Alberto Ravell, for example, is a journalist and former CEO of TV news channel Globovision. The channel abandoned its critical editorial line after being sold in 2013. Ravell left the station to found LaPatilla.com, which is now considered to be the most popular news website in Venezuela. As the biggest web-only news operation in the country, La Patilla relies heavily on aggregation and publishes more content than any other news site, as a result, Díaz said.

Another example is Runrun.es, which was founded by Nelson Bocaranda, a Venezuelan reporter who was effectively forced to leave the mainstream journalism industry after receiving threats in response to his reporting. Bocaranda, who now has nearly 2 million followers on Twitter, ranking him above all but six of the largest publications in Latin America, used to host a daily radio show called “Nelson’s Runruns,” or “Los Runrunes de Nelson.” The word runrun is Venezuelan slang for a rumor.

Now, his online operation Runrun.es is collecting journalists that find themselves in a similar situation. The publication hired at least three former reporters from Venezuela’s most important newspaper, Últimas Noticias, after it changed ownership in 2013.

Smaller online publications have also risen to fill varied niches in Venezuelan journalism. For example, Prodavinci.com offers no original reporting, but features news analysis offered by historians, scientists, philosophers, and other scholars. Confirmado.com.ve has adopted a variation of the fact-checking model that’s recently surged in popularity worldwide. Contrapunto and El Estimulo are small online publications, both founded this year, which seek to provide original reporting on national events but have yet to build a large audience, Díaz said.

“We don’t know their sustainability, but they’ve got professional journalists,” Díaz said. “They are publishing their own information and they are betting on other types of designs.”

However, in a country where politics remains heavily polarized, new media on the Internet has not been able to effectively bridge the gap between the pro-government and opposition camps. Government supporters still largely rely on the newspapers and TV stations that critical journalists have left behind, Díaz said.

“It still hasn’t happened that one publication speaks to and has the trust of both halves of the country,” said Díaz.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.