By Dylan Baddour
This story is part of a special project on Innovators in Latin American and Caribbean Journalism.
She hosts La Pulla, a five-to-eight-minute “video column” put out by Colombia’s oldest newspaper, El Espectador. At a time when traditional media are struggling to bring a new generation into their readership, La Pulla has proven a viral success among a young audience, due in large part to Baena’s eccentric, searing style.
“It’s like putting all my energy into a character, putting all my rage,” she told the Knight Center. “It’s like a fictional character, but a journalist who reports true facts.”
Produced by a team of three journalists and filmed in the publisher’s office with a camera set atop a stack of books, the episodes regularly exceed 1 million views on Facebook and also pull in high numbers on YouTube, sporting provocative titles like, “ten steps to be assassinated in Colombia,” “Here’s how multinationals evade taxes,” and “what your domestic employee would like to tell you.”
Seldom have other traditional media have been able to pull of such a hip production as La Pulla. Even for El Espectador, this home run came after a decade of turbulent experimentation, which saw the birth and death of stories for children, countless blogs and numerous video projects at the newspaper.
Nelson Padilla, Sunday editor at El Espectador, said the recipe for success involves a reorganization of the traditional newsroom hierarchy that had suited veterans calling the shots behind closed doors while young grunts clacked quietly away at their keyboards. Now, the folks on top look to those at the bottom for answers.
“The new ideas come from new generations,” said Padilla, who started his first job at El Espectador in 1991. “We’ve had to give the interns more responsibility.”
Baena was one of those interns. She started at El Espectador in 2014 while studying political science and communication at a Bogotá university. Later she was hired to cover environmental issues. Then one day, she got an email announcing the paper would hold auditions for a new video segment.
The idea had already been kicked around the newsroom for a few months, honed by a group of young friends from different departments who wanted to see the newspaper produce the type of media that they liked to consume: American late night talk shows and trendy YouTubers.
“The cool thing is that La Pulla came about in an atypical way,” said Daniel Salgar Antolinez, 31, then-international reporter at El Espectador and a founding member of La Pulla team. “It didn’t come as a strategy from above, but rather from below, from the journalists.”
Management had been looking for a way to interest younger readers in the opinion section. Another video project had been tried—a political humor series—but it required actors, scripts, fancy cameras and a set. Too complex, that project died in six months. So the journalists had a simpler idea.
“We wanted to be like YouTubers, but also with good journalism,” said Salgar, now the Spanish-language editor for the Turkish Anadolu news agency.
Approved for launch, the yet unnamed video series needed a host. When the email for auditions went out, Baena signed up.
She read the sample script, a piece about a recent scandal involving sexual abuse and police officers, then she memorized it. She sat in front of her computer practicing, searching for a voice that could speak for her generation—young people plugged in to the global community and baffled by their country’s history of corruption, civil war, drug violence and assassinations.
She thought of the style of Jaime Garzón, a Colombian journalist and peace activist famous for his quick-witted satire, who was murdered by political enemies in the streets of Bogotá in 1999. Baena felt a sense of rage, boiled over frustration with the absurdity of such dysfunction.
“For me it was important to show that emotion,” she said. “Rabid, indignant, with a very strong tone, we are getting this from the young people.”
“Through laughter, we could show how absurd this country is,” she said.
Soon her character emerged: a sincere and deeply frustrated woman who delivers journalistic reports with flailing arms and a tone of disbelief; a woman who speaks in an abrasive way that women are not known to speak in Colombian media; a newscaster who breaks the doll-faced standard, with frizzy hair and a man’s coat and tie.
Baena aced the audition. A five-member team wrote the script for the first episode of the series then named La Pulla, or “the taunt.” The video launched in April 2016 and went viral. The second video had even more hits. The team knew they had a hit.
Later they sought to monetize La Pulla, but didn’t want to put ads or product plugs into the show. They won grant funding from Instinto de Vida, a project supported by Open Society Foundations, to produce seven episodes on lethal violence in Latin America. German political foundation Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung financed episodes on housekeepers, multinational corporations, a Bogotá slum and cyberactivism. Sponsored episodes end with a sentence on screen identifying the funder.
“La Pulla discovered that, yes, you can do journalism like this without putting ads everywhere,” said Salgar. “That discovery was very important.”
Now various foundations pledge funds for La Pulla to address their own target issues, and the program pays the salaries of its team, who also earn money giving public talks.
As a result, La Pulla will remain free, even as El Espectador announced earlier this month that its website will go behind a paywall starting in March. It couldn’t be monetized with a paywall anyway, the journalists said, as few viewers find it on the homepage, but rather on Facebook or YouTube.
Furthermore, prospects for funding are looking up at La Pulla. Just last week, the show launched one of its most successful episodes –a criticism of fear mongering over “castrochavismo”– which has racked up 1.7 million views and 115,000 shares on Facebook since it was published on Feb. 22, and ended with an announcement of a year-long series funded by Open Society Foundations that will address elections in Latin America, migration, Colombian politics and human rights in the continent.
The peace process in Colombia has provided La Pulla one of its best-performing pieces: an episode from November 2017 about the possibility of FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, becoming president of the country. Guest hosted by team member and coordinator of opinion at El Espectador, Juan Carlos Rincón Escalante, the episode received 5 million views on Facebook.
In general, episodes about major trending news themes score the most views for La Pulla, which won a Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award in 2016 for its video “Allow homosexuals to adopt.”
Other top performing episodes include: commentary on Colombia’s peace process with a guest appearance by a popular YouTuber, criticism of Colombia’s rejection of the peace accords by popular vote in 2016 and an episode about a takeover by police and soldiers of a neighborhood in Bogotá known as the Bronx that had "its own government," as explained by La Pulla.
Now the paper is launching other video columns similarly inspired, including a feminist talk program and a social media news cast.
“It helps the reputation of El Espectador,” said Padilla, the Sunday editor. “It shows us like a modern media, inclusive and liberal.”
* This story has been updated to correct the names of María Paulina Baena and Nelson Padilla.
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.