The Tico Times, an English-language newspaper started in San José in 1956 and a prominent voice in the region ever since, announced today’s print edition – Sept. 28, 2012 – will be the paper’s last.
The paper will shift its attention toward its digital product at ticotimes.net, as it begins a reorganization that places a greater emphasis on competing in the 24-hour news cycle, reaching a wider audience and creating profits from online revenue and donations.
Over the years, The Tico Times received awards and worldwide readership for its independence in a region marked by turmoil and weak press. Reporters broke stories on secret runways used by the Contras, rampant shark finning in Costa Rican waters and the rise of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua.
Tico Times history:
The latter dealt The Tico Times its worst tragedy. In 1984, reporter Linda Frazier was killed, along with Costa Rican journalists Jorge Quirós and Evelio Sequeira, and several were injured by a bomb set off during a meeting with guerrilla fighter Edén Pastora, the famous “Comandante Cero,” near the Nicaragua border.
But the weekly persevered through the decades and the difficulties. In 1995, The Tico Times received the Grand Prize for Press Freedom from the Inter-American Press Association. Veterans at the paper recall how Guido Fernández, the longtime publisher of Costa Rica’s leading Spanish-language daily, La Nación, always credited The Tico Times with teaching the Costa Rican press investigative reporting.
“It started as a project of Lincoln School so the students could learn journalism, and it quickly became a sort of binding force in the English-speaking community in Costa Rica,” publisher Dery Dyer said. “For many years, it was a focal point and held the community together.”
The paper also was widely read by English-speaking Costa Ricans who appreciated having an alternative viewpoint to news from the Costa Rican press.
“It offered the Costa Rican English-speaking population a very interesting perspective, because it was Costa Rica seen on an international scale, through different eyes,” Dyer said. “Also, we pioneered a lot of issues affecting Costa Rica that had never really been looked at before, such as press freedom and the environment.”
Environmental reporting in Costa Rica began as early as the 1950s, when The Tico Times published stories about oak forests being burned in the Cerro de la Muerte, in the Southern Zone, she said.
Frazier and many others also helped shine a light on a turbulent region and on the ever-changing personality of Costa Rica, the one stable democracy caught in the middle of regional wars. But what the paper could not overcome was the changing journalism industry itself.
The same epidemic wiping out newspapers and magazines throughout the world also walloped The Tico Times. In the past decade, tough economic times combined with readers moving to online media signaled the end to the print edition.
“This is a decision we were forced to make due to costs of distribution, printing, paper and production. Needs are changing and people want more; they use technology and aren’t interested in the print newspaper,” Tico Times Business Manager Olman Chacón said.
“The Tico Times never had the idea of making huge profits; we were always about meeting costs,” he added. “But in order to deliver the print edition to readers, we accumulated an enormous amount of debt. It just became unmanageable.”
The symptoms were apparent to any reader: shrinking newspaper size and a dearth of all-important ads, which serve as the lifeblood of the print product. Management observed diminishing revenues. Circulation that once reached 15,000 was cut in half, and then dropped even further.
Online hits rose with the launch of a new website at the end of 2010. But a business strategy to marry the two products and create profits from both brands never emerged.
The weekly failed to innovate and struggled to keep up with readers’ desire for immediate news.
“We can’t forget that we are a weekly paper, and people want news every day,” Chacón said. “We’re not the only newspaper this has happened to; it’s a global problem. I’m surprised we made it this far. And we’ve made it this far because of the efforts of our employees, who during the last four years worked with reduced salaries and under extremely difficult conditions.”
According to Chacón, the print edition’s eventual demise became apparent following a crisis in advertising that began in 2008, coupled with an exchange rate that dropped.
In the paper’s heyday from 2005-2007, it reached a size of 60 printed pages, thanks largely to a real estate boom that comprised the majority of Tico Times advertisers. That boom, along with the housing crisis in the United States, turned out to be a bubble, and when it burst, the paper faced a double dilemma of advertising flight and the onset of the digital age in Costa Rica.
