Lessons in innovation from Salvadoran site El Faro start with a focus on quality journalism

*This story is part of a special project on Innovators in Latin American and Caribbean Journalism.

When journalists at Salvadoran site El Faro see their stories published on the cover of The New York Times or Univision's homepage, it's recognition of the organization's almost 20-year-long dedication to investigative journalism and quality online information.

Journalist Carlos Dada and businessman Jorge Simán launched the digital native media pioneer in Latin America in May 1998, years before a majority of the digital native sites now operating in the region. Two decades later, it has become an inescapable reference for journalism in Central America and a model that has inspired other digital native media that have emerged in other countries in the region in recent years.

"In journalistic terms, we are well above our best expectations, without a doubt," Dada told the Knight Center when taking stock of these years. According to its founder and first director, today El Faro is "a consolidated media outlet" that "has an international reach that we never suspected it would have, and that is a good starting point for the future".

The front page of Nov. 21, 2016 print edition of The New York Times is a good example of that international reach. The page led with a report about violent gangs in El Faro’s home country: “Tin-Cup Gangs of El Salvador.”

During the previous eight months, teams from El Faro and The New York Times worked together to research and edit the broad and forceful report that was published simultaneously in English and Spanish.

The current director of El Faro, Spanish journalist José Luis Sanz, explained to the Knight Center that this project with The Times challenged and placed professional "demands" on his team. At the same time, he also noted that it was a "validation of the journalistic standards" applied by El Faro’s editorial staff.

Just a few months before, El Faro won the Recognition of Excellence award granted by the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism (FNPI, for its initials in Spanish), which until then had only been awarded to individual journalists.

More recently, the Salvadoran digital site repeated the experience of working and publishing jointly with a large U.S.-based media outlet, in this case with Univision. "From migrants to refugees: the new Central American drama" was an extensive multimedia report, divided into four parts, which was published during the four weeks of October 2017 (view at: Univision | El Faro). And as in the case of the NYT, the report was published in both Spanish and English to reach the widest audience possible.

Modest beginnings of El Faro

The history of El Faro, translated in English as The Lighthouse, dates back to the end of the 1990s. Published by the Salvadoran company Trípode, Dada and Simán founded El Faro in 1998 and were the company's sole shareholders for 16 years.

"El Faro has its origin in the exile of its two founders," Dada explained to the Knight Center. Dada and Simán’s families went into exile to Mexico when they were children. After the war, the two returned to El Salvador. Outside they had seen a different type of journalism from what was happening in their country: "Someday, when we are both in El Salvador, we should open a newspaper," Dada said they told each other. And that's what they decided to do in 1997.

But the lack of economic resources made it unthinkable to launch a print publication, so they opted to "try on the internet" despite very poor digital development in El Salvador. In fact, according to data from the International Telecommunications Union (UIC), El Salvador continues to be the second lowest ranked country for internet penetration in Latin America (only 16.9 percent of households have access to the internet and just under 30 percent of the population uses the internet).

The beginnings of El Faro were very modest, as Sanz explained to the Knight Center. Having just finished his studies, the Spanish journalist worked at a local television station before he moved to El Salvador to join the Sunday magazine Vértice, published by one of the two main newspapers in the country, El Diario de Hoy. After a couple of years at the magazine, Dada invited him to work at El Faro in 2001.

"At the time, El Faro was a very small media outlet, but it was already starting to make noise," Sanz said. In those early years, Dada and Sanz were the only professional journalists at the site. The rest were journalism or communications students, some of whom, like Carlos Martínez, Sergio Arauz or Daniel Valencia, are now among the newsroom’s veterans.

One of the keys to El Faro’s survival is that being sustainable "was not an obsession" in those first years, as its current director explained. "If the journalistic course of the project had depended in any measure on the search for sustainability, I believe that El Faro not only would not be what it is today but I doubt very much that it would have survived," Sanz said. "Part of the fact that El Faro continues to exist is that during the first years no one took a penny," Dada confirmed.

The current director of El Faro believes that if now "it is difficult to survive or maintain yourself as a small or medium-sized media outlet," it was “unthinkable” 20 years ago. "We never considered restraining, adapting or conditioning our approach for economic or strategic reasons,” Sanz added.

But there came a time when that situation became untenable. El Faro began competing journalistically with traditional media outlets that employed its own contributors. “We saw ourselves in urgent need of being able to pay salaries to journalists,” Sanz said. So in 2003, El Faro began to professionalize little by little.

The team grew over the years, thanks in part to increased aid from various entities, advertising revenues and the exploration of new revenue streams. Today, the team consists of 30 people in total. The newsroom is composed of 22 professionals, including reporters, a developer, a designer, two photojournalists, an audiovisual journalist, two editors and a social media manager.

