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Guest post: Low-cost citizen journalism project in Paraguay outs corruption, wins acclaim

  • By Guest
  • March 10, 2011

By Mabel Rehnfelt, editor of Paraguay’s ABC Digital.

Last year, ABC Digital - the online edition of ABC Color newspaper – developed a space for users to send their stories and photos, with allegations, announcements, claims, and complaints. Today, more than 25 stories are submitted by citizens daily. We have enough content to publish one an hour, and we have designed a “Positive Stories” section for readers to submit untold stories of courage, good deeds by the authorities, and acts of good citizenship.

ABC Digital reporters cannot be in every part of the country at once. However, our readers help us be everywhere by reporting on what they see and hear. They provide plenty of evidence for their claims, often with a higher level of responsibility than many professional journalists. Citizens submit their stories, we give them space, and together we have found an incredible, previously untapped source of stories. With their help, we were also able to create a Flood Map for the city of Asunción, in which people send photos of intersections with the worst flooding problems.

This experience has been marked by courageous citizens, innovation, and a model for a profitable journalism enterprise that is founded on good reporting. However, at the start, anxiety won out. Days and weeks passed without anyone submitting anything. As an editor, more than once I was about to push the button to cancel the project.

However, back in June, July, and August, something began to change. We set up an email address (ciudadano@abc.com.py) for users to send in their stories. Little by little, the situation began to change, and – due to the importance of the reports we received – we decided to create a “Citizen Stories” subpage. We have a message on the front page of our site pointing to the section.

In September, October, and November, participation in the section skyrocketed. Unusual stories began to flood in: people transporting houses with pickup trucks, a man drinking alcohol while being driven on a police motorcyclegovernment vehicles being used to transport construction materials, a Supreme Court justice on vacation in Uruguay driving a state vehicle, and police asleep on duty. Big businesses were not spared (like this “McCockroach” photo), nor has ABC Color itself escaped scrutiny (see this photo of an ABC truck driving on the wrong side of the road).

The authorities began to react to the litany of irregularities that were highlighted in the photos and stories. Various public institutions began to respond to the incriminating posts, like fixing a burst pipe that created an ad hoc pool on the road, cutting off power to illegal energy lines used by political parties, and the Consumer Protection Agency investigating the franchise with the McCockroach.

In December, we honored the best reports of the year based on votes from readers via Facebook and cell phone text messages. For a country with relatively low internet penetration, the level of participation was extraordinary, and the stories quickly spread over social networks.

In January, we decided to honor the best submissions every month. In the most recent period, we broke our record for text message votes, and Facebook participation continued to be amazing.

However, beyond the satisfaction of sharing these interesting and unedited stories, we published photos that revealed serious misconduct, images that made us proud while also cut down on our costs. Beyond this, the city council of Asunción honored the Citizen Stories page and promised to respond to the issues covered in the section.

Day by day, user participation is continuing to grow. People submit their stories (with text and images), we provide the space, and together we publish this citizen journalism that allows our reporters to be everywhere.

Mabel Rehnfeldt is an investigative journalist, the editor of ABC Digital, and founder of the Paraguayan Journalism Forum (FOPEP). She has received multiple international awards for her work, including the Maria Moors Cabot Prize and the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism award.

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.

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