Latin American digital media sites grow and become profitable but suffer attacks, according to SembraMedia

Digital media sites are growing and many are becoming profitable — transforming, in every sense, the way journalism is made and consumed in Latin America. This was one of the most important findings of the study “Inflection Point,” that analyzed 100 digital media ventures from four Latin American countries, conducted by the organization SembraMedia with support from Omidyar Network.

According to the study published July 20, the way in which these digital natives produce the news generates change, promotes better laws, defends human rights and exposes corruption and abuse of power. Nevertheless, 45% of the founders and directors interviewed for the study said they have suffered attacks or threats for their coverage and 21% admitted to self-censorship because of the attacks.

The entire study can be downloaded for free in English, Portuguese and Spanish at data.sembramedia.org.

Over the course of five months, SembraMedia, a non-profit organization that promotes the development of digital media entrepreneurship in Latin America and Spain, conducted a study on the growth, impact and threats to 100 digital natives in Latin America. The countries studied by the organization, with the support of Omidyar Network, were Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, with 25 projects being studied from each country. This is the most extensive study of its kind ever done in the region.

“After years of working with entrepreneurial journalists in Latin America, I knew their work was increasingly important, but I didn’t realize how much of an impact they were having, or how vulnerable they were, until we completed this study,” said Janine Warner, co-founder of SembraMedia and an ICFJ Knight Fellow, in a press release. “They are driven to produce independent news in countries that are highly politically polarized — and some of them are paying a high price for it.”

According to the organization, one of the principle objectives of the report is to help the founders of digital media startups better recognize trends and possible threats they may face, and to become familiar with and adopt better techniques.

Another motive behind the analysis was to help investors, foundations and news organizations appreciate the value, vulnerability and impact of a media environment with staggering growth.

The study investigated six thematic areas: innovation, challenges, opportunities, size and audience participation, income and costs. The digital media entrepreneurs interviewed were primarily motivated to independently report on what was happening in their countries, in the context of political polarization. But this editorial independence, in the majority of cases, is costing journalists a lot.

The study looks at, for example, the case of Mexican journalist Luis Cardona, from the site Pie de Página, who had to flee his hometown after being displaced by violence generated by drug trafficking and the state. Cardona was kidnapped and tortured in September 2012 for his reporting on the disappearance of 15 low-income youths linked to drug trafficking in Chihuahua.

In Brazil, the editor of the Brazilian site Envolverde, Dal Marcondes, also claimed to have been affected by his journalistic work.

“We’ve suffered a lot of cyberattacks. One time they replaced all the images on our site with pornography. We lost a huge amount of content and it took us a week to replace all our images,” Marcondes told the interviewers from SembraMedia.

According to the study, almost half of the journalists interviewed reported being the victims of threats and physical attacks because of their reporting. Punitive lawsuits, cyberattacks, prolonged audits and loss of advertising revenue were also, for many of them, the consequences of their reporting.

The study also noted that 21% of those interviewed reported having practiced self-censorship because of threats.

In that sense, says the report, digital journalists in Latin America have, and are fulfilling, an even more significant role than their colleagues. This is due to the highly concentrated media markets that exist in the countries of the region, where, in turn, official publicity is usually awarded to the media that speak well of the current government.

The quality of digital media sites in Latin America has been recognized, with many having been the recipients of prestigious journalism awards in the region. For example, all of the journalism awards at the distinguished Gabriel García Márquez Festival’s 2016 ceremony were presented to digital natives. Three were studied by SembraMedia: Agência Pública and Repórter Brasil, both from Brazil, and La Silla Vacía from Colombia.

The report also mentions the Pulitzer Prize awarded to journalists from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who participated in the Panama Papers investigation; many of them were Latin American journalists in digital media.

Another subject explored in the study is the business model and types of financing supporting the digital media sites studied. Despite the legal contingencies, material and financial, these media sites are managing to build sustainable businesses while putting out quality journalism.

The extensive use of social media and access to new web-building tools have boosted digital media ventures -- in addition to the social capital, connections and experience of their founding journalists, according to the report. More than 70% of the ventures studied started with less than $10,000, and more than 10% of them now generate income of more than half a million dollars per year.

SembraMedia classified the media projects studied into four tiers of business maturity, according to the amount of income they generate per year.

  1. The “Stars & Standouts” that generate half a million dollars or more per year, constituting 12% of the projects studied.
  2. The “Steadfast & Striving” that generate between $100,000 and almost half a million dollars per year, constituting 17% of the sample.
  3. The “Struggling & Steady,” generating between $20,000 and nearly $100,000 yearly, representing 23% of the projects studied.
  4. The “Startups & Stagnant,” which make up 32% of the ventures studied, bringing in a wide range of annual income between $100 and almost $20,000. The remaining 17% are ventures that work without receiving any kind of income.

According to the report, most of the entrepreneurial journalists that lead these sites focus primarily on producing quality journalism, without investing enough effort or resources in sales and marketing, even when many of their sites have enough traffic to earn significant revenue.

In gender issues, the report highlighted that 40% of the founders of the digital media startups examined in the study are women.

This is “a great indicator, it makes us happy to see that we are on the way to a certain equality,” said Mijal Iastrebner, director and co-founder of SembraMedia, on this finding at the 10th Iberoamerican Colloquium on Digital Journalism in April, organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

For these organizations to grow and increase their impact, the report identifies three requirements: protection, professionalism and partnerships. For the first requirement, SembraMedia proposes to connect digital native media with organizations that protect and defend journalists with legal, technical and financial support.

As a second requirement, recognizing that sustainability is a vital element for the prosperity of media, it proposes that there be business training that includes better practices and models of diversified income, and advertising models. For the researchers, this will allow them to maintain their independence and "shield themselves from economic sanctions," like the withdrawal of advertising from governments or other entities when they feel affected by media coverage.

Finally, the study suggests that digital media sites share resources and build bridges and alliances to expand their audiences at the international level and increase their impact.

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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