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Working In These Times

Thursday, Apr 19, 2018, 5:16 pm

Puerto Rico’s Major Newspapers Laid Off Reporters Just When the Island Needed Them the Most

BY Katherine Braden

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After Hurrican Maria hit Puerto Rico, lines for gas could have wait times of up to 20 hours and many roads were destroyed and flooded. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)  

On the morning of Sept. 19, 2017, hours before Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, editors at the newspaper Primera Hora sent Sara (not her real name), one of their reporters, to the small island Culebra, miles off Puerto Rico’s coast.

Hurricane Irma, which had hit the northeastern Caribbean a month before, had caused massive destruction. “They wanted to have someone [on Culebra] in case the problems were bigger with Maria,” Sara tells me. “I left my family just to be a good employee and a good journalist and be there in order to report the damages.”

After Maria passed, Sara was without wifi or cellular service, unable to reach her editors. On Friday, the company GFR Media, which owns Primera Hora, sent a helicopter to pick her up and bring her back to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Primera Hora then sent several reporters, including Sara, back to their hometowns to report on the aftermath of the storm. Sara had no way of communicating with her parents that she’d be staying with them until she showed up at their doorstep.

Using satellite phones, reporters called in their stories.

“[Primera Hora] said, ‘No matter what, you write,’” Sara says. The outlet kept their website updated consistently with coverage of the storm.

On Sept. 23, 2017, three days after Maria hit Puerto Rico, Primera Hora and El Nuevo Dia, the island’s two major papers, both owned by GFR Media, began printing again on a small scale using generators for power. Distribution, however, was more difficult. Lines for gas could have wait times of up to 20 hours and many roads were destroyed and flooded.

A GFR Facebook post dated Sept. 30, 2017, noted that El Nuevo Dia was distributing 120,000 copies daily and Primera Hora was distributing 50,000. “Our mission is to reach every corner and together we can rebuild our island and mark a new beginning,” the post read.

But then, with no warning, on Oct. 26, 2017, GFR Media laid off 59 of their 250-member staff. Of these layoffs, 19 were reporters, including Sara. The company also cut ties with 15 contract workers. Claiming the layoffs were temporary, GFR denied the staff severance, benefits and insurance.

The day she was laid off, Sara remembers seeing bundles of Primera Hora newspapers near a waste can at a gas station, still tied up, undistributed.

“That was a sad day,” said Sara, who did not want her real name used because she still hopes to resume working for GFR.

Behind the cuts

GFR Media was founded and is owned by the Ferré Rangel family. The founder and first editor of El Nuevo Dia and Primera Hora, Antonio Luis Ferré, was the son of former Puerto Rican governor Luis A. Ferré. Since their inception in 1970, the two papers have been the island’s major news outlets.

“GFR is owned by one of the most powerful families in Puerto Rico,” says Yaphett Torres, a representative of the United Steelworkers, which represents employees of both newspapers. “They have influence in politics and everywhere in Puerto Rico.”

Like major media companies across the United States, GFR has made significant staff cuts in the past decade. There was a major layoff in 2008, according to staff. In April of 2017, eight account analysts were let go. In July, 2017, 11 more employees were laid off, including reporters and photo-journalists.

“We expected layoffs at any time,” said Ana (also not her real name), a journalist for El Nuevo Dia. “I never felt secure in my job.”

“After the summer layoffs, they told us they were caught up in expenses but doing their best,” says Ana. “But as soon as Maria passed, we knew things were going to change. We said, ‘This is the excuse they’ve been waiting for.’”

The union was told about the impending layoffs two hours before they occurred, but they were not given names, Torres says. Eight staff who had worked under GFR for over 20 years were cut. The union has filed three grievances, including allegations that the layoffs violated seniority protections.   

“We expected it was going to happen, but not that fast and not in that amount,” says Ana.

Ana says that the explanation for the layoffs she was given by Graciela Eleta, then-CEO of GFR media, was that ad revenue had seen a steep decline since 2016.

“But 2016 is an election year—you can’t compare,” says Ana. “It was an excuse and we all knew that. There was so much work to be done because of Maria but they didn’t care.”

