Interview with Juan Francisco Alonso, reporter and press union representative of broadsheet El UniversalSunday, August 17, 2014
‘You can buy the presses, but not the readers’
With a changing media landscape in Venezuela, one of the most immediate consequences of the changes in editorial lines is that newspapers are slowly losing their existing readers, Juan Francisco Alonso, a reporter in the Justice and Human Rights section of El Universal and press union representative, told the Herald in a recent interview. The newspaper’s new owners did not think through this crucial aspect when designing their business plans, he declared.
Alonso has worked for El Universal for 12 years and says he wants to stay and continue covering the news in the same way.
“If the new shareholders do not like it this way, they can tell me to leave, but I intend to write here as long as they will allow me to,” he said.
Below, Alonso argues that El Universal has a new editorial line, discusses the people behind the buyout, the birth of online news sources and readership figures.
What is the situation at El Universal like, one month after ownership change?
The atmosphere is obviously tense because the new president had assured us that there would be no changes in the editorial line, but less than a month after the purchase the opinion pages began to be purged. The management used excuses such as offensive terms against civil servants, or they said that it was due to a restructuring of pages.
The first reason is ridiculous because El Universal has never been known for insulting people. Some have been told that they will no longer be collaborating with the newspaper and some, that occasionally, their articles will not be published.
Last week, 26 columnists were removed, according to news reports.
Actually there were 40 in total. Of those, 26 will no longer be collaborating, and every day more are leaving. Also, several journalists who were members of the editorial board and were close to the former owners of the newspaper, the Mata family, have stopped writing.
Are journalists leaving the newspaper voluntarily?
Yes, there have been cases in which columnists left in solidarity with colleagues who had been censored. For example, Marta Colomina, a renowned journalist here, recently resigned after she and a colleague were censored.
Have you received any instructions (asking you) to change the content of your articles?
No, I still write the same way as I have done during the last 12 (years). However, there have been some colleagues who were asked to shift their editorial line that could be interpreted as an attempt to move closer to the government (line). One reporter who covered the United Socialist Party’s congress last week was instructed not to include any quotes from dissidents from the pro-Chávez political party. Others have chosen to change their perspective without getting any request to do so.
In what other parts of the newspaper are these changes also evident?
On the front page, and this is understandable because new owners are now in charge. The former owners were recalcitrant opposition members, and the new ones appear to be Chávez sympathizers.
What do you know about the buyers, the Spanish group Epalisticia?
Not much, it is a well-kept secret. The company was created ex-profeso one year ago to act as an intermediary, but it does not own the paper.
Some have said they are figureheads for the government.
A person with a sound mind would not invest here, a country in which the government has been controlling the foreign currency for over a decade. Look at what happened to the airline companies. Who would invest in a newspaper in a country where the government is openly confronting the media? Only someone who knows they will not be harmed.
Have the recently-sold media outlets lost readers?
Yes, you can buy the presses, the building and the paper but not the readers. And the buyers have not understood this. Globovisión’s audience numbers have plummeted and 50 percent of Cadena Capriles’ publications are being returned from the news-stands. With respect to our paper it is still too soon, but when a cartoonist was censored last week we lost 1,800 followers on Twitter.
How do they stay informed?
Through news portals such as runrun.es, konzapata.com and lapatilla.com and small web television channels, like NTN 24, created by journalists who left all the newly-bought media outlets. They also turn to Twitter and to foreign broadcasters like CNN en Español, who have expanded their coverage.