Training as a lifeline: How Mexican journalism producers Dromómanos recovered from bank fraud

On May 3 of this year, Mexico City-based Dromómanos, a producer of journalistic projects, suffered a blow to its financial stability. One million Mexican pesos (about US $58,500) were stolen from its bank account through two unauthorized withdrawals. The fraud jeopardized the sustainability of the organization, its operation for at least three months and salaries for its nine employees.

However, almost four months later, Dromómanos not only avoided bankruptcy, but also proved the strength of journalistic training as a source of income as well as the creation of networks with journalists and media allies throughout the continent.

After the incident, the managing partners of Dromómanos, Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza and José Luis Pardo, made a plan to remonetize themselves after the financial blow. In addition to requesting some loans to meet immediate commitments, such as payroll and operating expenses, they took legal action to request the return of the stolen money.

But mainly, the organization decided to make use of one of its greatest assets — its expertise in journalistic innovation, production and training.

Spanish journalist José Luis Pardo, founder of journalism organization Dromómanos.

After being victims of unauthorized withdrawals from their accounts, Dromómanos spread awareness about bank fraud using their case as a starting point. (Photo: Screenshot of Dromómanos' TikTok)

Dromómanos launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Kickstarter platform, in which it offered to share its knowledge and experience as a producer of journalistic projects of regional scope, as well as the talents of several of their collaborators, in exchange for donations that would lead them to raise 25 percent of the lost money.

In the Kickstarter campaign, the organization offered rewards ranging from autographed copies of the book "Narcoamérica," written by Sánchez Inzunza and Pardo, to hour-and-a-half-long one-on-one consultations on how to build journalism projects, as well as workshops with top Latin American journalists.

"We had the good fortune of being close to several of the best journalists in Latin America, who generously offered to give a workshop on their specialities," Pardo told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). "We didn't want to just ask for support, but to offer something in return for that support and to also give the message that we still believe in journalism. And one way to do that was to have this star system of journalists giving different workshops in different disciplines."

Among the master classes offered as rewards, journalist Óscar Martínez, editor-in-chief of El Faro (El Salvador), spoke about how to cover violence; Mael Vallejo, vice president of content of the Capital Digital group (Mexico), detailed the basics of journalistic opinion; Eliezer Budasoff, editor of the podcast El Hilo (Argentina), taught how to edit your own texts; and documentary filmmaker Laura Woldenberg (Mexico), shared her method for researching stories and taking them to streaming platforms. In addition, Sánchez Inzunza and Pardo offered a workshop on how to land journalistic projects.

The master classes were held between July and August. The last master class, given by Latino USA senior editor Marta Martínez (United States), on how to produce and edit a podcast, was held on Wednesday 23rd of this month.

Each class asked for 900 Mexican pesos (US $52) as a donation, while the Sánchez Inzunza and Pardo workshop asked for a donation of 300 Mexican pesos (US $17.50).

The campaign raised a total of 242,800 Mexican pesos (more than US $14,000), which exceeded the initial goal of US $13,000. The great interest sparked by the campaign made the directors of Dromómanos decide to relaunch this year the organization's educational division, called El Salón, as a way to strengthen and diversify its business model.

"Dromómanos has always been involved in education. In fact, one of the 'legs' we are going to relaunch this year is the educational one," Pardo said. "The concept [of El Salón] is educational, to train journalists and form a network of journalists throughout Latin America, of quality, of depth."

The journalist said the Dromómanos team is designing a continuing education model on training topics that will be offered to journalists in Latin America through El Salón. With this, they hope to generate extra income, which will be added to the income they receive through the other channels that make up their business model. Those are international foundations, selling their journalistic products, as well as their consulting and content production services for companies and NGOs, known as Dromolab.

"The master classes were a sign of the great support and respect that a lot of colleagues have for the work they do [at Dromómanos]. Many of us had already participated at some point in El Salón, which is the part of the production company that works on journalism but through education, training," Budasoff, who was also part of the production of an episode of Radio Ambulante's El Hilo, about bank fraud based on the Dromómanos case, told LJR.

Budasoff, who is also a member of the Editorial Board of Dromómanos and is a professor of the Masters in Public Policy Journalism at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development (CIDE, by its Spanish acronym) in Mexico, believes that training is also part of journalistic work, especially in Latin America, where there are fewer and fewer outlets to do investigative work and journalists need to learn techniques and skills to launch their own projects.

