Digital journalism growing in Latin America, but financial sustainability still a challenge

In digital native media outlets, journalists in Latin America have found playgrounds for independent reporting, thorough investigation and creative data visualization. Yet, these triumphs also come with a set of challenges including financial sustainability, taking advantage of digital technology and interacting with communities.

Mexican nonprofit organization Factual, which works to improve technical abilities of Latin American media and journalists, recently published the “First Study of Digital Media and Journalism in Latin America” to discover the best practices of a select group of digital media outlets in the region.

Jordy Meléndez, cofounder of Factual and author of the study, said he believes that Latin American media outlets have a lot to learn from one another. He and the authors of the report studied 34 digital media outlets “to understand their objectives, challenges, obstacles and business models.”

“Since 2008, the region has experienced a native digital media “boom,” news outlets that are doing excellent journalism and transforming the way stories are told – but no one had taken the time to study them systematically and in detail,” Meléndez said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The outlets chosen are from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. The outlets needed to be digital native sites without print editions, focused on national politics and have a fixed editorial team and frequent content updates, Meléndez explained.

The researchers looked at characteristics including business models, sustainability, profitability, equipment, how they used technology and best practices associated with the digital environment.

The study includes summaries of each media outlet, looking at the aspects mentioned above and special projects created by each site.

Meléndez saw that these digital media sites were innovative in adopting new business models as well as using data journalism to convey information.

With projects like the five-part series “Girls in Play” (Meninas em Jogo) that draws on comics and long-form investigation, Meléndez said Brazil’s Agência Pública has “found new ways to tell complex stories.”

He pointed to pioneering site El Faro (El Salvador), which was founded in 1998 and has diversified its business model to include projects like the El Faro Store where the outlet sells books, music, movies and designs.

And in Peru, Ojo Público “has used data journalism in formidable ways,” according to Mélendez. Their report “Sworn Statements” (Cuentas Juradas) on expenditures of the country’s mayors won the 2015 Data Journalism Award.

Through all of his research, what did he find as the biggest challenge to starting a digital media outlet?

“Achieving financial sustainability, without a doubt,” Meléndez said.

“The paper found that 85 percent of the digital news outlets started without a clear business model, and depending heavily on advertising,” Meléndez explained. “This makes survival and editorial independence difficult to achieve, and distracts heavily the attention of the editor-in-chief, that most of the time would prefer to dedicate their time exclusively to journalism.”

Additionally, Meléndez said that digital media outlets still have a long way to go in order to use the full potential of digital technologies.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.