SembraMedia launches online school to help entrepreneurial journalists in Latin America and Spain

Latin American entrepreneurial journalists now have a new resource to help them run their digital media sites, focusing on education around everything from building a business model to creating better eating habits.

SembraMedia, a nonprofit organization and online portal created in 2015 to assist digital journalists in Latin America and Spain, has just launched its new school to aid in the education and training of journalism entrepreneurs in Ibero-America.

“We’re trying to teach entrepreneurial journalists all the things they never learned in journalism school: How to manage a team, how to do marketing and promotion and build a brand, how to make money and diversify revenue and how to take care of themselves and their teams,” Janine Warner, co-founder and executive director of SembraMedia, told the Knight Center.

Warner, a veteran American journalist, author and entrepreneur, is currently an international Knight Fellow at the Washington, DC-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

The school has courses in Spanish in four general categories: administration, marketing, how to make money and well-being. The latter includes courses focusing on things like preventing burnout or how to plan weekly meals, things that often fall to the wayside when creating and maintaining a new digital outlet.

“We take a holistic approach to supporting entrepreneurs and that section responds to that,” Warner explained, adding that the team plans to launch a technology section in the near future.

At the time of the launch, the school has 25 classes, but Warner said they expect to continually add to the list.

Instructors are members of the SembraMedia team and board, entrepreneurs in the region or academics dedicated to studying the subject.

As Warner explained, many are speaking from their own experience, like Elaine Díaz, creator and editor-in-chief at Cuban site Periodismo de Barrio. Students can take Diáz’ course to learn how to improve your site’s presence on social media.

The school has three general audiences, according to Warner. The first are entrepreneurs the SembraMedia team has identified in its media directory, which now contains more than 700 digital media sites in Latin America and Spain. The second are aspiring entrepreneurs, and their teams, who want to create their own digital media sites. And the third are journalists and others who work at traditional media and need education on topics like advertising, creating media kits, and other topics.

Courses range in price from U.S. $5 to $30, and in general, classes teaching how to make money cost more, Warner explained.

The courses themselves are modeled after online education sites, like Lynda.com. The pre-recorded courses are open all year and students can take them at any time of day.

Warner explained that each course is designed to take about an hour in total, including pre-recorded videos, materials and exercises, quizzes and a recommended activity.

“Our vision for the classes is that they are short, practical, very specific courses designed to meet the needs of very busy entrepreneurs with the idea that you could spend an hour on Sunday afternoon or an hour on Tuesday night at midnight if that’s when you have time free, learning a specific skill,” she said.

The time-duration of the courses was also based on the team’s own process of experimentation, research and training, Warner said. The format also helps to mitigate risk as longer courses require more investment of time and money. First they can see what students will sign up for and what is most useful. Then they’ll work from there, exploring the topics further.

In addition to fulfilling SembraMedia’s mission to help with the development of entrepreneurial journalists in the region, the creation of the school was motivated by Warner’s experiences with entrepreneurs

“In many ways SembraMedia is born out of the first MOOC that I taught for the Knight Center in 2013 [“Development of Journalistic Projects for the Web”] and the thousands of people that took that class and the not insignificant number of websites that were born out of that initial class that inspired me in many ways to create SembraMedia,” Warner said.

"We at the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas are so proud of SembraMedia and the role it is playing in helping journalists who have become entrepreneurs and are launching news startups all over Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula," said professor Rosental Alves, founder and director of the Knight Center at the University of Texas and member of SembraMedia's advisory board.

"We are also proud for the fact it was during a Knight Center online course on entrepreneurial journalism taught by Janine Warner that she met Mijal Iastrebner, who was a student in the program, and both went on to create SembraMedia. The school they are creating is a great complement of the fantastic work SembraMedia has been doing," said Alves.

“Training has always been a fundamental part of what SembraMedia should do,” Warner explained. “Our talent has been scalability. We don’t have the bandwidth to provide one-on-one mentorship to every aspiring journalist who wants to launch a news site, or even the 700+ that already have them, so the online school provides a place where our target audience can learn at their own pace, at a reasonable cost, things that really aren’t available anywhere else in this way.”

In Warner's own travels, she said she is frequently asked, “teach me how.” “Usually it’s teach me how to make money. But sometimes it’s teach me how to write a grant, teach me how to do the budget for the grant,” she explained. And so, the development of courses is informed by these questions and answers.

Aside from this more informal research, the courses are also based on formal research projects like the organization’s “Inflection Point” study, which analyzed 100 digital media ventures in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico in terms of various characteristics, including working conditions, challenges, profitability and innovation. One of the main findings was that while digital media sites in the countries are experiencing growth and profitability, they continue to suffer attacks and threats. Warner said the team is planning additional in-depth research projects this year.

Other sources of reference include the aforementioned digital media directory which was built by country ambassadors who carried out interviews or surveys with representatives from many of the sites in the database– and the experiences of the instructors themselves.

“We take a very journalistic approach to teaching in the SembraMedia school,” Warner said. “Our courses are based on our research into what’s actually working in the region and where we’ve identified challenges. And we’re working very hard to turn that research very quickly into courses and turn those best practices that we identify very quickly into courses.”

"We see ourselves as teachers to the same extent that we see ourselves as students," said co-founder and director Mijal Iastrebner, according to an organization press release. "The digital world is always changing. That's why we are constantly studying what works and sharing what we learn as quickly as we can."

The school has been live since a soft launch in December, but the SembraMedia team started a full promotion on Jan. 29.

They spent about a year developing the school, including growing the concept, creating the design, the technology and shopping cart system, Warner said. At the same time, they began developing courses with the instructors.

As Warner explained, one of the biggest challenges was finding instructors with the skills taught in the courses, who are also able to teach in Spanish and have time to develop, record and produce the courses.

The team carried out an internal beta test with its members, board and instructors, and a couple dozen people have taken the classes to this point, Warner said. She added that the feedback has been great.

The team plans to do some further surveys and interviews to find areas where they can improve the school. For now, she and Iastrebner manage all of SembraMedia’s initiatives, but Warner plans to find someone to be fully dedicated to the school's management.

Initial funding for the project came from a grant from the International Center for Journalists, where Warner is an ICFJ Knight Fellow, and from funding from a private family foundation.

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.