By Dylan Baddour
*This story is part of a special project on Innovators in Latin American and Caribbean Journalism.
When Martha Ortiz accepted the offer to completely overhaul El Colombiano, a century-old newspaper in Medellin, Colombia, she resolved to question everything the news industry believed. Then she did it with remarkable results.
Ortiz, 48, lived close to journalism her entire life. Her family co-owned El Colombiano media group, so her grandfather and parents expected she’d be a journalist. In rebellion, she majored in industrial design at a Bogotá university, though later studied news media in Spain, English in England and business in the United States.
Ortiz knew well the story of traditional news media’s decline with shrinking circulation, falling revenues and an emerging young readership that has proved tricky to captivate.
By 2009 she was working as an independent media consultant, conceptualizing and creating corporate and university websites, when she got the call from Medellín. Jorge Hernández, head of the other family that co-owned El Colombiano group, wanted her to redesign a smaller financial paper, La República, which she did to much acclaim.
But when they asked her to revamp El Colombiano, the century-old brand, she knew that no small set of tweaks would solve the problems that continued to baffle major media around the world.
So instead of a proposal to redesign El Colombiano, she handed in a proposal to convene a full-time team to reimagine what the newspaper could be.
“I said, they’ve got to quit being afraid, sit down to think and develop new ideas,” Ortiz, who is now chief editor of the newspaper, told the Knight Center. “It’s a change of the entire journalistic model, a change in content, of masthead, the whole strategy of visual communication.”
To get that done, she founded ECOLab, named for the abbreviation of El Colombiano, an in-house innovation lab that has since overhauled a wide range of pieces of the El Colombiano media group.
It represents a distinct business model for the newspaper, an internal organ charged with constantly identifying potential for innovation at the company, then making it happen. In such a dynamic news market, Ortiz said, the media has to be equipped to constantly adapt.
In 2015, ECOLab won the top award from the International News Media Association’s Global Media Awards and was a 2016 semifinalist in the Society for News Design’s best designed newspaper in the world contest. INMA judges said ECOLab “addressed hundreds of long-term innovations. It empowered employees to change their daily routines and innovate.”
“The change in format, design and distribution of the newspaper was a challenge to a traditional and regional newspaper,” said Juan Luis Aristizabal, president of the board of directors of El Colombiano media group. “This project was successful and has permitted the newspaper to continue being a profitable business during times when all print media are fighting to survive.”
“Martha is restless and curious with respect to what’s happening to media on a global level, and she understands the challenges faced by the industry in order to reinvent itself in an environment where it’s complicated to monetize the added value of information and journalistic investigation,” he added.
In the six years since its creation, ECOLab spent six months redesigning the printed paper, six months redesigning the mobile app, two years redesigning the website plus the neighborhood papers and the magazine group.
Before convening ECOLab, Ortiz offered some conditions to her director, Hernández. If the team was going to labor so tediously on such a large project, then Ortiz needed a guarantee that their changes would be implemented. She didn’t want management stepping in at the last moment with its own ideas. And, she needed to take newspaper employees away from their roles for at least six months at a time.
Ortiz picked the team of nine, drawing people from every section of the paper, from photography and writing to design and advertising. Then she told members to abandon the hierarchy—at ECOLab, managers and employees were equal—and all other responsibilities they had for the newspaper.
“It was a very patriotic commitment,” said Paula Andrea Montoya, a magazine design staffer who was drafted for the first project of ECOLab. “I was surprised by the rigor and the discipline.”
The team thought they faced big risks renovating El Colombiano. The newspaper, more than a century old, was an institution in Medellin. They worried that radical changes could damage the brand. Regardless, they began to assess.
The process started with analysis of the news market and El Colombiano’s place in it, identifying the important or distinguishing features of their media and its strengths and weaknesses. Each person had to investigate and analyze 30 newspapers or media from across the world.
They conducted surveys and spoke with locals about their newspaper, took a tally of their own technological and personnel capabilities and hired anthropologists to help them profile their audience.
Then the team listed every goal they had for the new El Colombiano and began the arduous process of tossing around ideas. Every problem requires three potential solutions in ECOLab—a natural solution, generally the obvious one; a “contemporary” solution, one slightly more radical; and an “artistic” solution, more radical yet. The tactic forced people to push their creativity, Ortiz said.
“We changed everything,” she emphasized.
Their studies showed that their new audience was globally minded and wanted to know how international trends relate to local issues. The team determined their printed paper shouldn’t bear solely news available on the web; it had to be “post-web,” analytical. ECOLab expanded the opinion section and added more points of view. They added a counterpoint to the daily editorial and inserted small fact boxes throughout the paper.
They dedicated more space for photos, which would be fewer, but larger and better, focusing generally on creating a prettier product. They even redesigned the paper’s classic masthead.
They switched from broadsheet to stapled tabloid and selected what they considered web-worthy colors. They changed section names and eliminated section letters in the numbers of their pages.
“It’s like when you organize your house,” said Andrea. “You paint the walls, then realize the floor looks ugly and the furniture is old. The magazines started to look ugly.”
So the team redesigned the two weekly magazines, plus a weekly newspaper for children, El Colombianito. After six months of work, the team turned in their work to newspaper management and disbanded. At ECOLab, new teams convene for every project.
In 2014, ECOLab began work on redesign of the newspaper website, a two-year endeavor. Website users increased by 20 percent after the new page launch, ECOLab reported. Subsequent redesigns of El Colombiano’s neighborhood newspaper group prompted a 40 percent jump in circulation.
More than generating fresh-faced products, Ortiz said that the primary impact of ECOLab at El Colombiano is imparting a sense of creative energy among the staff, just as the news industry feels the constant pressure to innovate. More than 25 staff from El Colombiano have passed through the innovation lab, and have participated in the process by which the traditional media can, though slowly, reformat itself to fit a modern audience. Employees bring their experiences at ECOLab back to their desks when they return.
Andrea said, “I’m left with the mentality and methodology of ECOLabo tattooed on my soul.”
The "Innovators in Journalism" series, made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations, covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean. It expands upon our previous series and ebook, Innovative Journalism in Latin America, by looking at the people and teams leading innovative reporting, storytelling, distribution and financing initiatives in the region.
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.