Colombian newspaper ‘El Espectador’ has survived financial woes, falling sales and a drugs cartel vendetta. Monocle meets its director as part of our series on firms keeping high-quality print publishing alive in an increasingly digital world.
“I was born in the newsroom,” says Fidel Cano, who tries to think of himself as just another employee at El Espectador. “I try to think that it doesn’t matter that I’m a Cano but I feel the weight of history on my back.” This weight is the legacy of a family dynasty: his great-great grandfather founded the liberal El Espectador (The Spectator) 121 years ago. There’s other history, too. A local archbishop once declared that reading El Espectador was a “mortal sin”, and over the years its offices have been bombed, set on fire, closed down by government troops, and an editor was shot by a hit-man.
Fidel is the only member of the Cano dynasty who is still actively involved in the newspaper. In 1997, falling sales and financial troubles forced the Canos to sell 85 per cent of their shares to another Colombian family, the Santo Domingos. “It was that or sink,” shrugs the softly spoken 42-year-old director, as he sits in his newspaper’s bright offices in Bogotá.
At a time when most newsrooms across the world are firing staff rather than hiring them, El Espectador is bucking the trend. The paper has recently employed dozens of new journalists. This is because in May, after seven years of being published only on Sundays, the paper was relaunched as a daily with a new tabloid format and revamped website. “I think El Espectador is unique,” says Cano. “I can’t think of a similar case in the world – where a paper that used to be published daily went weekly and is now a daily again.”
In many ways, the history of El Espectador mirrors Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict. The newspaper’s most trying times were during the 1980s when the notorious Pablo Escobar headed the Medellin cocaine cartel, then the world’s most powerful drug organisation. “That’s when the bad days of El Espectador started to get really bad,” says Cano. Escobar would come to shape the fortunes of the newspaper. El Espectador was the first to print what was an open secret; that while Escobar was portraying himself as an upstanding citizen with his sights set on becoming a congressman, he was in fact a rampaging drug kingpin. “We were the first to cover Escobar’s involvement in the cocaine trade and then everyone started writing about it,” says Cano.
In 1986, El Espectador’s risky exposés about Escobar claimed the life of its legendary editor, Guillermo Cano, (Fidel’s uncle) who was gunned down by Escobar’s henchmen outside the newspaper’s offices. Escobar’s vendetta against the newspaper continued when Guillermo Cano’s two sons (then editors at the newspaper) and other reporters received death threats. The Cano family lawyer was also murdered. Advertising revenues soon fell as those who advertised with El Espectador were also threatened. The paper’s Medellin offices were forced to close after its advertising and circulation managers were killed. Three years later, the cartel placed a 140kg bomb at the newspaper’s Bogotá headquarters, leaving it a wreck. Still, El Espectador published the next day, with the headline: “We’ll keep going on.”
The decision to return to daily publication was largely based on market research that showed Colombians were eager for more analysis-led news and opinion, unswayed by political allegiances. The publishing world in Colombia is still a politically charged family affair. The country’s best-selling national daily, El Tiempo, is directed by the Santos family, who also occupy key positions in the government.
“We’re not just interested in breaking news but also in-depth analysis of events,” explains Cano. “There’s demand for such a product in Colombia and abroad, which is why I believe print media still has a future.”
For Cano, recovering the paper’s brand (which is “independent, combative, courageous and a bastion against the powers that be”, according to Cano) and producing its signature investigative pieces that delve into the country’s murky conflicts and the often shady goings-on of the elite, involves hiring young writers rather than seasoned veterans. Most of the newspaper’s 60 staff are in their twenties.
“We’ve made a conscious decision to hire young journalists because it’s easier to nurture them, get them to dig deeper into stories and teach them not to let a source lead a story or dictate the agenda,” Cano says.
He’s certainly heading off on the right track. Since returning to daily publication, around 140,000 copies are sold on week days, with 250,000 copies sold on weekends. Its many columnists and ample opinion pages reflect El Espectador’s motto “Opinion is News.”
Long before the recently rescued Ingrid Betancourt became a household name worldwide, El Espectador published her first letter addressed to a president when she was 21 years old. For local and foreign media alike, Betancourt’s liberation has probably been the most important story to emerge from Colombia in recent years. “It’s been a crazy time for us,” says Cano. “On the day of her rescue we had to cancel some sections and get the whole newsroom working on the story, as well as our freelancers in Paris.”
Despite stifling self-censorship, Cano gives a contradictory view about press freedom in Colombia. He rather unconvincingly says: “There are many pressures on journalists, but I do believe there’s freedom of the press here.” A luxury Cano’s forefathers did not experience.
Born: Bogotá, 1965.
Education: Los Andes University, Bogotá; New York University.
Work: El Espectador’s sport, business, Washington correspondent and daily life editor over the years; El Tiempo’s political editor; press officer to Colombian ambassador in Washington, 1995 to1998. Director of El Espectador since 2004.
Founded in 1911 by the Santos family and located just a few doors away from El Espectador. Last year, the Spanish publishing group Planeta became the majority shareholders in El Tiempo Editorial Group, which also owns a TV station and glossy magazines. Daily circulation 240,000, Sundays 475,000.
Founded in 1997. Part of El Tiempo Group and a leading provider of business news. Circulation 44,000.
The most influential weekly news magazine in the country, known for its investigative reporting.
Regional press is dominated by 15 local newspapers. The most important among them is El Colombiano, based in Medellin.
Santo Domingo Group
One of Colombia’s biggest media groups, founded by the Santo Domingo family in the 1970s. Holdings include El Espectador, magazines, radio and Caracol TV, one of the two main TV channels in Colombia.