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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Brazilian reporters create profitable news site, JOTA, specializing in judicial issues



*This story is part of a special project on Innovators in Latin American and Caribbean Journalism.


Can a rapidly growing digital media outlet, which focuses exclusively on judicial matters and which charges for information, succeed and become sustainable in the current media environment? The founders of Brazilian site JOTA – named for the J in Justice – are proving that yes, all this is possible.

A small group of journalists who previously worked for some of the most prominent media outlets in Brazil launched JOTA in September 2014.

These journalists – initially led by Felipe Seligman, who had written for newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, and Felipe Recondo, who covered the judiciary for O Estado de S. Paulo – saw an opportunity in Brazil, where there are more than one million lawyers.

JOTA, whose beginnings were financed by family and friends of the founders, reached financial sustainability at the end of 2015, just a year after launching. Since then, it has been a profitable company that reinvests all profits to the organic growth of the project, as explained to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas by CEO, Marc Sangarné.

Turning an idea into a reality

Before starting his activity as an entrepreneur in the field of digital media, Seligman accumulated years of experience in the field of judicial information while working for newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.

Felipe Seligman, co-founder of JOTA (Courtesy)

When asked about the motivations for creating JOTA, he explained that “Brazilian society is very judicialized.”

He and several of his competitors who were covering judicial issues for other papers realized “there was an opportunity" because many lawyers, offices and companies in the country said they weren’t getting sufficient information from what was published in the main media outlets, even if it was the news of the day.

"The lawyers complained that they needed more in-depth, more analytical information," Seligman explained.

At the same time, there were issues that were of great interest to these actors, such as tax regulation, which in many cases were not considered relevant enough and were not dealt with by the media.

The lack of coverage, coupled with the challenges facing mainstream news outlets, signaled the need for something new.

"I had the feeling that there was space to create something, to become an entrepreneur," Seligman said. "And if I wanted to try something, that was the best moment, because times of crisis are times of opportunities.”

It took awhile, Seligman said, to figure out their idea would take shape. "One day we realized that we had to understand one thing. If we wanted to do something that was useful, that mattered, that was relevant, that had an impact, that helped the people who needed that information, we had to understand what they wanted,” Seligman said. “We started talking to a lot of people and tried to understand the kind of information they needed every day.” And so, after a time of reflection, JOTA launched in September 2014 with a team of five people working from Brasilia, the capital of the country and seat of the country’s major judicial institutions.

The site’s audience consists of students and law graduates, law firms and corporate clients.

They started out by launching JOTA on Twitter – an experiment and a way to gauge interest in the project. JOTA’s website launched a month later, and content was free of charge for the first three months. Vertical channels were then released, with the first dedicated to taxes.

In December 2014, the team installed a paywall and attracted its first corporate clients for JOTA Tributário, the taxes vertical.

 

The second vertical focused on business competition issues. Today, JOTA has seven vertical channels specialized in different subjects: Justice, Taxes, Competition, Work, Career, Law and Politics. Additionally, it has special reports, opinion columns, chronologies of various judicial issues and a special on Operation Lava Jato, among other content.

After a year of activity, JOTA had 10 professionals on the team. Seligman acted as CEO of the company, but as he explained, "I did not have any skills in the management of the company."

The journalists involved had an interesting and growing project on their hands, but they were in need of people with more management and administrative experience. A year after the launch, they added two key people: Mark Sangarné as CEO, and journalist Fernando Mello who helped with sales, among other things. "Basically, they organized house," Seligman said.

Bringing on a professional CEO to steer the ship

Sangarné, who received an MBA from the prestigious INSEAD business school in France, is a telecommunications engineer by trade. Before landing at JOTA, he had 18 years of experience  working for various international companies in the information technology sector and worked in 12 countries, including Spain and Portugal.

His MBA prepared him "to tackle projects in the world of journalism,” as he told the Knight Center. And as he himself explained, his adventure at JOTA "is like the continuation" of that story. That MBA gave him "confidence to stay calm and make rational decisions and face any kind of problem.”

JOTA was not Sangarne’s first professional foray into the field of journalism; he previously participated in BRIO, a Brazilian longform journalism project that did not work from a business perspective. There, Sangarné worked with Seligman and Mello, who were essential to the development of JOTA. According to Sangarné, the BRIO experience was a good lesson. "It is very important to have successes and failures,”he said.

Marc Sangarné, CEO of JOTA (Courtesy)

At JOTA, Sangarné was able to structure the company so that everyone felt comfortable, also from the shareholder point of view. JOTA "is not a company managed by one person,” he said. “Nobody accumulates much power. In matters of management, I am the one with the final vote, but at the same time I would not dare to give my opinion on any content.”

JOTA has tried "to build a good management model" in which decisions are made collectively, he said. Sangarné also believes that "the essential factor to attract people is not money" but other aspects, such as "doing things with sense.”

One of the sites that inspired JOTA is Politico.com, the U.S. site publishing stories on politics, some of which are behind a paywall. But as Felipe Seligman explained to the Knight Center, JOTA does not intend to copy models: "We do not want to be Politico. We want to be JOTA.”

One of the first things Sangarne set out to do after arriving at JOTA was to increase subscriptions which initially were based on the personal relationships of the team members. Today they intend for the products to be more scalable and for them to be able to be sold more automatically.

