Research shows how to adapt experiences of European journalism startups to the Latin American reality

How can the examples of two successful European journalism startups be useful to a newspaper run by a workers' cooperative in Latin America? This is what Argentine journalist Javier Borelli seeks to understand in the recently released study “Rebooting journalism: how media startups overcame the business model crisis. What can we learn from Eldiario.es and Mediapart?”

In addition to being a journalist and researcher, Borelli is very interested in answering this question. As a former president of the journalists' cooperative that manages Tiempo Argentino and currently a member of the newspaper's board of directors, he sought in the study, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, to identify measures adopted by the two European outlets that can be implemented or adapted for the Argentine newspaper, despite the differences between them.

The Buenos Aires publication has a peculiar origin when compared to other journalism startups. It was launched in 2010 as a traditional print outlet and survived to a large extent with advertisements sponsored by the government of President Cristina Kirchner. The two research case studies are from France’s Mediapart and Spain’s Eldiario.es, two digital natives with business models anchored in the participation of readers.

Tiempo's turn came with a change in government in 2015, with the inauguration of President Maurício Macri: official advertising dried up, the crisis deepened and wages were no longer paid. The country was experiencing a series of economic crises and faced with a scenario of imminent unemployment, the publication’s journalists benefited from a law that allows the formation of a cooperative to recuperate failed companies in Argentina. Tiempo Argentino was the first media outlet recuperated in the country.

In its “recuperated” phase, Tiempo started adopting a business model closer to the journalism startups, focusing its efforts on digital content (the newspaper has only one weekly print edition) and keeping the reader as the largest revenue source. However, the business lacked capital and there was a much larger team than the best practices of a startup mandate.

As the research describes, there were 100 journalists who participated in the creation of the new project, far more than the 12 who founded Eldiario.es and the 30 from the initial Mediapart team. Even today, the two have not yet reached 100 employees. In addition, the initial capital of the European outlets varied between 600,000 and 2.8 million euros, compared with zero in Argentina, in a newsroom with salaries delayed for months.

Javier Borelli, former president of the journalists' cooperative that manages Tiempo Argentino: "I understand that what we want will not be achieved with just one Tiempo Argentino. There has to be many Tiempos Argentinos so that we can grow together." Photo: courtesy

Javier Borelli, former president of the journalists' cooperative that manages Tiempo Argentino: "I understand that what we want will not be achieved with just one Tiempo Argentino. There has to be many Tiempos Argentinos so that we can grow together." Photo: courtesy

“When Tiempo became a cooperative, our workers left us with no alternative. But the path we chose was the opposite of those studied in Europe. There was no initial capital. Our paper started with a large editorial office, no digital experience, and key areas could not be made more professional. Its cooperative history coincided with constant drops in GDP and the increase in unemployment and poverty, which generated a fall in consumption,” Borelli wrote.

Eldiario.es is a digital newspaper launched in 2012 in Spain, focused on general political news, with open content and a membership system that guarantees benefits for associated readers. France’s Mediapart prioritizes investigative journalism and has been live since 2008, with its reports available only to subscribers.

Both outlets, as well as Tiempo Argentino, were born in a moment of crisis with business models that reached the journalism market around the world and count on the public as their main source of revenue.

“This relationship that is generated with the readers is now different from the one from before where I worked in a newspaper, [when] I did not know who was reading me nor did I know what notes were read more. Now I know what is read more, what notes people are interested in. Then I can talk to that person to make him a participant. Well, we as a cooperative didn't have that notion,” Borelli told the Knight Center.

About to turn four years old in its “recuperated” phase, Tiempo Argentino celebrates survival with plans to achieve greater financial security. “We generated a scheme in which today 70 percent of Tiempo Argentino's revenue (between 60 percent and 70 percent, in the last year) came directly from readers. And we have about 30 percent of advertising,” Borelli said.

Adaptation of successful experiences

Based on his research, the journalist brings back to the Tiempo Argentino newsroom a series of ideas that he observed during the fieldwork and that could be adapted to the reality of the Argentine market. Early in the cooperative, Tiempo journalists sought out and applied good examples of monetization in use in other new press outlets.

“For example, when Tiempo Argentino began, we were already taking as reference the strategies they use to finance themselves in the case of Eldiario.es. Then we saw this scheme that they have the notes for the partners, [who] can read them before and then others read them. We apply the same thing. Eldiario.es members also have the possibility to speak directly with the newsroom or go to events they organize. We copy that model,” the journalist explained.

Tiempo Argentino publishes a weekly print edition.

Tiempo Argentino publishes a weekly print edition.

The changes involve a need to add to the team professionals with non-journalistic training who are more efficient than reporters and editors in the day-to-day management of the cooperative.

“We who are journalists do not know how to take stock, we are not specialists in marketing to get partners. Well, that is an idea that must be conveyed and discussed in an assembly, but that guides you to say, well, we have to slow down to strengthen the administrative part and then continue to develop the journalistic part,” Borelli said.

The Tiempo Argentino model

The business and administrative model used by Tiempo Argentino, in which journalists from a media outlet come together in a cooperative to manage it, can be replicated in other countries, according to Borelli. However, he teaches, the specific case of Tiempo Argentino was preceded by some essential conditions.

  1. The newsroom had a high level of unionization and organization. “First, I would say that Tiempo Argentino had, already before in the private stage, a high percentage of workers and journalists who were part of the unions of the press union. (...) Assemblies that were previously served to claim salary improvements with the owner will be transformed into assemblies to discuss the economic project of the cooperative.”
  2. Crisis encouraged professionals to try something new. “In Argentina, at the time Tiempo closed, many media closed and it was impossible for a journalist who would like to continue working as a journalist to go elsewhere. Very few colleagues left at that time for another media outlet that hired them, because the crisis was very great in those years. (...) I think in the first year of Macri there were around 1,500 layoffs of press workers,” Borelli said.
  3. In Argentina, the legislation allows the existence of “recuperated companies,” in which workers' cooperatives assume the executive functions after the bankruptcy or loss of interest of investors in the business. “In the 90s, many factories were closed in Argentina and workers organized themselves as a cooperative and managed to get a judge to empower them to produce in the factory that had been broken. When Tiempo comes out, they also approached the workers, they came to the newsroom and told us about their process, talked to us and helped us,” he remembered.

In the new information environment, Borelli believes that the emergence of other independent media can contribute to the strengthening of outlets that are already on the market. He recognizes that the change involves public valuing journalism, after years of crisis around business models and companies that partially undermined its credibility.

“I understand that what we want will not be achieved with just one Tiempo Argentino. There has to be many Tiempos Argentinos so that we can grow together because what needs to be introduced, I believe, in the Argentine market, is the notion that the readers have to finance necessary journalism.”