Memetic Media innovates in design and distribution and focuses on digital journalism for young audiences in Paraguay

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

From the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, a group of professionals –including journalists, designers, illustrators and photographers– has been working for the last three years to build new digital journalistic narratives aimed at the country’s youth. Memetic Media, a non-profit association founded in 2016, brings together three media projects that share innovations in format, language and journalistic approach. The intent is to engage those neglected audiences, according to the editors.

“A bet on the youth is a political bet,” Juan Heilborn, co-founder and one of the nine members of Memetic Media, told the Knight Center. “It is the generation that should improve the country we have and try to give access to relevant information. On the other hand, it is an audience that viewed as orphans, of the state, of communications, of their working families. Everything that is aimed at them is consumption or repression. And they have shown with student and university revolts that they are much more aware, that they do not want to be just consumers or products.”

Memetic Media's bet seems to have some bearing: in Paraguay, which has about 7 million inhabitants, young adults between the ages of 20 and 34 comprise 26 percent of the population, according to the country's General Directorate of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses. “Even so, there is little attention to both public policies and services, beyond offers concerning consumption, and occasionally, elections,”” Alejandro Valdéz, co-founder of the organization, said.

According to Valdéz, in the beginning the audience of Memetic Media consisted of “an urban public, that lives in Asunción, that studies and works and whose distinguishing characteristic is that they are part of organizations (movements, parties, networks, commissions, unions, student unions, NGOs, tech entrepreneur collectives). They use the internet heavily, many are opinion leaders in their areas and have a cosmopolitan vision. An age range of 23 to 35 years.”

This description can also be applied to members of Memetic Media itself –the average age of members of the association is 34 years, Jazmín Acuña, also a co-founder, explained.

Acuña, Heilborn and Valdéz are editors of KurturalEl Surtidor and Fotociclo, Memetic Media projects that bring innovative elements to the production and presentation of investigations, journalistic reporting and urban photojournalism.

A camera on wheels

Photographer Juan Carlos Meza is photo editor of one of Paraguay's largest media, ABC Color. After nearly four decades dedicated to photography, in 2013 his passion for portraying Asunción gave birth to Fotociclo– which eventually led to the formation of Memetic Media, according to Valdéz, editor of the project.

Fotociclo was born from the exchange of ideas between professionals and artists, among them Meza and Valdéz, who shared a workspace in the center of the Paraguayan capital."It's basically an urban photojournalism project, focused on Asunción, a city like many Latin American cities, full of conflicts, and Fotociclo puts its lenses on it," the editor said.

And Fotociclo is exactly what the name implies. Meza “climbs on a motorcycle everyday, on a cargo motorbike especially equipped to take photos and transport team members and go to the last corners of the city, take photos, and the team is responsible for turning those photos into stories,” Valdéz explained.

The project's main characteristics are its close relationship with the audience and its strong presence on social networks, aspects that have become the core of other Memetic Media initiatives. “We live in networks 100%, it is the Memetic project with the largest audience and the most consolidated community.”

Every day, at least one photo of some place in Asunción is posted to Fotociclo profiles on social networks. The images highlight the daily beauty of the city, but also its paradoxes and its deficiencies, and stir the feelings of the inhabitants of the Paraguayan capital about the urban space that surrounds them.

The project has grown with the online community that has been expanding over the last four years, and has also invested in creating offline ties with photo markets, exhibitions and "photo walks." The tours are guided by the photographer or the editor of Fotociclo and by specialists in Architecture, Urbanism and History, so that the connoisseurs of the project can explore Asunción and photograph the city themselves.

These activities “go beyond journalism’s usual scope,” Valdéz said, and help to consolidate the relationship between Fotociclo and its public. “This connection with the audience also has to do with the fact that the project has a lot of art: it is street media, it is performative (there is a very special orange cart traveling the city every day, driven by a photographer who is already an urban legend),” he said.