Ana says GFR media forbid the employees who were temporarily laid off from working with a competitor if they hope to one day be rehired by GFR. “We have to stay in reserve for a year,” she says, adding there is no certainty they will be rehired.

Sara says GFR media did not tell them this directly, but published a public statement on the GFR Media Twitter account. “I don’t have a letter,” she says. “Just a public explanation saying that [GFR media journalists] are on hold and can’t work for competitors.”

“The people still working [at GFR] are very afraid of what will happen,” Ana says, adding that the general opinion among employees is that GFR will eventually terminate all union workers and hire by contract.

GFR officials declined to answer questions for this story. María Eugenia Ferré Rangel, the current CEO of GFR Media, provided a statement saying in part:

“An unwavering commitment to ethical, independent, relevant, life-changing journalism has been our reason for being and our long-term strategy. It has served us and the country well during times of social and economic progress, as well as, during challenging times, such as economic recession Puerto Rico has faced during the past decade—a situation that was aggravated and deepened by the social, economic and natural devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.”

Coverage questioned

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the government’s botched response, many Puerto Rican residents, including former GFR staff, are becoming increasingly skeptical of GFR’s coverage and what some see as the company’s close ties with the Puerto Rican and federal governments.

Ana says her family will read El Nuevo Dia to be informed but they don’t think they’re getting the whole picture.

“People see the media as more important than ever now,” she says. “But they’re asking, ‘How honest is [GFR], talking about uniting Puerto Rico after firing their reporters and [leaving] staff who worked for them for 25 years without severance?’”

As of late February, El Nuevo Dia was renting part of its headquarters to FEMA, an arrangement that some see as ethically questionable.

Professor and San Juan citizen Maritza Stanchich receives basic information from El Nuevo Dia but, she says, “It’s hard to think it’s not in their own interest” to bolster the government’s image, or “that they’re manufacturing consent” from the public for the government’s policies. She cites editorials praising the fiscal control board overseeing the island’s debt restructuring and economic decisions.

Ana says that the question of GFR’s bias towards the government has been a problem long before Maria. According to Ana, she and her colleagues were regularly directed on how to frame a story.

“We realized we had to censor ourselves,” Ana says. She recalled an article about government corruption she wrote that was scheduled for publication, but then, she says, the editor pulled it after a surprise meeting with a government official. El Nuevo Dia management promised her it would be published later. It never was, she claims.

El Nuevo Dia reporter Felix Jiménez, who has written a column for the paper for eight years, disagrees. “I have the power to cut whatever I wanted,” said Jiménez, emphasizing that in his view the paper is not micromanaged.

Independent media boon

As GFR is dealing with staff cuts and reader discontent, other smaller and more independent outlets appear to be thriving in the hurricane’s aftermath, perhaps in part because of the public’s increased appetite for scrutiny of the government.

In 2013, El Vocero, a free weekly newspaper that is GFR Media’s closest competitor, was close to filing for bankruptcy. Now they’ve surpassed El Nuevo Dia in daily readership, according to Gaither International’s January 2018 Media Brand Profiles report.

The non-profit Centro de Periodismo Investigativo has received international attention for its work post-Maria. With just nine staff members, three of them part time, the center delves deep into investigative issues, exposing everything from questionable corporate tax breaks to illegal government dealings and environmental injustices.

After the hurricane, reporters at the pro-independence newspaper Claridad also continued reporting around the clock, despite the fact the small organization was not able to pay staff for six weeks.

“People trust us,” says Claridad reporter Cándida Cotto. “I work here because it’s not a place I’ll be censored.”

Claridad reporters and staff indicated that while working without pay was an extreme hardship, they were willing to do so because they see Claridad’s mission as pushing for a new reality for Puerto Rican citizens where they can control their own political and economic destiny.

At a time when Puerto Rican residents are desperately seeking critical news about both the island and local government, the cuts to staff at major newspapers is seen by many as a troubling development. And the growth of readership in independent outlets shows that, as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria, the need has never been greater for accurate and robust reporting.   

Katherine Braden is currently pursuing a Master's of Science in Journalism from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Previously she received her B.A. in English writing from Wheaton College. She lives in Chicago, IL.

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