Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Money Mates With Media - Once Again

An El Tiempo headline reports about Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. 

Colombia's richest man has purchased Colombia's most important newspaper.

That's good news for those of us who want newspapers to survive in the digital age, but potentially worrisome for those who want them to be independent critics of the powers that be.

Five years ago, some observers worried about how the conservative Spanish-based Planeta media group would change El Tiempo when it purchased the paper in 2007 from the Santos family, its historic owners. But El Tiempo, founded in 1911, has continued covering government scandals and editorializing in favor of drug decriminalization.

Luis Carlos Sarmiento
Now Planeta has sold Colombia's leading paper - perhaps to shore up its books amidst Spain's ongoing economic crisis - to Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Colombia's richest man. El Tiempo did not turn out to be a bad investment for Planeta - El Colombiano reports that Planeta sold its majority share in the paper for $100 million more than it paid. Now, how will El Tiempo cover industries in which Sarmiento holds interests, such as real estate, banking and agriculture, infrastructure, hotels, mining and innumerable other areas?

For a business magnate, a newspaper is much more than a simple investment. It's also a political and economic tool for influencing public opinion and furthering his interests. It's also a sort of a trophy, demonstrating the man's importance. Perhaps Sarmiento, the world's 64th-richest person with a fortune of more than $12 billion, according to Forbes, didn't want to be overshadowed by the Santo Domingo family, which owns El Espectador, Bogotá's other major daily. So, personal honor will hopefully motivate Sarmiento to maintain the paper's reputation in order to protect his own reputation. At age 79, Sarmiento is no youngster and has to be thinking about his own legacy.

El Tiempo amidst Bogotá's colorful press. 
In her El Tiempo opinion column Maria Isabel Rueda argues that the billionare Santo Domingo family, owners of the Bavaria beer company and other industries, has maintained El Espectador's journalistic tradition. I have seen good recent journalism in El Espectador, but also lots of fluff, like headline stories about the IPhone's arrival in Colombia. And, has El Espectador ever investigated, for example, the beer industry?

El Tiempo, of course, has never been free from potential conflicts of interests. Its historic owners, the Santos family, have produced several vice presidents and presidents, including Juan Manuel Santos (and family members continue owning a minority stake in the paper). And some El Tiempo critics have pointed to drug lord Pablo Escobar's bombing of El Espectador's building and his assassination of its editor Guillermo Cano as evidence that El Tiempo was intimidated by the drug cartels' threats.

Sarmiento's intentions sound good. In an interview with El Colombiano, he emphasized newspapers' vital role in a democracy. "They come out every day, watching, criticizing problems, suggesting improvements, trying to fix problems," Sarmiento said.

El Tiempo's historic building on Jimenez Ave. and Carrera 7.
The paper's new headquarters on 26th St. is on
valuable real estate. 
The newspaper industry has suffered severely in recent years, hit particularly hard by the Internet, which has sucked away much of papers' advertising. Some major U.S. newspapers have folded, while others are near bankruptcy. Acquaintances at El Tiempo have told me of lay-offs there, too. But despite all of this, most reporting is still done by newspapers.

By buying El Tiempo, Sarmiento also gets a prime piece of real estate in west Bogotá, television stations and a leading spot in the competition for rights to a third national television network to compete with RCN and Caracol.

Whatever the dangers and advantages of magnates owning media, we'd better get used to it. In the Internet age, with traditional media wobbling, only deep pockets may enable them to survive at all.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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