At the end of 2017, Fotociclo launched its first print magazine, which included more than 150 photos and was financed and "co-edited" by the public, Valdéz said. The team responsible for the project reviewed the more than 3,000 photos taken by Meza that were published on Fotociclo’s networks to identify comments and feelings expressed by the public about each image and decide which ones would be published. Then the followers were consulted through surveys in Instagram Stories: book or magazine? Black and white or in color? What price range? How often should the magazine be published? "All questions that have helped us to resolve practical issues such as payment methods or shipping systems or themes," the editor said.

The initial 1,000 copies were sold out in three weeks– “a number that, for the miniscule editorial market in Paraguay, is very important and meant a lot for us,” Valdéz said. The intention is that the magazine will be annual and also will become an outlet for diffusion of the images and stories recorded by Fotociclo. The next step of the project is to publish a repository online with all of the almost 300,000 photos that Meza has taken in the last four years, which they hope to create at the end of the year.

For the editor, Fotociclo "fulfilled a cycle" with the publication of the magazine, and this is a moment to rethink the project. “A very committed audience, so now we are committed to generating spaces to build, to co-create stories together with that audience, therefore we are now in a process of just redesigning Fotociclo’s process, with the hope of doing more collaborative journalism with the audience.”

Longform journalism to understand Paraguay

In mid-2015, while Fotociclo fascinated its followers on social media and led them to reflect on their relationship with Asunción, the team began to develop another project, closer to traditional investigative journalism.

Kurtural publishes series of long reports that explore the phenomena and conflicts that affect Paraguay, said editor Jazmín Acuña. "The project is born from the need to tell stories that are not governed by immediacy and brevity, and that offer a different angle from which to look at and understand what is happening in the country,” she explained.

The series published so far have addressed in-depth and from different perspectives a variety of topics that may seem disconnected from each other, such as violence against women, the panorama of education in the country and the deforestation of the Paraguayan Chaco. All themes, however, connect to touch on social tensions and structural injustices in the country.

“Our greatest contribution is the depth with which we approach the topics we cover. Instead of treating events as isolated situations, we focus on the context in which the events unfold. We place these events as part of wider phenomena or conflicts that define the country,” she explained, adding that even a series on recipes typical of Paraguayan cuisine has a relevant journalistic subtext: the struggle for food sovereignty.

To explore such complex phenomena in depth, the production of the series involves large teams of reporters, photographers, content editors, visual editors and creative editors, among other professionals, and intense collaborative work, Acuña said. She gives as an example the series “Los desterrados no van al supermercado” (Exiles don’t go to the supermarket), about the conflict over land in Paraguay.

“The richness of the creation of the series lies above all in the exchange. The process of making the crónicas and reports involved a lot of debate, discussions, tests, among the participants. We meet weekly to make collective decisions about the direction of the reporting and editing work. In all, we dedicated approximately six months to producing the series.”

In addition to the longform reports, Kurtural intends to try out new formats to bring its stories to the public. The most recent experimentation was with narrative through sound, using audio reports in the special "Ipukuma la transición" (loosely translated as “It’s delaying the transition”), published on the 29th anniversary of the fall of the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, who dominated the country between 1954 and 1989.

The special dealt with memory, justice and democracy in Paraguay under the shadow of its authoritarian past, and to talk about it, Kurtural invited people who were affected by the dictatorship. According to the editor, the format of audio reports is not explored much in the country, meaning it was “a new way of bringing people closer to what the dictatorship was, starting with the daily life of the people that lived under the regime.” For Acuña, “audio narratives generate a lot of empathy and open new doors for getting closer to people in a country that is eminently oral.” Therefore, podcasts and new audio reports are in the works for Kurtural’s upcoming investigations, she explained.

Trends in international journalism, data journalism and fact-checking are also on the Memetic Media team’s radar. The first will be increasingly incorporated into Kurtural, Acuña said, and the second is already part of the project with the #LaPrecisa initiative.

With methodology based on the experience of Argentine site Chequeado, a pioneer in the region, #LaPrecisa verifies statements from Paraguayan politicians with the use of open data and other sources. The intention is to ensure that the public have elements to evaluate and question the topics that are part of daily debate and that inform the development of public policies in the country.

