Tico Times looks for new business models online after end of print edition (Interview)

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  • October 4, 2012

By Zach Dyer

Tico Times editor David Boddiger could already see the writing on the wall by the time he joined the newspaper two years ago.

When he moved from Chicago to Costa Rica to lead the country’s oldest English-language daily, he said, the newspaper was reeling from the loss of real estate advertising after the U.S. housing bubble burst. The staff had been pared down to a skeleton crew.

On Tuesday, Sept. 25, the Times laid off its entire 16-person staff. Three days later, readers learned that the newspaper in their hands was the last print edition of The Tico Times.

But the 56-year-old newspaper was not ready to give up. The Times is currently considering new business models, including seeking non-profit status in the U.S. In a statement to its readers, the Tico Times announced a fundraising campaign to raise $10,000 to keep the San José-based daily afloat as it restructures into an exclusively online publication. Many of the staff volunteered to stay without pay during the restructuring.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas spoke with Boddiger about the demise of the print edition and the Tico Times’ future online.

Knight Center: Who will miss the print version the most, and do you think that readership will be able to transition into a web-only publication?
David Boddiger: We have a really large ex-pat community with around 20,000 from North America, mostly from the U.S. [The Tico Times is] a central focal point of the ex-pat community here. Bilingual Costa Ricans are very familiar with our publication and consider it part of the media landscape.

We’re seeing a young, educated generation [of Costa Ricans] that is overwhelmingly online and on smart phones. […] Everyday we’re seeing an increasing number of consumers getting their news or other information on tablets or iPhones. This is where this country is headed.

KC: In terms of technology, what will the Tico Times do differently if you get new funding?
DB: In the next few months we’re going to be designing a new website that offers what people expect and we hope to develop applications and reach readers where they’re reading the news, on their iPads, iPhones. I don’t feel like we’re doing that now.

Readers need to be able to interact with the news they’re reading and if we can’t do that we’ll get left behind. I think it’s important to reach new readers and expand our audience and it’s obviously easier to do this online.

KC: What will the new business model look like?
DB: There are good models but there’s no one-size-fits-all. Paywalls, donations; it will probably be a hybrid.
We have a non-profit association but it’s just a matter of getting it set up in the U.S. It allows folks to make tax-free donations in the U.S. […] I think that by setting up that non-profit Tico Times it will help us [fund investigative and environmental reporting]. It’s not going to solve all our problems but it’s another tool in the toolbox.

We are starting a new company, also called The Tico Times, but it’s a new beginning for us and there’s a lot of opportunity.

KC: A statement from the newspaper cited there were a series of fatal decisions and a "lack of long-term vision." How will the restructuring address these issues?
DB: I think that as we were focused on trying to keep the print edition alive, there were a series of ‘fatal mistakes.’ [Publisher Dery Dyer] loves the printed product and she knows we’re a focal point of the community and what they failed to understand was that the community still exists, it’s just migrated online. The needs haven’t disappeared, the people haven’t disappeared, we just haven’t kept up with the expectations of our readers.

Over the years we had downsized so much we were really operating at a bare minimum editorially, our editorial staff couldn’t get any smaller. We still had all the departments we needed to produce a printed product but we had all these costs and we were operating with such a small staff. Now that we’re focused in one direction, I think we can only improve our services from here. We want a full editorial staff, we want to keep producing stories that require people to get out there and do the work. I think we’re going to get better. We already know how to work on a limited staff so I think that’s going to help us in the long run.

KC: Since advertising will remain a part of your model, will you still focus on real estate dollars or are there other markets you’ll be looking at?
DB: We need diversity. The real estate market is totally recovering here so there’s a little bit of a spike there. But that was one of the problems; you can’t rely too heavily on one market to generate all your revenue because if it turns out to be a bubble, like it did here, you’re in big trouble. Diversification is very important so we’ll be looking at that.

KC: The statement also said that publisher Dery Dyer was "resistant" to changes in technology. Will she stay on as publisher?
DB: [Dyer put] everything she had, including her own personal finances, into keeping [the print edition] alive. She’s not going to be involved in the new company. She’s going to be focused on tying up loose ends at the old company. She’ll still be the owner of the brand. As far as her role in the future, we’ll have to figure that out. She is without a doubt the institutional memory of this organization and she will have a role but what ever that formal role is we’ll have to decide.

KC: Do you see what happened to the Tico Times as an individual case – having to do with the paper’s particular circumstances – or as something that can tell us something about English-language journalism in Latin America?
DB: I don’t know how any English-language publication—unless they’re in a niche market like tourism—would be sustainable. In general, I can say that we’re not alone, all the other newspapers in Costa Rica are having to have these conversations too. Even Costa Rica’s biggest Spanish-daily, La Nación, is restructuring and I’m sure there are layoffs around the corner. I know for a fact they’re talking about if and when they should end their print run in the next five years.

CR Hoy is an example of someone looking towards a new model and La Nación and others will have to figure out a model that works for them too. If you go to a press conference, their reporters are there with CR Hoy t-shirts, they report on iPads […] It’s a pretty big venture and it’s all online.

KC: How do you explain the fact that some of the staff volunteered to keep working even after they were let go?
DB: I think the fact that 10 people decided to stay on as volunteers speaks to the commitment to this brand and the legacy of the Tico Times. Everybody wants to see this work. It’s an opportunity to bring this paper into the 21st century and meet the modern demands of a newspaper, if we can. I think with the commitment of the people still here if we can’t make it happen, I don’t think it’s possible.

We’re still here and not only are we still here, we hope to provide better services to our readers in the future. If folks support us I think we can go the long way together.

KC: What about you, will you stay with The Tico Times?
DB: As long as I can, we really want to see it work. I’m going to definitely try to see it through.

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.