JOTA is continuously reviewing the way it does business, with an eye toward improvement. "We do not set goals within a year, but we look more at quarterly targets," Sangarné explained. "And we put a lot of focus on learning.”

Laura Diniz, a member of JOTA’s founding team, believes that hiring Sangarne was a smart move. "We have to do things with customers in mind, not just do what we would like to do," she said, and this is an idea that the new CEO helped to consolidate.

Wide variety of products

One of the things that distinguishes JOTA from other sites is the wide variety of information, products, and services to which people can subscribe. It is a complete and varied a la carte service ranging from a basic individual subscription for 20 reais a month (just over US $6)– which allows readers to view articles that are published on the web – to complete corporate services for companies that can reach 10,000 reais a month (just over US $3,000).

Additionally, there are all kinds of products and services for 50 reais (about US $15), 100 reais (slightly more than $30, 350 reais ($107.5), 1,500 reais ($460) and other amounts in accordance with, for example, the type of service or the number of people in a company.

For example, JOTA offers daily or weekly specialized newsletters, alert services, poll results from Congress members, press clippings, analysis of specific topics or rankings of law firms, among other services.

JOTA even offers a product in which customers can request information on demand. Diniz, who’s responsible for business development, said that clients can ask JOTA to follow a specific topic of interest, and receive related news in their preferred format: email, WhatsApp or even by phone. The price varies depending on the difficulty of obtaining the information and the frequency with which the client wants to receive the messages.

Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court (By Pedrobcamargo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Evolution of income

Most of JOTA's income comes from subscriptions from companies and law firms, among other entities. JOTA doesn’t share its subscribers and readership numbers, but Sangarné says the site has ”thousands of individual subscribers and hundreds of corporate customers."

In 2014, after just four months in operation, JOTA generated revenue of 150,000 reais (about US $46,000). In 2015, it reached 1 million reais (about $310,000), a figure that tripled in 2016, when its revenues were 3 million reais (about $920,000). This year, revenues are forecasted between 5 and 6 million reais (between about $1.5 and $1.8 million), almost doubling the revenue of 2016.

JOTA has no traditional advertising income. Seligman explained that they only offer "JOTA Discute," a sort of branded content in which certain companies or institutions pay to be present in debate spaces. For example, Google is currently sponsoring a space where freedom of expression is discussed.

A long way to go

Though JOTA began its journey in 2014 with five people, by November 2017 the team consisted of 36 professionals, with women and men represented equally. It is a young team, with the average staffer being about 30 years of age.

Today, Seligman resides in Boston, where he is studying for an MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He explained to the Knight Center that he wants to learn what it means to run a company so he can contribute as much as possible to JOTA’s development. Another team member, Mello, who is studying political science at UCLA, also lives in the U.S.

The site’s monthly audience currently oscillates between half a million and one million unique users, depending on current affairs. Additionally, the company is consistently active on social networks where it has 145,000 followers on Twitter and 150,000 on Facebook.

JOTA's central office is still in Brasilia, but recently other areas of the company, such as Marketing, Sales, Analytics or Administration, have moved to São Paulo.

JOTA’ newsroom is composed of 17 people, practically half of the staff.

The main protagonist of JOTA’s first year was the content team, "which was key to establishing our credibility and brand as a media outlet," Sangarné explained. The administrative aspects gained prominence in the second year, while the Audience and Product areas saw important growth in the third year of activity.

Laura Diniz, head of marketing and business development at JOTA (Courtesy)

But, JOTA’s other areas are also led by professional journalists.

Diniz, for instance, worked for almost 15 years covering judicial issues in some of the main newsrooms in Brazil, such as newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo and magazine Veja. She also spent time at the head of the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji). She joined the JOTA team a few months before the site launched at the request of Seligman and Felipe Recondo. Eventually, she was asked to open the site’s operation in São Paulo.

One of the characteristics of the JOTA team is the versatility of its staff. In Diniz’s case, when she started out, she was responsible for the technological part for a year. She then worked in sales and marketing, and is now specifically in charge of the Marketing and Business Development area, where she has two people in charge who specialize in offline and digital marketing, respectively. She also writes an article from time to time, although that is not her main role.

Diniz explained that at JOTA they work with their eyes "on the next year or in the next two years." According to her, they always try to understand "what we can do to help our clients in the short, medium and long-term and what is profitable, what can we do better than anyone else.”

The people in charge of JOTA place special emphasis on caring for the company culture and on giving their employees opportunities for growth.. There is a department dedicated specifically to this matter, led by Seligman.

JOTA plans to continue hiring professionals for all areas of the company during the coming months and hopes to maintain the growth of the company. The pace of growth "will depend on the results of the multiple tests and pilot tests we are doing," Sangarné explained.

In terms of product development, the site tries to be as agile as possible. Always start with a pilot project that allows you to test the service. The results are analyzed quickly and, if they are positive, the product or service is launched.

Among the latest developments is the incorporation of a specialist in data journalism, one of the areas in which JOTA wants to grow.

The JOTA team believes that there is still a long way to go. For example, they can continue to expand the topics to be covered depending on the interests of current or future clients. As Diniz points out, there is a lot of room "for JOTA to be better known among all Brazilian lawyers and in all States." According to her, this is just the beginning.

 

The "Innovators in Journalism" series, made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations, covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean. It expands upon our previous series and ebook, Innovative Journalism in Latin America, by looking at the people and teams leading innovative reporting, storytelling, distribution and financing initiatives in the region.



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