Digital media in Latin America increasingly fund their projects thanks to crowdfunding

Through crowdfunding campaigns, also known as microfinancing, or participatory financing, a growing number of Latin American digital news media are able to fund much of their journalistic research and projects.

This option is proving to be not only an effective solution for the lack of resources that have acutely affected journalism in recent years, but also a tool allowing investigative sites greater independence and editorial autonomy.

As a result, crowdfunding campaigns are creating a greater closeness and sense of participation between the media and consumers. It also gives media outlets the possibility to interact with their own community of readers and to increase loyalty.

Digital investigative and data sites such as Chequeado of Argentina, El Faro of El Salvador, Convoca of Peru, Efecto Cocuyo of Venezuela and La Silla Vacía of Colombia spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about the results and details of their successful crowdfunding experiences of recent years.

One of the regional pioneers in crowdfunding is digital site La Silla Vacia, which has been organizing annual campaigns for five years.

Colombian journalist Juanita León, director of the site, told the Knight Center that they considered crowdfunding for the first time in 2011.

“We are encouraged because we are convinced that it would be the best way to guarantee independent journalism. We thought that like Wikipedia did, we could also do,” León said.

In this way, La Silla Vacía created the crowdfunding campaign “Súper Amigos” with the initial objective of raising funds to finance the site's independent journalism work. Over the years, they have diversified and have managed to gain more and more followers, creating their own community of readers and loyal donors.

In the 2015 campaign, the Colombian site managed to raise almost $76 Colombian pesos (about US $25,000).

Although La Silla Vacía’s “Super Amigos” campaign covers, according to León, only “one-tenth of the operating expenses” of her site, so far it has managed to fund several important investigative and data projects: Quién es Quién, La Silla Llena, El Polimuseo, La Silla Pacíficio, El Proyecto Rosa, among others.

However, the goals established for La Silla Vacía’s crowdfunding campaigns have never been monetary.

“We have never had a monetary goal. What we have is a goal of the number of Súper Amigos. Some years we have met it, others  like last year  no,” León confessed.

For the current 2016 campaign, which began on Oct. 21 and ends in November, the goal is 750 Súper Amigos. The record is 727 Súper Amigos, which was met in 2014.

This year, like in 2015, La Silla Vacía called on its Súper Amigos to collaborate with long-term investigations. One of these investigates subsidies and tax exemptions in Colombia.

These reports and proposed projects are put to a vote among donors and the project with the most votes wins the financing raised during the campaign.

For León, crowdfunding has made it possible to expand the work of her team and to strengthen La Silla Vacía’s independence.

Several of the media interviewed for this post have noticed that most of the donations are made during the final days of the campaign. At the beginning, contributors are usually relatives, colleagues and friends. Nevertheless, it is toward the end of the fundraising period that the greatest amount of donations are received.

Since 2015, Argentine site Chequeado, inspired by La Silla Vacía and Agência Pública in Brazil, began to ask its donors to vote for the journalistic project that most interested them. Recent crowdfunding campaigns lasted between 30 and 45 days.

“So far, all campaigns [since the beginning in 2013] have set a monetary target and, in general, they have always been exceeded,” said Laura Zommer, director of Chequeado, to the Knight Center.

For Zommer, the first campaigns were fairly important in terms of money raised, but now they are crucial especially for their reputation.

“It is also a way to focus the organization, which works in accountability and seeks to build community loyalty during that month. In that sense, [the campaign] also serves to align the whole team and not just the one who is usually in charge of the search for funds,” Zommer said.

For example, thanks to the 2013 crowdfunding project, they developed Dato Chequeado. This application allows users to share data and documents of public interest. Then, Chequeado validates the information and uploads it to an open platform, with open access, to generate greater exchange of collective knowledge.

This year, Chequeado created the Small Donors (Pequeños Donantes) campaign, with which they seek to incorporate three new donors each month. This alternative financing method is only promoted on its website and through accounts on social media. They also promote it through a weekly newsletter sent to followers.

Unlike La Silla Vacía, Chequeado has established a monetary goal with each of the four campaigns it has carried out.

In the successful 2016 campaign, which ran from Sept. 16 to Oct. 18, the goal was 140,000 Argentine pesos (about US $9,000) and they ended up raising $173,128 Argentine pesos (almost US $11,000).

Another common denominator in the crowdfunding experiences of the digital media sites consulted is that their compatriots participate in greater numbers with their contributions.