A tough decision
On Tuesday, publisher Dery Dyer held a meeting in her office inside the two-story downtown building that hosted The Tico Times for nearly three decades. Dyer, 64, told editors and ad managers the business model was no longer sustainable. To keep alive and improve upon a brand that has existed in Costa Rica for more than a half-century, the print product needed to go.
The digital world moved too fast for a family-run newspaper with a shrinking staff. A for-sale sign hangs on the façade of The Tico Times’ building.
Dyer (see Letter from the Publisher) – whose mother, Elisabeth (Betty) Dyer, founded the paper in 1956 and whose father, Richard Dyer, published the paper from 1972 to 1996 – said the shift in reader and advertiser behavior made the decision inevitable.
“In terms of community, I think what has happened in recent years, which is the sad thing, due to the Internet, the community that used to gravitate around The Tico Times as a focal point dispersed,” Dyer said.
On Tuesday, The Tico Times laid off its 16-member staff, including veterans of more than a quarter-century, while it restructures and directs its energies toward the online offerings.
Six years ago, the paper published its 50th anniversary edition – an expansive history celebrating The Tico Times and its role in Central America over the years (for a free pdf download of the special edition, see above). The downfall came shortly after that anniversary issue.
The dominoes tumbled as the global economic crisis eliminated advertiser after advertiser. The paper could not conceive of ways to get back those advertisers nor the revenue streams. The main response was to downsize, but that only created an overworked staff and errors, not profits.
Chacón also noted that faced with the changing times and the flight of advertising, the paper suffered from continuous lack of vision. “It was badly planned and had poor business strategies for years,” he said.
Another problem was Dyer’s reputation for resisting technology and change. That opposition was rooted in her love for the print product. In the end, it was the desire to keep The Tico Times alive that led to the historic choice to drop the print edition.
Meanwhile, reporters wrote about the most important events of the day up until the final print edition. Features included stories on an anti-gay, evangelical lawmaker’s controversial rise to the head of the Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, the disappearance of a tourist town’s most popular attraction and the case of fugitive conservationist Paul Watson. These types of stories that connect readers with Costa Rican issues beyond the superficial tourism tales hopefully will continue online, Dyer said.
The moment best highlighting the juxtaposition of maintaining a weekly newspaper and an online medium occurred this month, when a magnitude-7.6 earthquake rocked the country. On Sept. 5, that tremor caused minimal damage but garnered worldwide attention.
The website received 100,000 page views in the days following the quake (and a third of a million unique page views for the month). However, the small editorial staff encountered repeated dilemmas about whether to funnel all the content online or dig for deeper stories about the earthquake and its significance to fill the print edition – an edition that needed all the content it could get because it was largely devoid of ads.
And the website received so many hits that it crashed. The paper seemed unprepared for such a large audience.
Three weeks later, Dyer made the reluctant decision to go online only.
Online English-language media still lack in the country. Almost flatteringly, many of the English online vehicles received their material from plagiarizing stories in The Tico Times and the country’s Spanish publications. Dyer said The Tico Times will emphasize providing original content at a faster pace online, with an eye to better fulfilling expat needs and continuing to provide fair and honest journalism in the country.
In upcoming months, the company will experiment with creating new revenue models and modernizing the online product. The Tico Times also will hold campaigns asking for donations as it attempts to remain a leading voice in the community.
Because of the newspaper’s precarious financial situation, the new venture will rely entirely on its ability to attract new funding and generate revenue online.
The paper now heads in the direction of so many other former printed publications. The Tico Times moves online-only in an attempt to solve the biggest crisis facing journalism in the 21st century: Providing quality stories while surviving in a digital world.
“We had hoped we could save the print edition, but we failed,” Dyer said. “This is now where we’re going to focus our efforts [online]. We want to continue some form of The Tico Times, and we think we still have a lot to offer.”