In addition to questionable discourse from politicians and members of the government, #LaPrecisa also began to tackle fraudulent news, often referred to as "fake news." "We choose content that circulates in networks and chats that are of dubious origin and we verify their veracity,” Acuña explained. “What we do is spread the verification in Kurtural’s social media networks. If we find that the content is indeed false, we place the label ‘bolaterapia,’ which is a Paraguayan expression to describe everything that is a lie.”

According to the editor of Kurtural, this is the first initiative to verify fraudulent news at a local level in Paraguay. “It is a fairly new initiative that arose as a result of the upcoming presidential elections in which we saw that the diffusion of false information had increased significantly.”

Recently, Kurtural started to invite the public to send content it believes to be untrue in order for site staff to verify it. “We established a channel on WhatsApp and also on all of Kurtural’s social networks to receive concerns [from readers],” she explained.

The idea is to contribute to the fight against fraudulent news both with the visibility of the fake news phenomenon through fact-checking as well as “raising rigorous standards through the use of data, and motivating the audience to be more demanding and critical of the news they consume.”

Graphic journalism to spread on social networks

A partner in the dissemination of the fact-checking carried out by the website team is the project El Surtidor. Created in 2016 shortly after the formal creation of Memetic Media, it was the third project the company created.

Some of the #LaPrecisa checks run on social networks in graphic pieces created by the El Surtidor team, with the incorporation of “elements of popular culture to make fact-checking more attractive,” Acuña said.

The translation of journalistic reporting into captivating graphic pieces is at the heart of El Surtidor, which was born as an experiment, said Juan Heilborn, editor of the project. “The hypothesis –based on regional experiences– is that graphic journalism has the potential to circulate better in a country with low internet speed.”

Graphic art is an important element for Memetic Media's team –co-founders Heilborn and Valdéz are both graduates of graphic design. They decided to produce a piece of graphic journalism to see what happened, and the experiment had great repercussions among the young public, Heilborn said. “We understood that, unlike videos, graphics do not need much bandwidth to circulate, which is fundamental in a country like ours with poor access to the internet,” he explained.

The number of Paraguayans using the internet in 2016 was 51.35 percent, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

From this unexpected success, came more findings: the first, “that the young audience was a group totally ignored by the local media, not only in language but also in topics,” Heilborn said. And second, that the graphic pieces open a new possibility for distribution. “Instead of asking people to come, what we try is to go to the spaces where that public is: their cell phones through social networks and messaging services,” the editor explained.

The themes El Surtidor covers are chosen at weekly editorial meetings by the team, formed by Heilborn, a reporter and two illustrators. The idea is always to focus on the themes of the moment and trending debates on social networks. The reporting varies according to the type of graphic piece to be produced, says the editor: “on some occasions, the sources are civil society research with strong data and we check with specialists. Others, we go to the sources firsthand. Others are investigative data from Kurtural. And finally, there are our own editorial pieces, in which we take a position on some issues.”

At least three graphics are published on El Surtidor’s social networks every week –the plan in the medium-term is to publish daily, Heilborn said. They tell stories, like that of Paraguay's first female air commander who stopped flying because of the machismo in the profession, recall important episodes in the country’s history such as the Paraguayan March of 1999, a month of protests, and contextualize news such as the murder of a peasant in the midst of the conflict over land that involved Brazilian landowners and Paraguayan public authorities.

Although many of the themes are serious, irreverence is one of El Surtidor’s trademarks– many pieces bring a certain amount of mockery to, for example, address a statement by a Paraguayan politician or present the main Google searches performed by the country’s users.

“The references to popular culture and pop culture (which are similar but not the same) and a certain nonchalance and irreverence make our approach very different from that of traditional media,” Heilborn said. “We always remember what Eliecer Budazoff [Argentine journalist and editor of The New York Times in Spanish] told us: we must flee from solemnity like the plague.”

The differentiated approach also includes the themes and angles from which they are presented. “Journalism focused on rights is not very common here, and we have identified issues that are sensitive and necessary that are very well received, such as gender, the environment, non-discrimination, the problem of land, food, etc.,” the editor said. “We ask ourselves in a certain news context, what does our public need to know at this moment that nobody is telling them? And we give them information that otherwise does not reach them.”

