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In 6th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism, region’s budding news sites discuss sustainability


 

Jorge Simán, co-founder and director of El Salvador's news website El Faro, speaks at the Sixth Ibero-American Colloquium for Online Journalism. Photo: Gabriel Pérez / Knight Center.

By Anne Nelson*

First, the good news: Latin American online news is proliferating, offering unprecedented opportunities for citizen participation, expansion of local coverage, and a burgeoning market for mobile platforms.

But at the 6th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism, the mood was analytical, with the subject of business models front and center. Innovations may abound, but online news producers realize that without new revenue streams, it will be difficult for them to survive and reach their full potential.

For the past six years, the two-day colloquium has served as a Latin American sequel to the International Symposium on Online Journalism, both hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. This year the symposium generated a conversation among 350 participants, including major players in the field as well as young innovators.

The colloquium concentrates on Latin America, Spain and Portugal, where online journalists tend to be more recent entrants to the field. The program, supported by the Omidyar Network, brought together more than 60 participants from a dozen countries across the regions, among them journalists, media executives and scholars.

Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, director of Guatemala's Plaza Pública, during a breakout session. Photo: Gabriel Pérez / Knight Center

The colloquium explored three key issues:

  • Sustainability, both medium and long-term

  • Diversification of income

  • Expansion of traffic and audience.

The colloquium’s structure reflected its theme of innovation: It began with overviews of the U.S. market, first, through the individual case of the Texas Tribune, and second, through the collective experience of the Investigative News Network. The U.S. cases were followed by presentations by leading figures from fourteen independent, innovative news websites from Latin America and Spain. Then the participants broke down into three working groups to explore the three key issues and present their findings to a final plenary.

The opening session featured John Thornton, the venture capitalist founder of the Texas Tribune, and Kevin Davis, director of the Investigative News Network, moderated by Anne Nelson from Columbia University.

Thornton and Davis offered two different approaches to online journalism start-ups. Thornton launched the Texas Tribune with a sizable personal investment that granted the Tribune time to experiment with various revenue streams. The editorial impetus for the Tribune was the need to generate more coverage of Texas state government.

Anne Nelson from Columbia University at the Sixth Ibero-American Colloquium for Online Journalism. Photo: Gabriel Pérez / Knight Center.

Although the publication acquired digital advertising, its managers realized that it was unlikely to survive on advertising alone. The team turned to events as a way to generate serious income, notably through the Texas Tribune Festival and related social gatherings, which yielded admission fees, corporate sponsorship, and membership tie-ins. Thornton’s project broke even in 2013, less than three years after its launch, and its success attracted the attention of the Knight Foundation, which offered the Tribune a $1.5 million investment in April to develop its model and build a website to coach other online projects on its approach.

Davis described how his organization, Investigative News Network, was founded to provide such expertise to non-profit online media. INN, which currently serves a U.S.-based membership, offers a broad range of legal and managerial support, including online resources. Davis expressed interest in expanding the work of INN to partners beyond the U.S., an idea that was welcomed by Coloquio participants.

According to Omidyar Network’s David Sasaki, Latin American non-profit online journalism has an acute need for such support. He listed his concerns: First comes the pervasive “perilous business model,” in which a large percentage of income is derived from a single (often philanthropic) source. Second is the limited audience, which can be smaller than a legacy outlet’s, even if the content is superior. Third is the “vision problem”: too many organizations live hand-to-mouth with six months’ operating funds. Instead of a 5-10 year plan, they live on “hopes.”

Davis noted that many members of his organization share similar problems, rooted in the tendency to short-change managerial and technological resources in favor of journalistic capability. There is a finite list of common revenue streams in the field, and Davis presented a map of the three principle categories:

  • Direct, which markets online content through various mechanisms;

  • Indirect, which generates revenue for the brand through advertising and philanthropic support; and

  • Ancillary, which attracts income through training, events, merchandizing, and services

See the chart below:

Do the U.S. Models Translate?

The colloquium echoed many of the points made over the two previous days’ 14th International Symposium on Online Journalism, which established some baselines for the discussion:

There are dramatically different ways to promote quality news production, and the various presentations of the Symposium laid out four principal models in the U.S.

  • The discrete online operation in parallel to its print edition (The Deseret News).

  • The abandoned print daily in favor of an online-only platform (Christian Science Monitor).

  • The highly integrated and cross-promotional print and online platforms (New York Times).

  • The online-only platform based on philanthropic support, with strong partnerships with print and broadcast distribution outlets (ProPublica)

  • The online-only platform based on a mixed philanthropic / commercial model (Texas Tribune).

How relevant are these models to Iberoamerican news organizations? In many cases very relevant, either now or in the foreseeable future. The organizations represented at the colloquium corresponded to these categories – but with some major differences:

  • Legacy news organizations in Latin America have benefited from a lag time in technology, as rising income and literacy rates expand the audience, but broadband and 4G networks have yet to reach a high degree of penetration. In many Latin American countries, print media continue to turn a handsome profit. As the technological infrastructure advances, the legacy advantage will diminish, and markets will favor those organizations that manage the transition well – though their paths may not replicate those in the U.S.

