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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Chilean network Mi Voz proposes '21st century agora' with citizen journalism and regional coverage



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


In 2018, access to the internet and the possibility of expressing yourself through various platforms and social networks, like blogs, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter are almost expected by a significant portion of the Latin American population.

In 2005, however, the scenario was different. The reach of the internet expanded slowly, but surely, and blogs were a recent invention that was beginning to transform the production of content online. In Chile, communications professional Jorge Domínguez and industrial designer Paula Rojo saw in this revolution the opportunity to act on some issues that they were worried about, such as media concentration and the possibility of building new realities from journalism. This led to the creation of the Mi Voz online newspaper network, which innovated by investing in citizen journalism and regional coverage that was heavily connected to the land.

Map of the newspapers in the Mi Voz network (Courtesy)

Today, with 15 digital media outlets distributed in 14 Chilean regions, Mi Voz is based on voluntary collaboration from "citizen correspondents," who write about the issues that affect the communities where they live. The network also has a staff of about 30 journalists and editors that produces regional and national content and coordinates the material sent by correspondents in the territories.

According to Domínguez, the network's general manager, Mi Voz's first objective was to create an alternative to media concentration in Chile, which has one of the highest levels in Latin America, according to a 2016 study. The study pointed out that the situation in the the country's press is a "virtual duopoly" of the groups El Mercurio and La Tercera (Copesa), which account for 80 percent of readers and 83 percent of advertising in the sector, besides having a strong control over the regional press.

“Chile is a long country subdivided in regions, with a capital, Santiago, that is very centralized, where approximately 40 percent of the Chilean population lives,” Domínguez told the Knight Center. “But the 60 percent who live in the regions had essentially a media group that gave them information, the chain Mercurio. On one hand, we were born as an alternative to that concentration.”

Mi Voz also sought to tackle “the urgency for citizens to take center stage in the conversation to build the city,” placing themselves as an “agora of the 21st century,” Domínguez said. “It seemed like a tremendous opportunity to invite citizens to go to the field and be part of the construction of the reality of the places where they live,” he said.

Citizen contribution to journalism

This invitation to citizens was first made in Arica, a city of 180,000 inhabitants in the northern tip of Chile, on the border with Peru. There they held the first training workshops for citizen correspondents, which involved 600 residents. "We invited all interest groups: students, indigenous people, professors, businessmen, fishermen, as many people as we could, whoever allowed us to have a wide variety; and therefore the conversation about the territory was richer, it wasn’t the conversation of the elite,” Rojo, client manager of Mi Voz, told the Knight Center.

This first training was turned into a model for the future, carried out before the opening of each media outlet, until 2012. In the workshops, the future correspondents were presented with the possibilities offered by the internet, through email, blogs and social networks, as well as training for citizen journalism. “Many didn’t have an email address,” Domínguez remembers.

“We taught people who wanted to create their own channels how to use blogs, and at the same time we taught them how to be a citizen correspondent,” Rojo remembered. “How to be responsible first for the fact that you are the speaker, with name and surname, not with a pseudonym, how an article is constructed, and most importantly, how we make news that is a contribution to the community where it was made.”

The desire to invest in citizen contributions through journalism for the development of the territories was another important point for the creation of Mi Voz. Domínguez and Rojo remember that at the beginning of the network, for months they examined the first pages of regional newspapers across the country and found coverage focused almost exclusively on crime and gossip about celebrities.

Editorial team of the online newspaper network of Mi Voz. (Courtesy)
 

“There was not one headline that built a reality that was relevant to the community that read that media outlet,” Rojo said.

“We did workshops, we showed the covers [of regional Chilean media], which were terrible,” Domínguez said. “Then we asked people if that was the reality they wanted to live in. The majority, not all, said no. There are many other things that are not the subject of media attention. They seemed very seduced to bring to light a story about a reality that was certainly more positive.”

An example, according to Rojo, may be the coverage of an accident. “If a significant person in the city died in this accident, why not instead of the accident highlight the person and the development he carried out for the territory? So we give a return that allows us to build something valuable and not stay in that morbidity that at the end doesn't lead to anything.”

