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

Katherine Braden

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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