Semanario Universidad published my column today about what the owner of The Tico Times, Rob Hodel, did to a group of his employees and former employees of the paper, and why I think that matters on a broader level. Thank you so much to Sem U for sharing this and to Elizabeth Lang and Robert Isenberg for working with me to try to get our names back on our work; thanks also to The Tico Times colleagues I continue to miss.
Thanks to all of you who support media organizations that treat journalists with respect and transparency. As readers, consumers and advertisers, we have opportunities to hold media owners accountable and make behavior like this not only unacceptable, but also impossible. Here is a translation:
If recent years have taught me anything, it’s that the future of journalism – in fact, the future of democracy – depends on each one of us. It depends on each of our media organizations. And the failures of those media organizations leave us with lessons that we should not just brush aside.
The Tico Times is a Costa Rican media organization created in 1956. Under the leadership of U.S. journalists Richard and Betty Dyer, and eventually their daughter, the great journalist Dery Dyer, it became a valuable reference for English speakers in Costa Rica – the messenger and heart of that community. During the turbulent 1980s, the TT newsroom became a hub for international journalists who covered Central America. Richard Dyer, along with other colleagues, won the Inter American Press Association Grand Prize for Press Freedom in 1995 for his fight against the anti-democratic efforts of the Journalists’ Association to prevent publication by journalists who did not possess a mandatory license from that entity.
In the 2010s, The Tico Times, along with journalism businesses around the world, experienced several changes: the transition to a digital format, and many other challenges. In 2017, U.S. citizen Rob Hodel bought the paper and hired me to put together an editorial team capable of resuscitating the TT’s content. This team met that goal, adding a weekly video news show, a podcast, the first electoral coverage using 360 video in Costa Rica, and, above all else, rigorous journalism.
In 2019, after ceasing to pay most of his employees without ever communicating to us any change in our condition, nor responding to queries about salaries owed, Mr. Hodel stopped responding to communications while continuing ahead with the media organization we had helped rebuild. In recent months, the names of former TT journalists began being erased from the website, affecting hundreds of pieces by me and by my colleagues Elizabeth Lang Oreamuno and Robert Isenberg. These actions affect not only the rights of a few workers, but also the freedom of the press in Costa Rica and its development: the issue in which the Dyers, the founders of The Tico Times, invested so much passion and energy.
This sad story does not deserve more space—it can continue in the appropriate legal channels—but there is a story here that goes beyond the bad experiences of one group of journalists. It is a story full of hope for Costa Rica, and a cautionary tale as well.
It is a story of hope because of the Latin American talent that was showcased in the most recent version of The Tico Times, with only Costa Rican reporters on staff and a freelance team full of voices from Honduras, Nicaragua, Brazil and more. These journalists showed up, week after week, to be a part of a media organization that was independent and open to change; I couldn’t give them many resources, but we did give them space. Watching them work, innovate, create and have fun was one of the greatest honors of my life. To those journalists and many others who are doing a lot with a little throughout Costa Rica and Central America, I want to say: If you are practicing this craft, you matter, whether you have an advanced degree in journalism or learned all you know on the job.
The most recent descent of The Tico Times took place during a period when journalists in my adopted region face harrowing challenges; when the countries of the region consume fewer traditional media, and are home to more and more young people creating quality content; when “slow journalism,” which invests many hours in places and people who are far from the day’s headlines, is less and less frequent. The region has the talent to make up this deficit, but those young journalists need new support mechanisms.
We need more journalism associations that define their membership and services based on who is producing quality work, not on who has which degree. We already support each other informally—advising each other through labor rights violations or security threats—and we should strengthen those channels. We need to create structures that are journalist-owned, and in which innovative financing models are implemented.
And we have to stop accepting media owners who prefer to stay in the shadows. Without any doubt, journalism today is about building trust and community, and owners are an essential part of that process. When an owner breaks that trust, failing to comply with his obligations as did Mr. Hodel, we should raise our voices in every possible forum: this is a duty that I have failed to perform, until today. At the same time, when we have the good fortune to work with owners and editors who are ethical and responsible, we should remind those people that their leadership needs to be shouted from the rooftops. The relationship readers have with the owner is, today, just as important as their relationship with journalists. In this century of Wikileaks and fake news, Donald and other populists, new challenges require absolute transparency and the participation of readers in their media.
If we don’t achieve this, we will lose even more journalists. We will lose even more media organizations. We will erode still further the trust that is the base of our democracy. Talent, commitment and drive: it’s all there, in spades. It’s an underused resource that society ignores at its own peril.