With this proposal and the 600 citizen correspondents trained in Arica, El Morrocotudo, the network’s first media outlet, was launched in September 2005. The model of the digital newspaper and the training with residents of the territory was repeated in another 13 regions of Chile until 2012, when El Magallanews, the network’s latest media outlet, was created.

“Through the first newspapers, from 2005 to 2012, we worked with about 30,000 Chileans in that training structure,” Domínguez said. “It was wonderful because it allowed us to deeply know each region of Chile, to know its diversity, to give voice to those who did not have a voice.”

The editorial process

Cristian Mena, current general editor of the Mi Voz network, is one of the 30,000 who were trained as citizen correspondents. “I started when I was a journalism student,” he told the Knight Center. “Since the projects [at my university] would stop at the professor’s desk, I published them in El Morrocotudo, because I was also in Arica.”

Starting as a correspondent, Mena was hired as a reporter and later became editor of the media outlet in his city. Knowing the editorial process "from the outside in," he participated in the creation of network media in five other regions. Mena also went through the commercial area of Mi Voz, working with advertising clients, and today coordinates the editorial content of the network's 15 media outlets.

One of the workshops for citizen correspondents of the Mi Voz network that were carried out between 2005 and 2012. (Courtesy)

He explained that the call for new citizen correspondents is always open, and anyone who wants to write for any media outlet of the Mi Voz network only needs to register for the site in question. The team then contacts the candidate and sends them a brief guide with editorial guidance regarding form and content. Among the guidelines is the need for the text to respond to the basic questions of journalism (what, who, when, where, how and why), to convey the opinion of the writer and a constructive proposal to solve the problem.

The editors agree with the correspondents about the frequency of the publications –once a week, a fortnight, a month. Upon receiving the material sent by the correspondent, the editors review it, check the information presented and check if there is anything for which the newspaper could be held legally accountable, such as plagiarism, copyright infringement or slander, Mena said, noting that the network is regulated by the Chilean Press Law.

The citizen correspondents are volunteers, and with the popularization of social networks, there was a decrease in contributions to Mi Voz's newspapers compared to the network's first years. Although they began with 30,000 correspondents, Domínguez estimates that the network today has the participation of about 5,000 people each year.

“When we started, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, and therefore there were not so many channels for people to express themselves,” Rojo said. “When these other channels appeared, the number of correspondents dropped much lower. We have a process of inviting them, making them feel that the newspaper is their newspaper and not ours, and that their content is relevant to what is being built.”

To circumvent this decline in citizen participation and take advantage of the content produced in the new platforms, Mi Voz’s media network today also curates posts in social networks and in the newspapers themselves.

“Sometimes a correspondent does not send something, but since we follow him on social networks we ask him for the content and we publish it without problems,” Mena said, highlighting that it is also important to pay attention to the new regional voices that are expressing themselves on social media. “We see that there are some new leaders, we see that they are commenting within our editorial line, and we invite them to participate.”

“Laboratory of leaders”

Since the beginning of Mi Voz, the network has sought to raise citizen awareness of their capacity to focus on issues important to the region in which they live. One of the first impacts in this sense was the "Quality Water Campaign,” launched by El Morrocotudo newspaper in early 2007 with coverage of the high levels of toxic minerals in the water consumed by the inhabitants of the region of Arica and Parinacota .

The campaign reached then-president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, with the delivery of a petition for change in the country’s law on the water quality standard, according to what IPS reported at the time. Vlado Mirosevic, who was director of El Morrocotudo at the time of the campaign, was elected as a deputy by the Liberal Party in 2013 and presented the proposal for the adaptation of water quality according to World Health Organization (WHO) standards as his first bill in the Chilean Congress.

El Morrocotudo, based in Arica in northern Chile was the first online newspaper founded by Mi Voz. (Courtesy)

Mirosevic is not the only person from Mi Voz to be elected to a political position: according to Domínguez, throughout Chile there are municipal and regional authorities that once formed the ranks of the media network. One of them is Geraldo Espíndola Rojas, current mayor of Arica of the Liberal Party. The journalist helped found El Morrocotudo and was its first editor.