  • Many of the online news organizations represented at the colloquium were founded with the assistance of philanthropic grants, particularly from the Open Society Foundations, and many of them are reliant on OSF for a large percentage of their budgets. Now OSF is in transition under a new director, and these groups are under strong pressure to diversify their income streams.

Journalists from across Latin America and Spain gathered at the University of Texas at Austin for the Sixth Ibero-American Colloquium for Online Journalism. Photo: Gabriel Pérez / Knight Center.

The colloquium made it clear that there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution to these problems. All of the organizations will need to acquire better tools of analysis for their countries’ demographics, rates of technological change, and markets. In some countries, such as Mexico, the old themes of censorship and political violence are pervasive realities, and must also be taken into account.

The participants also recognized that – unless and until the business models for economic dependence are developed – they may be dependent on relationships with larger institutions. Donors are one obvious category, but there were other important examples as well. Argentina’s Revista Anfibia is based at a public university, while Guatemala’s Plaza Pública is based at a Jesuit institution. Chile’s Ciper receives support from a major media conglomerate, while other sites draw on their founders’ outside incomes or family fortunes.

As online journalism projects seek to diversify their revenue streams, they will need to explore different relationships to local institutions and communities. In one of the breakout sessions, the group made a list of fifteen possible current sources of income for online journalism. Four participants recorded their experiences with each of the categories. Most had received support from foundations, universities, and broadcasting partnerships; they saw little hope for profiting from online marketing expertise or major media partnerships. Many of the other categories are yet to be explored.

The colloquium participants recognized that they had much to learn from each other, and endorsed the idea of an ongoing conversation, whether through an association or through a digital dialogue. It was also apparent that practical support, such as that offered by INN, will be of critical importance as they move forward. In some parts of the world, multiple media platforms can be regarded as a luxury. Latin America stands at the juncture between its troubled history and a future filled with equal measures of promise and uncertainty. The quality of its digital information is bound to play a critical role.

14 News Websites from Latin America and Spain

Knight Center director Rosental Alves introduced the representatives of fourteen online start-ups, who offered a broad range of business models, editorial approaches, and aspirations:

1. Revista Anfibia (Argentina) was represented by Sonia Budassi, who noted that the online magazine offers a combination of literature and news. It is based at the Universidad de San Martín, which covers many of its costs. Its staff of four creates an “alliance” with academics, seeking to broaden its audience and provide its readers with more news and analysis, as well as fresh and highly visual narrative modes.

2. Animal Politico (Mexico) was represented by founder and president Daniel Eilemberg. Eilemberg described the for-profit site’s “social first” strategy, with a heavy emphasis on Facebook advertising and Twitter distribution. Launched in 2009, the project is expected to break even this year. Animal Politico has experienced considerable success in marketing its expertise in digital advertising, in combination with revenue from advertising, syndication and events.

3. A Pública (Brazil) was represented by director Natalia Viana. Founded in March 2011, A Pública is produced by a team of female investigative reporters seeking to fill a gap in Brazilian media, which has “lots of opinions, lots of breaking news, but not a lot of reported facts.” Viana stated that the project started out without funding on a creative commons basis, and is still run on a shoestring. It emphasizes media partnerships, especially with local media.

4. Ciper (Chile) was represented by editor Francisca Skoknic. The independent, non-profit investigative site was founded in 2007 with the backing of major Chilean media conglomerate Copesa and the support of the Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation. The project has been diversifying its support through several approaches, including the publication of books and collaboration with a cable television station.

In this video in Spanish, Carlos Chamorro, director of Nicaragua's Confidencial, spoke to the Knight Center about media concentration in his country and recent efforts to build a network of digital media in Central America. Interview: Tania Lara.

5. Confidencial (Nicaragua) was represented by director Carlos Fernando Chamorro. The project was born in 1967 as a print newsletter on politics and economics, but struggled to attract sufficient advertising. It has found a broader audience through television partnerships, and was relaunched online in 2010 under the influence of the Knight Center in Austin. The site has enjoyed growth in income this year.

6. El Diario (Spain) was represented by director Ignacio Escolar. The site stresses “journalism as a profession, not a hobby,” and has achieved the rank of 10th largest news site in Spain. It offers token payment to contributors, has established a revenue stream through its “socios,” or paid member/subscribers, who receive an advance look at news stories and a subscription to a print magazine.

7. El Faro (El Salvador) was represented by co-founder and director Jorge Simán. The non-profit investigative news site, another Open Society Foundations grantee, was founded in 1998. It is still heavily dependent on grants, and is actively pursuing new ways to generate revenue, including radio and television and an online advertising strategy that stresses the demographic advantages of its audience.