Journalistic innovation

Investigative journalism has always been El Faro's main brand. Its founder, Carlos Dada, likes to explain that the site’s “virtue” is journalism, rather than innovation or technologies. But, that does not rule out a desire to explore, while at the same time keeping quality journalism front and center.

“We are very excited to continue experimenting with new narratives, which has been a part of what we do without leaving our DNA,” Dada said.

Innovation at El Faro, for example, means "breaking the false barrier between investigative journalism and narrative journalism," explained current director José Luis Sanz. "Claiming narrative journalism" to explain complex issues, such as those related to migration, violence or impunity "also seems to me to be an important contribution," Sanz added..

The "collaborative dynamics," both internal and with other media, are also part of the innovative way of working that El Faro wants to promote, according to its leader. And the aforementioned examples of reports with The New York Times and Univision are good references. "For a media outlet as economically fragile as El Faro to develop coverage that is so long, done over months, with media like The Times or Univision, I think it opens the way for other media to think in other ways," Sanz said.

Additionally, according to its director, El Faro "is constantly exploring formulas to narrate and explain more complex issues in a more complete way." Thus, throughout its history, it has carried out several projects with innovative formats. One of the most relevant projects, which was ambitious for its experimentation with audiovisual storytelling, was "Historias Urbanas” (Urban Stories), a series of animated journalistic short stories published in 2010 that combined journalistic chronicles, illustration and music.

"How do you make something digestible if you mix seven journalists, a theater director, 25 musicians, seven illustrators, two animators and an editor?" This is the question asked in the introduction to this original journalistic project. The answer was six shorts, born after a year of collaborative and multidisciplinary work, that tell six real stories based in the city of San Salvador.  Among the protagonists are a gang member, a taxi driver who traffics drugs and a self-made man.

According to Óscar Luna, current head of El Faro TV and El Faro Radio and the main driver behind “Historia Urbanas,” it is a project that "we did very early" but "it was a good experiment."

One of the special projects coordinated by Luna that has had a strong impact on Salvadoran society is El Faro’s snapshot of the country’s educational system. This project was born due to the "constant failures" in school placement tests. "Nobody had offered an analysis, an examination of the sector," Luna explained. Twenty variables were analyzed in more than 5,000 public schools in the country and expert diagnosis was offered. In addition, the project takes the reader on a visual tour through various key schools using text, audio and video. "We are looking for ways to renew it again this year," the coordinator said.

The team at El Faro used another creative approach to tackle another social issue, the relationship between inequality and urban space. In its interactive project “Un retrato de desigualdad” (A portrait of inequality), El Faro asked for the collaboration of 24 teenagers –12 with higher economic resources and 12 with less means– and over the span of a month followed all their movements in San Salvador through their mobile phones. Luna explains the study confirmed the two groups did not overlap in physical spaces, with only two exceptions: "to eat pupusas –a traditional food of El Salvador–, where they could coincide in the same town, Antiguo Cuscatlán, and to play on the fast soccer courts."

El Faro is preparing the publication of another special, entitled “Poder(es)” (Power(s)), in which it will exhaustively monitor the activity of El Salvador’s congress members. Luna explained to the Knight Center that this ambitious journalistic project, which has its own funding, counts on the talents of a seven-member team. Poder(es) will offer information, graphics and open data and will monitor the congress members throughout the legislative session.

The challenge of financing

El Faro’s budget for 2018 is around U.S. $1.1 million, Sanz said. It will therefore be somewhat higher than the previous year’s budget of $945,000. "More than 75 percent of this budget is invested in newsroom and reporting costs," Sanz explained. During the last two years, El Faro managed to reach economic equilibrium.

But, where does the money come from? El Faro has four income channels. The main one, which accounts for 75 percent of the total, comes from international organizations such as Open Society Foundations. The sale of advertising and sponsorships represents approximately 17 percent of revenue. The other two income streams are the annual campaign #ExcavaciónCiudadana, which represents 4 percent of the total, and the sale of content to other media or royalties for books and documentary films, which contribute 3 percent of the total.

In 2015, the people in charge of El Faro decided to launch the crowdfounding campaign #ExcavaciónCiudadana (Citizen Excavation), in which they asked readers and allies from El Salvador or anywhere in the world for small economic contributions to help sustain the project. In its first two years, nearly 900 people contributed around U.S. $57,000 which has been used to produce more than 50 specific journalistic projects (chronicles, reports, photo essays or audiovisual pieces).

The community members who donate are offered time and space to talk with the El Faro team members so they can explain their work.

Cristina Algarra, who is responsible for El Faro’s offline activities, told the Knight Center that one of the essential elements of the #ExcavaciónCiudadana project is that it helps to "generate a community." "What we are looking for is a community that supports the work of El Faro, that helps us sustain the media outlet,” she explained.