For Domínguez, the conversion of newspaper participants into political authorities is a "side effect" of the network's proposal.

“The invitation we had from the beginning of Mi Voz was to generate a space that would provoke citizens to contribute to the quality of the conversation and to improve the city, working from a media outlet,” he said. “From these groups, leaders emerged who had the possibility of making their perspectives, their ideas known, and also a platform for them to join other people. Then, naturally, those people moved onto different roles in social, political and economic action.”

General editor Cristian Mena also believes it is "natural" for a network to not only form leaders, but also to be an outlet for different political perspectives from its citizen correspondents.

“Each person has their ideology and their point of view, and whoever wants to join the newspaper to expose them is welcome,” he said. “What we guarantee as an editorial team is that if someone from the right writes, we look for an interesting voice from the other side, or from all sides so that it is not loaded by one sector over the other. We can write about culture, about economy, about entertainment, but we will always have our political point of view in everything we express. Then in that sense we are not worried about people making political use of the media outlet, because the editorial team will ensure that just that person is responsible for what he writes and also seek voices that are different from those that are arriving naturally.”

“Innovate with a purpose”

For Rojo, the main innovation contributed by Mi Voz was its commitment to citizen journalism and the use of blogs to build a media network connected to each Chilean region in which they are present. The current moment, however, requires them "to innovate with purpose" in order to stay alive, according to Domínguez.

This is due to the “agony of the advertising business model,” the general manager said. This is the model that sustains the network, which “does not and never has had contributions from the State or international patrons. It has done everything through the sale of products or advertising services.”

The network of online newspapers is just one of the branches to which the company Mi Voz is dedicated. Its other arms are a social networking research center that works with big data, a digital agency and an area of social and technological innovation, Domínguez explained. According to Rojo, despite the objective of each unit of the company to be autonomous, they eventually need to allocate funds from the other lines of action to subsidize the media network, “when advertising does not cover all” the costs.

(The founders of Mi Voz chose not to disclose their operating costs or annual advertising revenue to the Knight Center.)

Here, too, the expansion of social networks affects Mi Voz as they are getting the bulk of the advertising pie that until a few years ago would go to media outlets like those that are part of the network, commented general editor Cristian Mena. “So if we do not change the model, to make it more attractive and economically sustainable, there may be a nice story and we have to lower the curtain,” he said.

The Mi Voz network has 15 online newspapers that offer regional coverage from northern to southern Chile. (Courtesy)
 

To prevent this from happening, Mi Voz is testing some pilot-projects that will help them answer a question posed by Domínguez: “How can we do something that contributes value to society and how do we recover that value economically”? As the projects are in the testing phase, Domínguez and Rojo chose not to give details about them, but they gave clues that it was not only a question of establishing new sources of income, but also trying out new ways to produce and present content from online newspapers.

“The media have to be understood as public goods,” Domínguez said, indicating that this aspect determines current transformations in the Mi Voz network. “There may be a private dimension, but it is available as a public good, such as a plaza, at the service of the community, and not the interest of the owner or funder.”

For Mena, “the major challenge is to reinvent us without losing Mi Voz's historical line, to be an agora, and a place of greater freedom, of construction, with the identify of the territory.” This challenge also involves incorporating other formats, like graphics, video and memes, so as to “capture more attention and inform in a different way, not only through writing, which has been our strength, and to continue being a school of leaders, but with much more developed skills, now that the telephone facilitates much more,” he said.

Technological transformations are moving worlds throughout the news industry, strengthening even the citizen journalism that is the basis of the media outlets that make up Mi Voz. Mena sees this phenomenon as a "return to the origins" of journalism. “At the beginning, it was a trade, after it was professionalized, it arrived at the university,” the editor observed.

Citizen journalism, then, poses a challenge to professional journalists, he believes.

“I notice with many colleagues that the university prepares them to be soldiers and not engineers of communication. And that is the main challenge, for a media outlet to have more engineers of communication, a journalist with philosophical, ethical, sociological skills, because they will do more than generate content, manage content that is available to citizens. Today, with technology, what is left to communications professionals is to manage it much better and to contribute to society.”

 

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.

Other stories in the series include:



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