The changing face of Puerto Rican media
Economic struggles inspire journalists to reinvent themselves
After seven years of working at GFR Media, the largest media corporation in Puerto Rico, Brunymarie Velázquez gave up something that many journalists in Puerto Rico covet: a stable job with benefits.
In an economy that has been declining steadily for the past 10 years, she quit her position to become chief content editor for Piso 13 — a media startup set to launch in September.
The project is looking to recruit young, talented journalists living on the island.
“A lot of people said things to me like, ‘You’re crazy,’ ‘How are you going to leave?’ ‘You have a daughter,’ ‘Are you sure you’re going to be fine?’ Velázquez said. “I want to keep developing myself. I want to keep doing journalism, and I think that with a project like this — where I’m going to be working with a group of journalists and training them — I will be able to contribute more.”
For Velázquez, Piso 13 is an opportunity to create, even if it entails taking risks in an unstable economy. The company has three staff members, including Velázquez, and occupies an office inside the headquarters of Pan American Grain, an agro-industrial corporation in Puerto Rico.
“Piso 13” is Spanish for “the thirteenth floor.” According to superstition, 13th floors are bad luck. For the budding media startup, the 13th floor represents a necessary space.
“The idea is that the 13th floor becomes the space where everything that is not being published gets published,” Velázquez said.
Over the past four years, more than 200 journalists have lost their jobs in Puerto Rico. In 2014, Univision shuttered its news bureau in Puerto Rico, laying off more than 100 journalists, graphic artists and employees including some from its partner offices.
Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, along with the rapidly changing trends in media consumption, has triggered staff cutbacks in local newspapers, forcing many local journalists to reinvent themselves.
For many, going independent means pursuing alternative forms of reporting, including presenting stories neglected by the island’s mainstream media.
Since 2010, GFR Media — the parent corporation of the island’s major media outlets — has undergone corporate restructuring, which resulted in two waves of layoffs in 2010 and 2015 from newspapers such as El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora.
A lifelong consumer of El Nuevo Día, Ángeles Molina Iturrondo says she prefers the newspaper’s balanced coverage of Puerto Rican politics and social issues but is skeptical about Grupo Ferré-Rangel — owners of GFR — controlling the majority of the island’s main media outlets. Grupo Ferré-Rangel is one of the wealthiest “portfolio of companies” operating in Puerto Rico.
“In the last ten years, there has been a reduction of journalistic perspectives because, right now, Grupo Ferré-Rangel is controlling the news platforms,” Iturrondo said. “That implies that there are a group of people controlling public opinion.”
The 2014 shutdown of Univision’s news department in Puerto Rico was unforeseen for many. For others who had been there longer, the problems had been brewing for quite a while. Felipe Gómez, who worked for 22 years in Univision, said employees were questioning Univision’s corporate strategies and the need for developing the medium’s digital platforms.
“They never understood that Puerto Rico is a different market. It’s not a Hispanic market,” Felipe Gómez said, referring to the Hispanic media market in the United States. “For example, for a Puerto Rican, issues related to immigration are not a priority. Puerto Ricans can grab a plane in the airport and fly to Orlando or New York.”
When Pedro Menéndez lost his job at GFR, he created Voces del Sur, a regional newspaper covering the south of Puerto Rico. While working for Índice Suroeste, he recognized a need for on-site coverage in the region.
“The region needs to know what is going on around them, not just what is going on in San Juan or in the United States, but what is going on in the neighboring street or town,” Menéndez said.
Other journalists have created private companies that sell content.
A group of seven veteran journalists formed Nuevo Ángulo, a company providing video or written news coverage for private clients. The collective is made up by some of the most recognizable names in Puerto Rican mass media.
Gómez said that after the layoff, the group was met with support from the community.
“We want to give an example of what it is to overcome adversity, because a lot people gave up on journalism or saw the necessity to generate income in other ways,” Gómez said. “We endeavored to go through some hardships, and we’re dealing with it.”