In 2011, Colombian journalist Carlos Eduardo Huertas spoke about his plans to create a transnational journalism center in Latin America to the Knight Center's Journalism in the Americas blog, the forerunner of the LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). He put his plans into action the following year, and today, ten years later, he celebrates the success of his venture CONNECTAS, which bills itself as a "platform for journalism in the Americas," and a model for the transnational collaborative journalism it has fostered in the region.
Huertas developed his project during a period as a Nieman Scholar at Harvard University in the United States, after more than a decade devoted to investigative journalism in Colombia. "There are stories that seem local but after digging into them they always have transnational connections," he said at the time. “If a journalist had covered these topics from a local perspective along with national and international information from the beginning, surely there would have been major breakthroughs, a more efficient use of time and a more complete report.”
“One of the aspects that makes CONNECTAS different is precisely that it has a regional, hemispheric perspective in its DNA from the very beginning,” he told LJR, reflecting on the journey since that first interview. “From the beginning, one of our purposes was to do what we call journalistic complicities, which arise from the natural empathy that exists among Latin Americans and that allows us to generate natural friendships and “compadrazgos” in a very short time; that this be transformed from the ‘party factor’ to the ‘working factor.’”
“CONNECTAS has been a support in generating methodologies, processes and strategies and in making things happen, because that is what interests us at the end of the day. I think we’ve made an important quota of contribution in becoming a standard of how collaboration in journalism has been transformed during this time,” Huertas said.
Over the years, the project has put into practice different ways to fulfill its purpose: editorial and financial support for the production of investigations through the Journalistic Production Grants; creation of a virtual regional newsroom, the CONNECTASHub, which brings together more than 130 journalists in 19 countries of the Americas willing to collaborate with each other; the CONNECTASLab, which provides tools and opportunities for training and reflection on the journalistic craft; the CONNECTAS Virtual School, a free course that trains journalists in the investigative methodology developed by the platform; and an Intensive Editor Training Program, which held its second edition this year in person in Bogotá, Colombia.
By covering Latin America in a decentralized manner and keeping the doors open for any journalist from the region who is willing to contribute and collaborate according to the platform's methodology, CONNECTAS has been able to fulfill one of its initial objectives, which was “to break the inbreeding that exists in Latin American journalism,” Huertas said.
“Countries are generally centralist in nature and the opportunities are mainly concentrated in the big media or in names, well-known people. We believe that in this profession what matters is a good story driven by a passionate, courageous, and independent journalist, with the desire to advance the process,” he said. “Surely there will be a need to strengthen some of our capacities, to support so the story is there and, well, that is what we do at CONNECTAS. We encourage and facilitate everything so that good stories lying under many stones in Latin America, in the most unknown regions, written by journalists who do not necessarily belong to the usual elite circles of journalism, can find a space in an organization like CONNECTAS where they can shine and be part of something larger.”
According to Huertas, from its inception CONNECTAS has focused on “connecting knowledge, skills, bravery, and courage to tell relevant, transformative, public interest stories that are happening in the Americas.”
“One of the hallmarks that has characterized the CONNECTAS investigation is the exposure of abuses of power,” he said, adding that in Latin America, we are not only talking about “the traditional, democratic powers, but unfortunately there are more and more emerging powers that have the capacity to affect the lives of citizens: armed powers, corrupt powers, business powers.”
In ten years, nearly 800 published investigations and at least 62 awards have been given for the journalistic excellence of the feature stories. Among the works awarded are "Ser niño en el Triángulo Norte y desaparecer", about the disappearance of children in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala; "Pelota sucia: la silenciosa trata de futbolistas en Latinoamérica," about human trafficking that has captured hundreds of young Colombians, duped by fake soccer entrepreneurs; "La casa blanca de Peña Nieto," about former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's $7 million mansion, built by a contractor who won bids for state works under his government; and the coverage "#NicaraguaNoCalla," which reported on democracy’s suffocation in this Central American country under the government of Daniel Ortega; and "#HuellasDeLaPandemia," on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America.
Venezuelan journalist Lisseth Boon has participated in a number of projects carried out through CONNECTAS that have involved professionals from different countries investigating abuses of power. One of them, the project "Chavismo Inc. Los engranajes del capitalismo bolivariano," brought together journalists from 11 countries to investigate the flows of money out of Venezuela, often thanks to connections with people in power. The work won in the "In-Depth Journalism" category of the Inter-American Press Society (IAPA) award for Excellence in Journalism in 2021.
Boon is coordinator of the investigative unit of the digital media Runrun.es and of the investigative projects of the Rebelde Investiga Alliance (ARI), formed by the Venezuelan media Runrun.es, El Pitazo and TalCual. Her story with CONNECTAS began when she took the Virtual School course and, at the end of the training, she submitted a project for the platform's Journalistic Production Grants. Her project was selected and from then on she became part of the #CONNECTASHub community.
“I’ve continued to educate myself with all the training opportunities we’ve had, with the workshops they have given. I’ve also been a speaker in some seminars or forums, as well as given workshops for the CONNECTAS community.
She said she is very grateful to CONNECTAS for the opportunities to train, to work with colleagues from other countries, and to be able to count on the platform's editorial assistance with the production of the investigations. “And also for the financial support, through production grants for these feature stories. I believe this support has been fundamental for, in my case and in the case of the team that I coordinate. Without that support, it would have been difficult to do the coverage,” Boon said.
The journalist also highlighted the importance of the contribution of each professional who participates in the collaborative investigations. “The entire CONNECTAS model is about mutual collaboration, and [includes] working a lot as a team and in collaboration on transnational projects in which no one steals the limelight. Leadership is quite horizontal because all of us, at the moment of truth, are each contributing based on their potential and resources,” she said.
Boon believes that investigative journalism in Latin America has changed a lot in the last ten years, and that CONNECTAS has played a key role in these changes. “In supporting local teams in different Latin American countries, to carry out these investigations than take place in difficult, adverse contexts, where there is no access to information. Perhaps where there are also not many opportunities for training or getting resources to support this research,” she said.
She also evaluates that today, worldwide and much more than ten years ago, transnational collaborative work in journalism is valued. “It is now acknowledged that teamwork is far more important precisely because it addresses complex issues from different perspectives. Also the integration of multidisciplinary teams help to understand or interpret these complex issues more fully,” Boon said. This entails challenges in organizing and coordinating all these efforts, she pointed out, “but I think we have also gained greater skills to precisely achieve these transnational and collaborative investigations, with the participation of many reporters from different cultures, methodologies and latitudes.”
CONNECTAS celebrated its ten years with a series of activities, which are being promoted on social networks under the hashtag #CONNECTAS10AÑOS. In addition to strengthening the #CONNECTASHub community and the Latin American journalism community through new training opportunities, the platform is investing in disseminating the content, Huertas said. In 2022, CONNECTAS launched an English newsletter and a weekly podcast in Spanish that explores the investigations and analyses published by the platform. Another goal this year is to offer the Virtual School course in Portuguese. It is currently available in Spanish, French and English.
For the next ten years, plans remain the same as they were from the very first moment, Huertas said. “To work day by day for more and better journalism. To continue building this great hemispheric army of ants that humbly understands that in collective work with others they can better contrast their information and they can amplify its impact. That they can find creative and fun ways to do journalism. That they can approach realities that are more connected with their own context and better explain them. That, through collaboration, they can find a better way, so that relevant, public-interest truths can be told in a timely manner to help towards a better understanding of the Americas,” he said.