(In 1979, Associated Press Special Correspondent Tad Bartimus wrote the following story about The Tico Times. It ran in dozens of papers throughout the world.)
San José, Costa Rica (AP) – The Tico Times is a pushover for a cause. The English-language weekly newspaper has crusaded for everything from saving endangered turtles to exporting fugitive financier Robert Vesco. It usually wins.
It was the first business in this sunny Central American democracy to have its own blood drive.
“People would come in the office to place a classified ad and we’d grab ‘em and say: ‘Your money or your blood,” says editor Dery Dyer, the 30-year-old daughter of publisher Richard Dyer. “We had a great time, served cookies and beer, had people fainting all over the place. But we got a lot of donors.”
Its readers happily contribute to the country’s zoo, an annual Christmas party for poor children, and the fledgling Animal Protection Society.
The Tico Times – Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos – is feisty and irreverent. Its 6,500 readers – half of them in 52 other countries and all 50 American states – devour its tabloid pages, and flood the office with letters.
The newspaper, headquartered in a cheerful, cluttered old frame house in the heart of this Latin capital, also “safeguards the public welfare.”
That’s a high-falutin’ phrase for a publication that staff members jokingly call “A rinky-dink rag.” It is a valid one, coined by the Supreme Court of Costa Rica when it vindicated The Tico Times in a libel action brought by a land developer.
The lawsuit by Czech-born naturalized Canadian Josef Slyomovics stemmed from a series of 1977 articles about his alleged debts and a coastal tourist development. Costa Rica has no press censorship, but does have a 1902 statute making conviction for libel or slander punishable by a jail term and a fine.
Slyomovics asked the court to sentence reporter Stephen Schmidt and publisher Dyer to 120 days in jail, and sought hefty damages.
All cases involving the country’s press are heard by the Supreme Court, in one trial with no appeal. The Tico Times’ day in court was January 25, 1978.
Defense attorney Joaquín Vargas Gené, himself a local newspaper publisher, argued before the three magistrates that “What will be decided here is whether or not the national press can report without fear on dubious business activities. . .”
In less than 24 hours the judges ruled: “The press has the duty to inform the public on all matters of general interest. . . It is its obligation to make these facts known.”
Not only did it find Dyer and Schmidt innocent, it charged Costa Rica’s press with the obligation – and guaranteed it the right – to print the news. In Latin America, such journalistic liberty is rare.
“The decision,” said Guido Fernández, publisher of the nation’s largest circulation daily, La Nación, and president of the Freedom of the Press Committee of the Inter-American Press Association, “establishes a very important legal precedent in that it presumes the good faith of a professional news report, and at the same time it stimulates investigative reporting, a field in which The Tico Times sets an excellent example.”
For the Dyers, the ruling crowned their years of shoe-string effort with a nationally recognized legitimacy. The Tico Times had come of age.
It began in 1956, when Dyer’s wife Elisabeth was approached by five high school students who wanted to learn journalism.
A former writer for the old New York Post and an experienced member of the Hearst stable, Mrs. Dyer had given up her career when she was married in 1944.
Her husband, a veteran Associated Press newsman, became the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for the now-defunct International News Service. Later they moved to Costa Rica and he went into public relations.
For 12 years, Mrs. Dyer was a housewife, hostess and mother, but she missed “the business.” When the youngsters appeared, she told them the only way to learn was to put out a newspaper.
The Tico Times was born May 18, 1956. Its first editorial described it as non-profit with no salaried employees, but “any young person who knows English and is interested in learning. . . come aboard.”
It was the first English-language newspaper in Central America, and dozens of kids flocked to it. In 1960, the paper suspended publication when the Dyers moved to Chile, but after the death of Mrs. Dyer in 1971, Dery and her father decided to resurrect it. Back in Costa Rica for good, Dyer had a flourishing commercial printing business and had imported the country’s first off-set press.
The Tico Times reappeared February 4, 1972, and has been growing ever since, although no one can say exactly how it came to have such a large overseas readership.
“We’ve got subscribers in Andorra, Afghanistan, Alaska and Saudi Arabia,” says Judie Faerron, 28, the Dyers’ right-hand woman who’s been with the paper for seven years. “We send it to the U.S. State Department, libraries around the world, and universities in the States and Europe, all at their request. Every week the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry mails out several hundred copies to its consulates.”
The first born-again issue was 12 pages – the average now is 28. The Tico Times also became the first Costa Rican paper to regularly use color photographs on its front page.
“One of the first times we used color was for the 1974 inauguration of President Daniel Oduber,” Dery says. “Oduber’s hair and the national flag came out a vivid green. We stopped the press and made adjustments. This time it was day-glow blue.We had to distribute them because we didn’t have any black and white pictures. “He never said a word.”
The paper now has 13 full-time staffers and 13 contributing columnists and part-time employees, and an office cat, Beanbag, who lives in the bathtub.
“The Tico Times has grown into a force that’s taken into account by Costa Rica’s policy makers,” says Stephen Schmidt, the reporter in the libel suit who now freelances. “People realize it is the vehicle by which Costa Rica’s face is shown to the world. Influential newspaper editors read it, and it has great impact in Latin American press circles.”
Fernández says the Tico Times “introduced professionalism into Costa Rican journalism. It led the way in investigative reporting, and quite frequently we read it to get ideas for our own stories.”
“Basically we are putting out a paper in two languages, because we have to collect all the news in Spanish, then translate it into English,” says Ms. Faerron. “We cover an entire country (19,833 square miles) and our pet causes are pollution, rape of the land, protection of wildlife, injustice to average people and exposing shysters.” “I think what makes the Tico Times special is that it has heart,” says Dery.
“We’re a little paper trying to do the best we can for the community and the country. We also have a good time.”