BUENOS AIRES — The Buenos Aires Herald opened its doors nearly 141 years ago, but became legendary by exposing forced disappearances during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, a chapter of Argentina’s history that other papers whitewashed.
Late last month, the English-language paper folded, a victim not only of technological changes that have made it difficult for small newspapers across the world to stay afloat, but also because of neglect by a string of owners who seemed to care little about the publication’s history and how it could adapt to the modern world.
When the Herald announced it would cease operation, the paper had turned into a shadow of its former self, having gone weekly in October with a bare-bones staff. Yet that did not stop the tributes from pouring across social media, or discourage journalists from writing obituaries to the small paper that increasingly seemed a relic of a bygone era.
In Buenos Aires, one newspaper dedicated a seven-page supplement to the Herald. Another local paper asked three former editors to write about their experiences at the Herald, and a former staff member eloquently wrote a back page column about the paper’s storied history for a weekly.
It was not just local press either. Several foreign news outlets, including the BBC, Spain’s El País and France’s Le Monde, among others, said farewell to the paper.
By the time it closed, “the Herald was more loved than read,” acknowledged Sebastián Lacunza, 45, who took over as the paper’s editor in chief in 2013.
News of the closing hit me hard too, and not only because I had worked at the paper as a student intern, economics reporter and managing editor for three years. My deep sense of loss came also from the special place the Herald has in Argentine history.
The tributes invariably praised the paper’s actions during the late 1970s, when desperate mothers lined up outside the publication’s offices seeking information about their children who had vanished as part of a campaign by the brutal military junta to get rid of anyone it deemed to be an opponent. The dictatorship set up clandestine detention centers where it tortured, killed and stole babies from pregnant political prisoners.
Human rights groups say some 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during the time, although official figures are lower.
Standing up to the junta by publishing information others silenced was an unlikely role for a publication founded by a Scottish immigrant in 1876 as a single sheet dedicated to shipping news. For almost a century, the paper focused on international news to serve its immigrant audience, and did little local reporting.
That changed when the Evening Post Publishing Company of Charleston, S.C., bought the paper in 1968, and appointed Robert Cox as editor. Mr. Cox, a British national, had arrived in Argentina nine years earlier, an ambitious 26-year-old journalist eager for adventure.
Like most in Argentina, Mr. Cox and the Herald welcomed the 1976 coup, when military leaders overthrew President Isabel Martínez de Perón, believing that would bring much-needed order to a country engulfed by political violence and economic chaos.
It didn’t take long for Mr. Cox to sense that sinister things were happening that nobody wanted to talk about. Proof seemed to come on July 4, 1976, less than four months after the military coup, when three priests and two seminarians of the Pallottine order were massacred in a Buenos Aires church.
The Herald stood out by raising doubts about the official account, which held that they had been murdered by an armed leftist group.
Word quickly spread that this tiny newspaper was willing to publish information others ignored. That’s when anguished mothers started arriving at the Herald in the hopes of getting answers.
“It’s difficult to say now the actual moment that we knew something nefarious was going on,” Mr. Cox, 83, said in a phone interview from his Charleston home. “The truth is everyone in Argentina knew, it was a question of who was going to dare say something.”
More than 40 years later, Mr. Cox is still dismayed that so many, especially journalists, turned a blind eye.
“The silence was just astonishing,” he said. “I very quickly came to the conclusion that publishing any information as quickly as possible was the best way to save lives.”
But he and the rest of the Herald staff were in danger, too. Mr. Cox would later learn the dictatorship had a plan to kill him.
While the Herald staff had grown accustomed to receiving death threats, a chilling one against one of Mr. Cox’s children and a kidnapping attempt on his Argentine wife, Maud, convinced him to pack his bags in 1979.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the human rights group demanding to know the whereabouts of their disappeared children, bid farewell to Mr. Cox with a small ad in the newspaper La Prensa thanking him for “making us feel less alone.”
By the time the paper closed, it seemed the Herald itself had been left alone. It was in search of an audience that never adapted to the digital world and a product that had survived for years on the backs of a tiny, dedicated staff.
Starting in 2007, the publication was owned by a string of business leaders with close ties to the government, a connection that invariably led to criticism.
The Herald’s closure did not happen in a vacuum. Thousands of Argentine journalists have been laid off as outlets that were once flush with government advertising saw their revenue drop after the center-right Mauricio Macri became president in December 2015.
When the six remaining Herald staff members charged with the Sisyphean task of putting out a weekly paper were informed that the paper would close, there was shock, but little surprise.
“It’s like when you’re told your good friend has terminal cancer and then nine months later he dies,” explained Michael Soltys, a 67-year-old senior editor who had been at the paper since 1983, and was by far the longest-serving member of the staff.
The staff was told on a Monday that the last week’s issue had been the last and that there would be no goodbye edition. That abrupt ending left a bitter taste for the last journalists standing.
“The Herald was always a very dignified newspaper, I would have liked a final edition to give it the dignified farewell it deserved,” said James Grainger, a 34-year-old British national who joined the Herald in 2012 and took over as managing editor after I left.
Some, however, are entertaining the possibility of resurrecting the Herald one day.
“We’re all talking about it,” Mr. Cox said. “It’s been important for Argentina and Latin America as a constant voice in favor of democracy — and there’s certainly always room for that.”