Tim Rogers is a journalist’s journalist. He’s the guy that parachute reporters, radio hosts and news editors turn to when they need the skinny on Nicaragua.
For the past eight years, commuting between his colonial home in Granada and his office in Managua, Rogers has cranked out endless copy for The Christian Science Monitor, the BBC, Time, The Miami Herald and the defunct Nica Times, a former publication of The Tico Times. His stories run the gamut from exclusive interviews with Nicaragua’s rich and powerful insiders to features on poor Nicaraguan kids pursuing dreams on a dusty baseball field.
Rogers is starting his own venture, an English-language publication called the Nicaragua Dispatch. The free online news site launches Monday, just ahead of the country’s Nov. 6 presidential elections.
Those elections are certain to be controversial. President Daniel Ortega is expected to win, although his constitutional right to run is under scrutiny. While members of the international media fly in, cover the story for a few weeks, and fly out, Rogers will stay put, reporting the nuances of a complex country he’s come to know well.
Rogers is one of the only English-language reporters based in Nicaragua. That’s a marked changed from the war years, when you couldn’t spit without hitting a foreign correspondent.
“In the 1980s, Nicaragua was a hotbed for foreign journalism,” Rogers said. “At one point in the ‘80s there were something like 300 foreign correspondents in Nicaragua. Now it’s just a handful of us, and I’m the only one from the U.S. There’s no reliable, consistent source for English-language news here.
“There’s a lot of parachute journalism, and we’re going to see that as the elections approach. You’ll see the same story recycled. I think a lot of the journalism out of Nicaragua in coming months will be foreign journalists coming in and doing stories that are really anti-Sandinista. That’s been a shift in foreign media coverage of the Sandinistas since the ‘80s. The coverage the Sandinistas are going to get now will be predominantly negative,” he said.
Rogers promises a “more sophisticated” treatment of the Sandinistas in the Dispatch. “We need to recognize things that they’re doing well and hold them to account for things they’re not doing well,” he said.
Part of the secret of getting the story right on Nicaragua is to offer a range of opinions and perspectives. Rogers has cultivated plenty of sources in the 10-plus years he’s been reporting in Central America (before Nicaragua he was a Costa Rica-based reporter).
But an added element for the Nicaragua Dispatch will be community-based reporting and contributions from young Nicaraguan bloggers.
“Different people have been speaking to me over the years about the need for a community newspaper. So we’re going to provide that,” Rogers said. “We want to provide an online forum where different communities of expats living in Nicaragua can communicate with each other. Right now they’re pretty isolated groups. You’ve got groups of expats living in Granada and they don’t necessarily know what’s happening with the expat community living in San Juan Del Sur, and people in San Juan Del Sur don’t know what’s happening in the expat community in Managua, and vice versa.
“There are other far-flung expat communities in the northern mountain towns, and there are people even more remotely placed on the Atlantic coast. We want our online forum to bridge all these different groups and create a forum for free expression in Nicaragua,” he said.
By tapping into a community of young Nicaraguan bloggers and pockets of expat communities, and bringing them together in one online forum, Rogers said he hopes to promote dialogue and the free exchange of ideas – a recipe for building democracy in a country that is far from democratic. In the age of high-speed Internet, those ideas can reach a wider, global audience.
The Dispatch isn’t just targeting Nicaraguan residents. Rogers also hopes to capture attention abroad. One of his readership targets is the Nicaraguan expat community in the United States, who are fluent in English and eager for independent sources of news back home. Some 250,000 Nicaraguans currently live in the U.S.
The final element to building readership is tourism. Last year, one million tourists visited Nicaragua, and that number is growing.
“These are people who come to Nicaragua and fall in love with the country, go back to their countries and want to follow what’s happening here. We hope they’ll be part of our readership as well, so we’ll really have a global readership,” Rogers said.
An Exchange of Ideas
Reporting in Nicaragua is tricky. The country does not have a history of democratic governance, and it lacks an environment that encourages freedom of expression. “Dissenting views,” Rogers said, “are not encouraged at the moment.”
Part of the Dispatch’s plan to encourage healthy debate is not just to include dissenting viewpoints, but to also push Sandinista leaders to participate.
“We’re making a real effort to move beyond the polarized view of Nicaragua, to move beyond the pro-Sandinista and anti-Sandinista debate, which is really tiring and doesn’t lead to anything,” Rogers said. “We’re trying to look at issues and discuss them on their merits and move beyond the tired partisan bickering that happens here.”
So how vital is instant access to information in a country with 90 percent Internet coverage?
“Information is always important in any country that aspires to be a democracy,” he said. “The flow of information is vitally important to that. It’s very anti-democratic to hamper the flow of information.”
For Rogers, Nicaragua – more than any other Latin American country – has been plagued by years of journalism that has reflected journalists’ views of the country. And that doesn’t necessarily capture the truth.
“Nicaragua is a lot of things to a lot of people, dating back to the ‘80s and the romanticism of the revolution that people got swept up in. Journalists got swept up in that too, and a lot of reporting on Nicaragua for years has reflected people’s personal biases and a peripheral understanding of what Nicaragua is,” he said.
“We’re going to try to tell the story of Nicaragua in its complexities, and there’ll be a lot of times when you open the Nicaragua Dispatch to see two stories next to each other that look like they don’t belong in the same paper.”
One early edition plays a story critical of Nicaragua’s unraveling democracy next to a feature on the private sector applauding Sandinista leadership. The stories might seem to contradict each other, and Rogers acknowledges that they do. But Nicaragua contradicts itself too.
“We’re trying to tell a very complex tale that’s not a story where some have white cowboy hats and some have black cowboy hats. It’s not that simple,” he said.
“Do I imagine that we’ll ruffle some feathers? Yes. Everything I’ve done in Nicaragua for the last eight years has upset people on all sides,” Rogers said. “So, I don’t expect everyone’s going to love this project. As long as we can ruffle everybody’s feathers equally, then we’re doing our job.”
New Journalism in a Difficult Era
While media outlets struggle to adapt to an era of journalism marked by shrinking ad revenue and declined readership, why start an online news publication now?
Rogers has an answer for that too:
“The whole media world is at a tentative crossroads right now. Everyone acknowledges the fact that media has to change its model. The traditional model doesn’t work.
We’re trying to do something that will hopefully be sustainable. And by doing something that promotes free press and is also informative, and hopefully entertaining, because we can’t forget that, we can appeal to people who realize that this is a needed product for Nicaragua. The more that media disappears, the more people realize they need some of us to stick around.”
Check out the Nicaragua Dispatch starting Monday at www.nicaraguadispatch.com.