8. IDL-Reporteros (Peru) was represented by director Gustavo Gorriti. The site has broken important investigative stories in Peru, and maintains investigative online archives and a site for “denuncias” where citizens can anonymously submit information on abuses. Also an Open Society Foundations grantee, IDL-Reporteros is actively exploring means to diversify its funding.

In this video in Spanish, Juan Esteban Lewin, subdirector of Colombia's La Silla Vacía, spoke to the Knight Center about its efforts to differentiate itself by exploring digital narratives. Interview: Alejandro Martínez

9. La Silla Vacía (Colombia) was represented by subdirector Juan Esteban Lewin. The site was founded four years ago by investigative reporter Juanita León with the support of the Open Society Foundations. The site is now striving to plan for the future, although its current funding limitations make this difficult. The staff seeks to expand regional readership, include more data visualization, and experiment with crowd-funding.

10. Materia (Spain) was represented by Patricia Fernández de Lis. The site is devoted to news on science and the environment, and its content is available to be reposted for free in Spain, the Americas and the E.U. (though not in China and Russia). It is supported by leading scientists in Spain, as well as major businesses, advertising, and individual supporters (“amigos”). The project would like to expand its international partnerships and its editorial offerings such as infographics.

In this video in Spanish, Paula Rojo, co-founder of Chile's Mi Voz, spoke to the Knight Center about how citizen journlaists are reporting on their communities in her country. Interview: Tania Lara

11. Mi Voz (Chile) was represented by Paula Rojo. The site represents a hyperlocal /regional citizen journalism project, designed for Chile’s unusual geography (which limits print distribution). It has some 30,000 contributors; “none of them are paid, and none of them want to be.” The leading sources of revenue are study centers, which account for over a third of the budget; other sources include online projects and local advertisements.

12. Observatorio da Imprensa (Brazil) was represented by Carlos Castilho. The site, which was established as a “critique of journalism by journalists,” recently recorded a million monthly visitors. “Public comments changed the dynamics,” Castilho reported. The site has been a Ford Foundation grantee, but the management told Ford that the situation was “bad for both of us.” The site now generates revenue through training journalists, direct contributions, and special projects.

13. Plaza Pública (Guatemala) was represented by director Martín Rodríguez Pellecer. Plaza Pública is another Open Society Foundations grantee, based at the Jesuit Universidad Rafael Landívar. The site functions with a combination of volunteers, professional journalists, and students. It receives over half of its funding from the university, and the rest from OSF and the Dutch Hivos foundation. The site’s managers hope to diversity their funding with paid subscribers and advertising.

14. El Puercoespín (Argentina) was represented by Gabriel Pasquini, who co-founded the investigative site with Graciela Mochkovsky. It was launched without a funding base, with the ambition of creating an Argentine outlet for New Yorker-style long-form journalism “to cover the world, not just Argentina.” It has been exploring revenue streams through paid subscribers, who are rewarded with e-books based on the site’s content.

Additional perspectives were offered by other participants from legacy media and Google.

 

Journalists from across Latin America and Spain gathered at the University of Texas at Austin during the Sixth Ibero-American Colloquium on Online Journalism. Photo: Gabriel Pérez / Knight Center.

 

Partial List of Participants
Daniel Eilemberg, Animal Politico (Mexico)
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Confidencial (Nicaragua) (Argentina)
Carlos Castilho, Observatorio da Imprensa (Brazil)
Gustavo Gorriti, IDL-Reporteros (Peru)
Jorge Simán, El Faro (El Salvador)
Gabriel Pasquini, El Puercoespín (Argentina)
Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, Plaza Pública (Guatemala)
Paula Rojo, Mi Voz (Chile)
Juan Lewin, La Silla Vacía (Colombia)
Francisca Skoknic, CIPER (Chile)
Natália Viana, A Pública (Brazil) (Argentina)
Sonia Budassi, Anfibia (Argentina)
Ignacio Escolar, ElDario.es (Spain)
Pascal Beltrán del Río, Excélsior (Mexico)
Luis de Uriarte, Reforma.com (Mexico)
Gastón Roitberg, LaNacion.com (Argentina)
Marcos Foglia, Clarin Global (Argentina)
Andrés Azócar, Copesa (Chile)
Paula Medina, La República (Colombia)
Ana Paula Blanco, Google Latin America – Spanish (Mexico)
Flavia Sekles, Google Brazil
Vanessa Adachi,  Valor Econômico (Brazil)
Gabriela Manzini, Folha de S.Paulo (Brazil)
Fred Di Giacomo, Superinteressante/Editora Abril (Brazil)
José Roberto de Toledo, O Estado de S.Paulo (Brazil)
Anne Nelson, Columbia University (USA)
David Sasaki, Omidyar Network
Pascal Beltrán del Río, Excélsior (Mexico)
Otoniel Ochoa Piñon, Foro TV (Mexico)
Tania Lara, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas
Rosental Alves, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas

 

* Anne Nelson teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She is an author, lecturer and consultant on international media issues.

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