The most ambitious task Algarra coordinates during the year is the Central American Journalism Forum (ForoCAP), which will celebrate its eighth edition this year from May 14 to 19. The annual event, which is organized in the city of San Salvador and has activities in a couple cities in the interior, has three basic objectives, according to Algarra.

The first is the specialized training of journalists through workshops, conferences with international guests and themed meetings.

The second objective is to "generate spaces for dialogue and debate with citizens," Algarra said. This is one of El Faro’s challenges: "to reach new people" and do it through innovative formats. One of these “innovative formats” is the Data Art exhibition, which turns data journalism into works of art. The project arose at the beginning of 2017 as a collaboration between El Faro and the Luis Poma Theater in San Salvador based on the piece “Brecha” by data journalist and artist Daniel Villatoro. “Brecha,” or Gap, shows four watches that reflect labor inequality between men and women, and the indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Guatemala.

Data Art, which mixes journalism with the works of artists of all kinds, is an continuously-growing exhibition that focuses on issues such as violence, disappearances, rape of minors or inequality. In addition to being present at ForoCAP, the project has traveled to different countries in Latin America such as Costa Rica, Honduras and Brazil, as well as El Salvador.

And finally, ForoCAP also aims to train readers, who are invited to participate in workshops, conferences, round tables and similar activities.

Last year, more than 3,000 people participated in the different ForoCAP events, some of which are held in collaboration with various universities in the country.

Plans for the future

What can we expect from El Faro in the immediate future? According to its director, there are plans to expand the topics and geographic locations they cover.

"The level of demand that we have from Salvadoran society and readers is very high," Sanz said, adding this implies that some issues not covered before must now be part of the media’s offerings. "The thematic range has been growing year after year," the director explained.

Currently the site covers ten thematic areas: politics, migration, gangs, violence, transparency, organized crime, inequality, impunity, culture and historical memory. The team’s intention is to expand these areas with topics such as economic or financial power.

On the other hand Sanz said the site is launching a permanent project to cover Honduras and also wants to expand its coverage of Guatemala. "Presence throughout Central America is part of El Faro’s DNA," Sanz said.

Additionally, the site also wants to have "a more regular presence in the United States" with the objective of "understanding and serving Central Americans who are in the United States," Sanz said. It’s something that until now "no Central American media has achieved or taken seriously," he added. According to Sanz, "this is a very complex issue, because we are talking about a very heterogeneous population, different generations geographically dispersed, of different status and living conditions, but I think that is the challenge for the Central American media, especially Salvadorans."

For a site that has always focused on "long-form projects," according to Sanz, social networks offer a "first line of reaction and dialogue with readers.” The networks "are our platform for breaking news and immediacy, and we reserve the web for more in-depth things," the director explained.

The site is also exploring audiovisual platforms with El Faro TV. In terms of video, the site’s first task is “to find our own voice,” Sanz explained, adding that at the moment, the battle is being fought with reports and “mini documentary shorts.” Óscar Luna, who is in charge of El Faro TV, explains that production is currently focused on two areas: culture –which is a topic rarely discussed on the rest of the site– and inequality (with more extensive reports).

All of El Faro’s audiovisual work is distributed through its website, social networks and its YouTube channel. According to Sanz, they always seek "the greatest possible impact."

And to magnify that impact, the site created El Faro Radio, which has produced an hour-long program broadcast on station FM Punto 105 each Tuesday and Thursday since 2013. The contents of the program are then cut and offered as podcasts. Luna explains that one of the objectives of El Faro Radio is to "spread the contents of El Faro" in a country where internet access is still very low.

 “The Uncomfortables”

As mentioned earlier, El Faro became the first media outlet –and not individual journalist– to receive the Recognition of Excellence award from the FNPI.

In their acceptance speech, titled “Swimming against the current,” representatives from El Faro referred to the nickname they received from the FNPI: “The Uncomfortables.” They felt at ease with that name: “We recognize ourselves as ‘uncomfortables,’ uncomfortable with power, uncomfortable with criminals, uncomfortable with the corrupt. We are even uncomfortable with ourselves,” they said. And they asked: “But is there another way to create journalism outside of that ‘uncomfortable’ zone?”

They also explained that El Faro is a project that has gone "against the current." For example, regarding the type of journalism they produce, they said, "We find adventure in investigation when, in the middle of a financial crisis, newsrooms of the great papers of the world get rid of specialized teams and spaces. We find adventure in creating exhausting reports and producing long-form articles when common sense calls us to submit to the dictatorship of the ‘click.’”

In that speech, they also wanted to remember the complicated environment in which El Faro's journalistic project was born and developed: "The so-called northern triangle of Central America, composed of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, is today the most violent region in the world.  It is a region suffering from poverty, inequality and corruption, extreme corruption." And, it’s a place in which the journalism practiced by El Faro is possibly more necessary than ever.

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.