In many cases, however, much of the money they collect comes from donations made abroad.

The lack of a culture of donating in Latin American countries is another element considered by these journalistic media when embarking on crowdfunding campaigns.

Additionally, due to diverse political, social, cultural and economic contexts that cross the countries of the region, each crowdfunding campaign adopts different characteristics and is defined in a different way in each place.

Such is the case of the pioneering Salvadoran site El Faro that started working 18 years ago amidst political polarization. Its editorial line is constantly monitored by the public and private powers of El Salvador. That is why it has sought a close relationship with donors since its first crowdfunding campaign.

“We built campaigns [with collaborative funding] with elements of participation, belonging, to see the faces,” said Jose Luis Sánz, director of El Faro, to the Knight Center.

They began with a campaign that lasted 40 days in 2014, also using the initiative of La Silla Vacía as reference, and managed to raise about US $3,000.

However, Sanz said, they felt very limited by the rules and categories of the platform that they used, so they decided to develop a microsite for their successive campaigns.

From Oct. 5 to Nov. 5, 2015, El Faro launched its successful crowdfunding campaign “Excavación Ciudadana” (Public Excavation) for the first time. They worked out all the details with a creative team from Publicidad Comercial MullenLowe, who proposed the name.

News of the campaign was spread through a filmed public participation project that involved digging words into soil that would spell the things that needed to be investigated: “corruption,” “impunity,” “violence.” Artists also made pieces with shovels, the symbol of the campaign, and they were sold to raise more money. Pictures of people holding shovels were shared on social media.

Sanz explained that what they wanted, from the beginning, was to reinforce the idea that they are a transparent media outlet. Also, he said they are constantly thinking about how to engage the “excavators” in El Faro’s activities.

Therefore, what they sought at that time and continue to attempt, was not to give donors material things in return, like T-shirts or books, but quite the opposite. What they look for in their annual campaigns - for two years, thus far - is to build citizenship. “We want accomplices in our community,” Sanz said.

“We did not set categories. We did not want to tie the contributions to a concrete result, but to the performance of our work,” Sanz said.

All are the same, he added, from those contributing one dollar or 20, and the compensation is the same for everyone: “Transparency of how money is managed and explanation of our coverage; involving them in work meetings, inviting them to El Faro forums,” he said.

“Excavación Ciudadana” raised just over US $26,000 in 40 days with 590 “excavators.”

Additionally, the mentioned campaign earned Publicidad Comercial a Bronze Bear in the International Festival of Creativity “Cannes Lion 2016.” “Excavación Ciudadana” became the first Salvadoran campaign to take home this prestigious award.

The current edition of “Excavación Ciudadana” centered on political corruption, will end on Nov. 26 with a great concert with recognized Salvadorans music bands whose lyrics deal with the theme of the campaign.

Venezuelan digital site Efecto Cocuyo faces the current and complicated situation of its country by experimenting with different strategies. They launched their first campaign in Europe during an international journalistic event. The great need to have objective information about Venezuela given the political and economic conditions encouraged interested journalists and Venezuelans who live abroad to donate.

“In Venezuela, it is practically impossible for anyone to donate because the crisis is very potent, there is a strong control on exchange, people do not have access to dollars,” said Luz Mely Reyes, director of the site, to the Knight Center.

“It is very difficult to have a donation platform in bolivars [the Venezuelan currency] for various legal and political reasons [...] there are no tax exemptions: the tax authorities charge 60 percent tax on donations and do not exempt you from payment; you cannot give proof of donation to people, even if the law provides for it for non-profit organizations. They make it very difficult,” she added.

Therefore, for this year’s campaign, and for future campaigns, they are using platforms like IndieGogo and Facebook to channel their donations.

Inspired by all these experiences, Peruvian digital site Convoca has launched the most ambitious crowdfunding initiative in the region. With the campaign “ConBoca 100 mil”, which opened on Sept. 28, they seek to involve, within 100 days, 100,000 citizens in their country and abroad to raise US $100,000.

Peruvian journalist Milagros Salazar, director of Convoca, said that more than a campaign to finance independent journalism projects, it is an effort to reach out to more people and reassess the work of serious and responsible journalism.

“The common citizen has many stereotypes about how a journalist does his job,” Salazar said, adding that this is largely a consequence of complacent, sensationalist and mediocre journalism.

One of the objectives of ConBoca 100 mil, Salazar concluded, is to “recover the essence of journalism, and for the citizen to feel part of this type of project.”

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.