In addition to the static parts that run on the networks, El Surtidor has a site that brings together animated graphic series, the most innovative content of the project, according to the editor himself. It’s “a visual narrative designed for mobile in which textual information is combined with very simple language, illustrations that provide information, the dimension of movement and time, allowing issues to be addressed in greater depth without complicating the narrative,” Heilborn said.

Midway between illustration, GIF and animated video, these visual narratives are also an alternative to video in a context of little internet bandwidth, and the format was considered proper for fitting the technology accessible by the target audience, according to the editor. “The structure in how the information reaches the user is very similar to children's books, and I had not seen that in digital or analog journalism. When we were developing this format, whether it was going to work was a mystery. But the reception exceeded expectations, and we gained a new audience.”

The animated series hosted on the site can be shared on social networks and in messaging applications –the spaces where El Surtidor’s content excels. "Multiplatform distribution," Heilborn said, is also another innovative aspect of the project: “first we distribute content in three social networks, the site, two mobile messaging apps. Including our own sticker on Telegram. Then we went back to the analog, we printed posters and stickers, a fanzine is in print, a printed magazine is planned for this year, exhibitions, workshops and conferences. We go where the community is, and interact with the people who value us.”

The challenge of sustainability

By focusing on distribution via social networks, Memetic Media’s projects do not consider the numbers of visits on their sites as the central axis of audience measurement, Valdéz explained. “On average, some of our stories reach 300 thousand people a week on social networks, of which at least some 50 thousand interact (react, share, comment) and about 15,000 end up going to the site.”

The editor of Fotociclo and co-founder of Memetic Media said he learned from Jeff Jarvis, a U.S. journalist and one of the leading thinkers of journalism in the internet age, that “Beyond these numbers, it is more important to be able to call your community by name and surname, and for them to respond. 200 people that come to the launch of a series are worth more than 50,000 likes on social networks. That is why we are working on implementing different initiatives that allow us to relate more directly with the community, to produce and finance stories that are relevant.”

In order to generate community and bring the projects closer to the audience and vice versa, Memetic Media intends to strengthen online initiatives, such as establishing a direct channel to receive story suggestions, questions, suggestions and complaints and to develop reports with the collaboration of the public through technologies such as collective mapping. Offline, the idea is to continue prioritizing face-to-face activities, such as the photo tours and presentations of its reporting series.

Another project is to open to the public Mediateca, a space in Asunción where the Memetic Media team works and that is shared with the digital rights organization TEDIC. The mansion was built in the 1930s and has hosted the Fotoferia, the Fotociclo photography fair. The project is inspired by Casa Pública of Brazil’s Agência Pública, which is located in Rio de Janeiro and organizes exhibitions, courses, conferences and collective activities. The intention is to establish “a space of reference that will be open to the community, around which we will implement different actions and which will also be sustained thanks to the program of partners that we are now designing and which will be implemented in the coming months,” Valdéz said.

Memetic Media also focuses on generation of community so it can count on financial contributions from the audience in order to fund its initiatives. Sustainability is the biggest challenge, according to Valdéz, and Memetic Media seeks to overcome it with the diversification of revenue sources, which is the key to editorial independence and good journalism, the editor said.

Currently, the non-profit association is supported by international cooperation, with funds such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany and Diakonia in Sweden; alliances with local organizations such as TEDIC, and Fundación Texo, which supports contemporary art; commercial agreements with private companies that sponsor projects, such as Banco Sudameris, which financed Kurtural's #Artífices series; and consulting in visual communication services.

Memetic Media’s audience has also contributed to financing initiatives for Fotociclo, including through fairs and purchase of the print magazine that was launched at the end of 2017. But the main objective is for the public to become the main financier of the organization’s projects, Valdéz said.

“Our goal is for our journalism to be so essential to the place where we are, to the context in which we develop, that it is the audience who will sustain this. Our hypothesis, and also knowing the experience of other media in the region, is that when the audience is the main financier, the possibility of independence is greater. Then it is like a virtuous circle: we have to generate community so that this community allows us to finance journalistic projects of quality, and the relevant information will allow us to increase the audience, as well as the influence on the issues that are discussed in our country.”

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.