Achieving financial sustainability is quite a feat for a new digital journalistic media outlet, especially if it comes from a small country. That is why the case of the Uruguayan site Amenaza Roboto is remarkable. Within a year, the multimedia platform that covers science and technology produced in Latin America for a Spanish-speaking audience has paid all its bills.
“I think it's easier to find a niche not served in the continent, and then with technology, I think that somehow the same thing happens, too. We are attending to something that there is still a lot of room to pay attention to in a more refined way,” journalist Miguel Ángel Dobrich, founder of Amenaza Roboto, told the Knight Center.
The site is a journalistic start-up developed by Dobrich from his experience as a Tow-Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in 2018. And it follows the step-by-step manual of successful start-ups: finding a niche, starting small, testing the product, measuring the result and improving. The journalist realized that an outlet that covered technology and science from the Latin American point of view was missing and tested public interest with a podcast:
“As a minimum viable product, which is Roboto News, we started producing aggregate news to see if there was a possibility of focusing on a website that would try to draw bridges between countries based on the development of ideas, because in Latin America it always happens that we know about the political problems of our neighbors, economic problems, but not the development of, for example, technologies that can be totally beneficial for us, that can be both banal or can be deeply useful.”
From there, the platform grew into a podcast of interviews, Amenaza Roboto, and a YouTube video channel, Roboto News Semanal (Roboto News Weekly), as well as other productions, such as the El Futuro series, in which Latin American experts in their fields reflect on the future. Season one focuses on Uruguay, but the plan is to use the same approach with interviewees from other countries in the region, Dobrich said.
Selling is easy, collecting is hard
Dobrich's trajectory as an entrepreneurial journalist began with the Dobcast Media podcast network, which he launched in 2015 after a career dedicated to cultural journalism, as a columnist and film critic on the Justicia Infinita show on Océano FM, and on the 180 portal. Beyond Amenaza Roboto, Dobcast produces three other podcasts: Montevideo No, Vera Basket, and Deep Sh*t.
“I had been listening to podcasts for years and I was wondering why in Uruguay there was no podcast done in a professional way. With this, I am not being pejorative, but I mean professional in this regard: products that reach the maximum number of listeners maintaining a good technical standard,” the journalist said.
A consolidated career in radio and cultural journalism has propelled the Uruguayan’s venture into the world of podcasts. On the one hand, it guaranteed access to important interviewees. On the other, there’s visibility with the public and potential sponsors.
“We were already known by the market. So that was unquestionably an advantage to get attention to have people who were interested in what we were doing not as a transition. It seems natural to move from open radio to audio on demand,” Dobrich said.
The road seemed easy, if not for one im portant detail. According to the journalist, in Uruguay, companies pay taxes on invoiced amounts, even if they were not actually received. In a small business this can be deadly to accounts:
“The most problematic has not been the sale. In my experience as an entrepreneurial journalist, it has been not to die underfinanced and I can explain that. I think selling is easy. I think the problem in Uruguay is to collect, not sell. In Uruguay there is a culture of paying late,” Dobrich said. At the time of the interview, in October, he was still waiting to receive sponsorship payments from June.
With the rapid success of Amenaza Roboto, the site received, according to Dobrich, three investment proposals, which he declined, for fear of jeopardizing the company's finances and failing to meet its obligations to the government. The idea is to diversify sources of revenue so as not to rely on just one advertiser, and thus ensure breath if there are late payments.
For Janine Warner, founder of SembraMedia, an organization that helps digital entrepreneurs to be more sustainable, the decision seems right. According to her, not being prepared for the growth that comes from fundraising can be fatal for a media company in the early stages.
“Growth can kill a startup, especially if it happens too fast. Dobrich was right to be cautious and I generally encourage entrepreneurs to start small, carefully test their ideas, and then expand when they have a proven model and the team they need to grow. That said, I don't know of very many media entrepreneurs who turned down investment because they were afraid they would get 'too big too soon,’” Warner told the Knight Center.
From Uruguay to Latin America
In addition to the issue of late payments, Dobrich also knows that in order to grow, efforts to go beyond national borders must be intensified. Uruguay, with 3.5 million inhabitants, is a limited market in both audience and financial resources. Therefore, one of Amenaza Roboto's outstanding goals is to promote interaction between neighboring countries from the point of view of technological production.
“There are a number of developments that are totally useful, but that we don't know of between neighbors. For example, the technology that permits the detection of tremors faster and cheaper than the state entity. Or for example, Barbarita Lara, a Chilean who when there was this tsunami from this mega-earthquake in Chile, developed a technology that permits you to continue to use computers and cell phones through radio waves when communication systems fall," Dobrich said.
Focusing on Latin American content also targets audiences and potential sponsors and partners in the region. According to Warner, the strategy makes sense to overcome difficulties at the national level.
“In smaller economies, the biggest challenge can be that there are so few potential advertisers or investors to start with, but that doesn't mean it's not possible to build a media business,” Warner said.
According to Dobrich, Amenaza Roboto and Dobcast are in the process of diversifying revenue, to fight for international funds and not just rely on local market advertising and idiosyncrasies:
“I have slept very little in these 3 years, but very little at ridiculous levels, a little really 4 hours, but if everything goes well next year I will sleep six, seven. It has been difficult to sleep because I never thought that I would have to deal with the business part of anything. I trained as a journalist and dedicated my life to cultural journalism. [...] The future challenges are to overcome this phase of greater effort of these four years to try to be as professional as we can to reach a moment when we’re Beta 2.0."