Digital journalism startups shared their experiences at the Ibero-American Colloquium

View video from the startups session at SembraMedia’s site:

New digital native media outlets are proliferating throughout Latin America. They have been created by journalists who have become entrepreneurs, driven by necessity—oppression from governments, crisis in traditional media, different types of censorship—or because they felt a drive to innovate online.

Janine Warner 2016
Janine Warner, founder and executive director of SembraMedia. Photo: Mary Kang/Knight Center.

Some of these entrepreneurial journalists from the region came together during the second panel of the 9th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. Nearly 100 journalists from the region attended the event.

Eight of the featured initiatives are part of the new non-profit organization SembraMedia, which seeks to create a community of digital journalists from Latin America and Spain that will support them in their process of becoming sustainable.

Janine Warner, its founder and executive director, began by expressing her delight in presenting the proyect in the same place “where it was born,” making reference to the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Development of Journalistic Projects for the Web: an Introduction to Entrepreneurial Journalism,” offered by the Knight Center in 2013 and taught by Warner.

Warner remembered how she “stole” the phrase “just do it” during the MOOC to push several of the journalists in attendance at the Colloquium to execute their ideas. Many of these projects make up SembraMedia today, which was founded in October 2015 and now has 200 affiliated media outlets in its directory, she explained.

Although there are several ideas and projects to be carried out by SembraMedia, she highlighted that the topic of sustainability is one of the most important ones—taking into consideration that this is one of the most common concerns among entrepreneurs.

The first successful case study was that of Chequeando from Argentina, which Warner said was one of the “best in the world.”

The director of Chequeando, Laura Zommer, was the first speaker during this second panel which was moderated by Mijal Iastrebner, regional director of SembraMedia. Iabstrener began by highlighting how the presence of women has been more noticeable in media startups in the region.

For her part, Zommer hared the experience of Chequeado, an organization founded in 2009 that has been online since 2010. “It was the first organization to do fact checking in Latin America,” Zommer said.

She explained that one of the most important features is the diversification of income sources which “guarantee our editorial autonomy and independence.” The main objective of Chequando is to “increase the cost of lying.”

Zommer shared how they have been growing from a group of three journalists in the beginning to a group of 11 people currently. One of the most important projects had to do with the presidential elections during which they used different tools such as crowdchecking (a community which helped them with fact checking), live fact checking, and specials about candidates.

Politics has also played an important role in terms of creating media outlets in Ecuador and Venezuela. Tired of not seeing information about certain topics, three of the presenters during this panel explained the reasons behind and the way their media outlets operate.

Isabela Ponce, editor and founder of from Ecuador, explained that the extreme polarization of the media in her country had led to the impossibility of covering certain issues. In 2011, she and a group of journalists created a news site that would foster debate and provide information without these polarized perspectives.

This is why the website has a special focus on controversial issues that need an open debate, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, or drug legalization.

Given the small size of the group, they have functioned more like a weekly, despite being a digital outlet. The objective, Ponce explained, is to offer better quality content over quantity. A daring move which has so far turned out.

Luz Mely Reyes, cofounder and general director of Efecto Cocuyo, explained how she and Laura Weffer decided to gamble on digital media after having spent their entire careers in traditional media.

According to Reyes, her objective was to be able to “enlighten” Venezuelans and journalism in the midst of the information blockade that the country is experiencing. And they did this through this outlet that focuses on politics, economics, and human rights.

Luz Mely Reyes from Efecto Cocuyo. Photo: Mary Kang/ Knight Center.

They began thanks to a crowdfunding campaign and they have been able to position themselves as one of the most credible emerging media outlets in the country, according to Reyes. Social media has been one of their main tools. In fact, Reyes shared that Efecto Cocuyo is using Whatsapp to keep their followers informed.

However, Reyes knows they still have challenges to face, which include a hostile environment against freedom of speech in Venezuela as well as sustainability.

Although she did not come from a journalist background, Nilsa Vargas, founder of Diario El Vistazo, has become a fundamental actor for the community in the city of El Tigre in the state of Anzoátegui in Venezuela, since the outlet is the only one that reports what is happening in the city in real time.

According to Vargas, after realizing that there was no existing digital media she saw the possibility of creating it, but after it became a “national priority.” Over the next years, she hopes to increase the size of her team to make it possible to cover more topics, such as sports and culture, and to carry out investigative reporting and offline events with the community to ensure a closer connection.

This is an issue that Martín Rodríquez Pellecer—director and founder of Guatemala’s Nómada, a news organization that he says was inspired by his participation during the 2014 Colloquium–knows very well. According to Rodríguez, one of the aspects that has made it possible for the media outlet to become embedded in the community in the last 20 months have been the offline activities they carry out, which range from explanatory presentations to parties.

Of course, without leaving behind their main objective of delivering quality content in a format that is attention grabbing in order to reach their audience, especially young people. In order to ensure their sustainability, they have employed different strategies such as crowdfunding, grants from other organizations, as well as the sale of commercial products.

Investigative journalism could not be absent among these new media outlets. Only two years old, Ojo Público from Peru has become one of the most prominent investigative journalism websites in the region. Fabiola Torres López, editor and founder of the site, explained that they have also become “a small innovation lab for investigative journalism in Latin America” by trying to show their content in different formats, platforms, visualizations, among others.

One of the projects they featured was Intensive Care, the first platform in Latin America that was dedicated to carrying out a “massive analysis of data” about the private medical industry.

Mauricio Jaramillo, from Hangouts de Periodismo in Colombia, explained how his idea began when he felt that journalism was becoming “rusty.” After an experience with Google communication, he realized journalists’ need to learn about many tools, but especially to have “inspiration” to move journalism forward.

Taking advantage of Google hangouts, Jaramillo has organized over 76 Google hangouts during which 220 renowned journalists from Ibero-America have participated. Some of these have been used in universities and other outlets have replicated their activities.

These new media has also created the need to analyze and group them. Jordy Meléndez Yúdico, cofounder of Factual and coordinator of Distintas Latitudes from Mexico, explained how important it is for media outlets to mutually build each other up.

“There was a need for Latin American digital natives to meet each other and to discuss among themselves,” Meléndez explained. Through this, they have been able to not only create and strengthen a network of journalists, while also pushing forward data journalism projects at the regional level.

From across the Atlantic, Marga Cabrera from Spain presented her project Observatorio de Nuevo Medios (New Media Observatory) in Spanish, through which she seeks to analyze and research how this kind of new media is created. Not only will this result in an updated census with geo-location, but also this research will make it possible to understand similar characteristics and to identify successful cases.

The 10th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism will take place on April 23, 2017.