A.M. Costa Rica today marks its 10th birthday of providing a free news service to expats here and those with an interest in this country everywhere.
What the online newspaper is today is nothing that was envisioned 10 years ago. Back then the publication was seen as a sort of calendar for expat activities here and a few daily news stories to fill the large gap left by The Tico Times, which then and now still publishes weekly. The editors felt that The Tico Times would soon come out with its own daily news source, and that A.M. Costa Rica would become redundant.
There are two reasons why that did not happen. First, less that a month after publication started Aug. 15, 2001, terrorists crashed planes into the New York twin towers and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Tourist-dependent Costa Ricasuffered the impact when plane flights were grounded. Tourists here could not go home. Would-be tourists could not arrive.
In addition, there was a general sense of impotence and anxiety among the U.S. and Canadian citizens here. A.M. Costa Rica did its best to inform its readers every day of developments and specific, related events in Costa Rica.
The second reason why A.M. Costa Rica survived was that The Tico Times declined to change its weekly online publication to daily for more than a year. By then, A.M. Costa Rica had more loyal readers and never yielded.
The growth has level off somewhat, but A.M. Costa Rica served up 36,064 pages to readers Friday, according to Statcounter.com. In 2010 the newspaper served up 9,372,113 pages to 3,549,508 unique visitors, according to the same statistical service.
The economic impact of A.M. Costa Rica cannot be ignored. The publication is read every weekday in at least 90 countries. Most advertisers have had their greatest success with this publication, even during the more recent lean times. Internet publication travels at the speed of light and sidesteps the expensive and highly technical production of a newsprint product.
The 200-year-old formula of combining news with advertising continues to be a great success, and readers owe their thanks to the advertisers whose payments support the free newspaper.
Economics is a key element of any business, but the first priority of A.M. Costa Rica is to look out for the welfare of expats. This newspaper was the first to stress the declining security in the hopes that the central government would react. That reaction has been slow in coming. Yet, daily readers certainly learned techniques to keep them safe, such as ignoring a flat tire on their rental car as they leave the airport.
There is perhaps no more of a clear example of A.M. Costa Rica intervention on behalf of a reader as the case of Roger Crouse. He was the Canadian bar owner in Playas del Coco who shot a man who came at him with a knife inside the establishment. The evidence was strongly in favor of self-defense, but prosecutors wanted a murder conviction. Never mind that the assailant had been removed from the bar earlier by the local police. Never mind that he told the police while being released a few hours later that he was going to go back and kill Crouse. Never mind that a bar employee and two tourists witnessed the incident.
Reporter Saray Ramírez Vindas believed that Crouse was being set up for a large indemnification of the assailant’s family with the help of the justice system. The situation became more complex when prosecutors and judges learned of the continuing interest by a San José-based English-language newspaper. Eventually Crouse won acquittal, but his businesses in Playas del Coco were destroyed. Editors and Crouse believed he would have been railroaded without the newspaper’s oversight.
The newspaper was less successful in the case of the Villalobos brothers. Anyone who has been in business knows that no legal firm can pay 3 percent a month on borrowed money. But the so-called Brothers did, and so did a handful of other high-interest operations, including Savings Unlimited. The Villalobos operation fueled an economic bubble, and many North Americans sold everything they had to move to Costa Rica to be near the source of unparalleled wealth. Those were go-go times in Costa Rica as some investors would drop five-figure monthly cash interest payments on a continual party at local bars. The Brothers attracted characters as well as formerly hard-working investors.
That was until July 4, 2002, when Costa Rican law officers raided the Mall San Pedro office of Luis Enrique Villalobos Camacho and the chain of money exchange houses operated by his brother, Oswaldo.
Eventually Oswaldo was convicted of aggravated fraud, and his brother still is a fugitive. But even now some former investors believe that Banco Nacional and the government conspired to run the Brothers out of business. A.M. Costa Rica reporting drew telephoned death threats and letters from very unhappy individuals.
An example is this letter from a Canadian woman published in 2003:
“What I really can not understand is that the politicians appear to be acting on behalf of the banks and not the people who elected them. If they do not wish The Brothers to be in business, so be it, but at least allow the investors their money back. Otherwise they are just down right mean guys.”
The trial court decided that the Villalobos brothers were running a ponzi scheme. More than 6,000 investors suffered the loss of their money, and many failed to seek legal recourse because they were convinced that if the charges were dropped, Luis Enrique would return to pay them off.
More recently, news articles by Garland Baker, a business consultant, have been a big hit with readers. He covers a broad spectrum of Costa Rican life, mostly from a legal or real estate point of view, in the hundreds of articles he has written. He also has helped privately many expats. The stories are online.
Over the 10 years this newspaper has hosted about a dozen interns, mostly U.S., Canadian and British university grads who wanted to improve their international knowledge and Spanish skills. Some continued to build a career in journalism. One became an academic, and another is a lawyer.
There have been many interesting news stories in the 2,570 individual editions.
Full-time employee Clair-Marie Robertson reported in 2004 on how the Instituto Costarricensee de Turismo spent $833,000 on a Web page but only logged just 80 reservations in two years. That was in 2004. She also was instrumental in forcing the tourism institute to take ownership of its Internet domain, visitcostarica.com, from the contractor who set it up.
Elise Sonray, an intern, was instrumental inwarning tourists about a deal between a California telephone company and the Intstituto Costarricense de Electricidad that lets the private firm, BBG Communications, Inc., charge astounding fees for credit card telephone calls.
The newspaper also has helped keep expats up to date on new government levies, such as the luxury home tax and the new tax on corporations.
Immigration also has been an important topic. The newspaper reported on the way in which two prostitutes from the Dominican Republic managed to secure Costa Rican visas and then made thefinal payoff for the bribe at a back door of the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería itself in la Uruca. Less sensational was the continuing coverage of changes in the laws involving residency. In the 10 years there have been three separate laws in force.
Other stories address the lack of fire protection in some beach communities, police extortion, prostitution, the online gambling problems, fraud arrests, and highway problems.
Columnist Jo Stuart writes each Friday from the perspective of a long-time resident who really loves Costa Rica. Her liberal views frequently generate letters in response.
The success of A.M. Costa Rica has generated related publications. One is Costa Rica Reportthat describes key news stories from the Spanish-language press each day and provides readers with an English translation of the article.
There also is Medical Vacations CR, a site designed to help foreigners who are thinking about seeking medical care here. A.M. Costa Rica Archives provides a searchable collection of daily news stories. The CAFTA Report is designed for U.S. businesses that seek to work here and Costa Rican firms that seek contracts in the United States.
CR Business is a specialized site that tries to tackle the complexities of operating a firm here. There also is Costa Rican News that provides an online feed of A.M. Costa Rica top stories and stories about Costa Rica from around the world.
In development are a series of news sites covering the Heart of the Americas from Santo Domingo to Venezuela.
Some readers think that A.M. Costa Rica editors simply copy news stories from the Spanish press and translate them into English. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each local story in A.M. Costa Rica has been gathered and written by staffers here.
Sometimes the news stories are similar because La Nación and El Diario Extra rub shoulders with A.M. Costa Rica staffers at news events. And editors here receive the same press releases.
Taking material from the Spanish press is not defensible ethically. The same is true of republishing material that has been posted elsewhere. Sometimes readers send in a favorite story. But this newspaper cannot publish it without permission. To do so would be stealing.
Writing news from scratch can be dangerous. The newspaper already has survived one criminal libel accusation based on a news story.
Editors are very grateful of the support from the readers that we do receive. Some send photos or news items and provide background on local stories.