Digital Alternatives Expand as Newspapers and Broadcasters Struggle.
Angel Alayon’s Prodavinci.com blog, with its serious political analysis, drew a few dozen readers when he started five years ago. This year, the economist has seen unique monthly visitors more than double, to 239,000—the kind of growth that has become typical recently in this news-starved nation.
Venezuelans aren’t simply following the global trend from traditional to online news media. They have been forced to find alternatives as newspapers and broadcasters struggle with state efforts to control coverage, media watchdog groups say.
“There was a kind of journalism we weren’t seeing in Venezuela, something more profound and reflective,” said the 42-year-old Mr. Alayon, explaining the appeal of Prodavinci.com.
Internet media and social-networking sites in Venezuela added a greater number of users per capita than any other Latin American country in the 12 months ending in June, according to the Virginia-based market researcher, comScore, which tracks computer use. The growth came despite a creaky telecommunication infrastructure and a private sector that is contracting as the economy stumbles.
While the Internet audience expanded 62%, to nearly 10 million unique visitors in that year through June, news websites have also proliferated, from Armando.info and its in-depth reporting to news aggregator La Patilla and the satirical site Chigüire Bipolar, which skewers politicians with fake news.
The news sites have helped fill a gap since investors with business ties to President Nicolás Maduro’s leftist government snapped up three major independent news outlets and scaled back critical coverage, journalists and press-freedom advocates say.
Using legislation, steep fines, pressure on advertisers and control of printing paper, the government during the past decade has corralled the mainstream press, says Carlos Lauria, who oversees the Americas for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. He and other free-speech advocates say the intimidation has deepened since Mr. Maduro was narrowly elected in April 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, with dozens of reporters detained, beaten and censored, Mr. Lauria says.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Venezuela among the worst offenders on its press-freedom index. The group said it has collected some 500 complaints of censorship in Venezuela since 2013.
This year moves against the press continued as anti-Maduro protests picked up with Venezuelans venting anger over shortages of basic goods and rampant crime. The government blocked the signal of international broadcaster NTN24, which focused heavily on the demonstrations, and temporarily expelled CNN after accusing a reporting crew of producing misleading dispatches.
Mariengracia Chirinos, free-speech coordinator at the Institute for Press and Society, a press-freedom group here, said the government crackdown drove Venezuelans to alternative sources of information. “There was intense activity online,” she said. “That has been maintained.”
The government hasn’t been as aggressive online, though regulations policing media content have been extended to the Internet. Calls seeking comment from government agencies, including the information ministry and Conatel, the state telecommunications regulators, weren’t returned.
Commentators and politicians also have added followers on Twitter, with unique visitors rising by 1.1 million during the 12 months ending in June. Opposition politician Maria Corina Machado has 2.1 million followers, more than three times as many as U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. In Latin America, Venezuela trailed just Brazil and Argentina with three million Twitter users in June, while outpacing much larger Mexico and Colombia, according to comScore.
Media observers here say it was Mr. Chavez’s embrace of Twitter—he quickly amassed three million followers after signing on in 2010—that helped increase its popularity.
Alberto Ravell, the former news director of the once stridently antigovernment TV station Globovision, has remained defiant of the Maduro administration with La Patilla, a news website he founded after leaving the channel.
“The editorial line of La Patilla is to call it like it is,” Mr. Ravell said at the offices of the website, which ranks among the country’s top 20, according to web-metrics provider Alexa.com. “We don’t need paper. We don’t need a broadcasting license. There’s little they can do to squeeze us.”
La Patilla’s mix of aggregated news, original content, videos and celebrity fare reaches 1.3 million unique visitors monthly, and attracts more traffic than websites for Globovision or Venezuela’s three national newspapers, according to industry data.
Concerns about press freedom arose recently after the sale of El Universal, one of only two national daily newspapers that were critical of the government, to an investment group little known in the country.
The new leadership vowed to keep the paper independent. But soon after the sale, about 30 of its most outspoken columnists were either dismissed or resigned amid complaints that the new owners were close to the Maduro government.
The Cadena Capriles newspaper chain, whose flagship daily, Ultimas Noticias, was Venezuela’s largest by circulation, and Globovision had earlier been sold to buyers linked to the government, free-press advocates and journalists say. Both have since seen journalists resign in droves as critical coverage was toned down.
Calls seeking comment from the management at all three news outlets weren’t returned.
Earlier this year, Diana Carolina Ruiz was among several reporters who left Globovision. An 11-year veteran of the channel, the anchor said she was suspended after greeting viewers with a comment about shortages of basic goods. The company didn’t return calls for comment.
She has since landed at Vivoplay, a web-TV broadcaster that was launched in June and counts about 35,000 subscribers.
“I work with total freedom here,” Ms. Ruiz said.
—Juan Forero contributed to this article.
By Ezequiel Minaya