"They [Dromómanos] already knew about the power of training. The Salon project arose for just that, because they understand that there is a need and that there is also something very valuable to offer," Budasoff said. "I think that's naturally going to continue to be part of their journalistic mission and also a source of funding."

The fruits of adversity

After resolving Dromómanos immediate financial needs following the bank fraud, the organization's directors sat down to discuss what would be the most assertive way to react publicly in the wake of the robbery. They debated whether to keep the event confidential or go public.

"The initial feelings were surprise, then loss, then frustration. And then, of course, a certain vulnerability, even a certain sense of shame that something like this happened to you," Pardo said.

Screenshot of the Kickstarter campaign of Mexican journalistic producer company Dromómanos.

The Kickstarter campaign released by Dromómanos surpassed its fundraising goal. (Photo: Kickstarter screenshot)

They concluded it was essential for Dromómanos to turn the negative experience into collective knowledge. So they made the decision to address the problem in the most assertive way possible. They chose to turn the tragedy into an opportunity for growth and contribution, both for the news outlet and its readers.

"We decided to go public because we felt our responsibility to the public was greater than our shame," Pardo said. "We know that [bank fraud] is a phenomenon that greatly affects Latin Americans. We wanted to offer that information, to respond with journalism, which is what we do, so that what happened to us does not happen to others."

Dromómanos designed a strategy in different phases. The first was a stage of raising awareness: throughout the month of June, the organization disseminated a series of awareness-raising content on banking fraud, using its case as a starting point, on different platforms.

With the message "They stole a million from us," they published videos on social media and columns in media such as El País. In addition, journalists who have collaborated with Dromómanos, such as Carlos Dada, from El Faro (El Salvador); Jennifer Ávila, from Contracorriente (Honduras); columnist Carlos Manuel Álvarez (Cuba); and Jon Lee Anderson, from The New Yorker (United States), joined the effort and recorded videos in support of the organization.

Also during June, during a second phase, the organization launched an informative campaign in its newsletter Dromomanía about bank fraud, including what is it, which are the most common types, in which banks it happens most frequently, how to prevent it, and what to do in case of falling prey to one.

The campaign also called on readers to send questions and their own stories on the subject. These will be taken into consideration for the development of a continent-wide journalistic investigation on bank fraud, as part of the third phase of Dromómanos' strategy, and on which they are currently working.

"The truth is that this is a topic that has not been dealt with very often. It’s a very complex issue where, of course, you have organized crime, and where you also have sophisticated structures," Pardo said. “When we first documented and explored it, we saw that the subject had hardly been investigated. And of course, that made us try even harder to do an in-depth investigation to shed some light onto something that has absolutely been in the dark, unknown to people. And yet it affects so many lives.”

The investigative piece, whose format and publication date have not yet been set, will address the causes and consequences of bank fraud, the volume of business in Latin American countries, and will try to decipher who is behind this crime.

"We thought it was great from the beginning that they [Dromómanos] responded to a hit in the best way they know how, which is by doing journalism about it," Budasoff said. “They transform it into something that helps illuminate a reality. Every now and then investigations appear or national data appears, but they don't necessarily take a look that can connect the whole continent with a common problem, and Dromómanos does that.”

For the time being, the organization is still waiting for the judicial resolution of its case, although they know that it is a process that could take months, or even years. However, its directors are satisfied to know they’ve turned adversity into some positive outcomes, and, most of all, that no Dromómanos project had to be canceled, nor any employee fired.

Even Dromofest, the annual event that Dromómanos started in 2021 as a virtual festival, in which journalists, writers, activists and leaders gather to reflect around specific issues that concern Latin America, is still on for its edition this year, although the date has not been set.

Poster announcing a series of master classes by Latin American journalists, organized by Mexican journalism organization Dromómanos.

Rewards for those who donated to Dromómanos' crowdfunding campaign included master classes with Latin American journalists who are experts on different topics. (Photo: Dromómanos Twitter)

"The festival is not at risk, in fact it’s been programmed. I cannot give an exact date, but we do want to continue with the Dromofest. We want to continue doing this festival in person, which will serve to exchange ideas on Latin America, on the topics that interest us all and probably, maybe some part will also be about bank fraud," Pardo said.

Almost four months after the fraud, the directors of Dromómanos have learned the importance of dedicating time, effort and resources to the financial part of their project. Independent journalistic organizations, said Pardo, must learn to surround themselves with experts not only in the editorial side of their organization, but also in the business side.

"We journalists very much like to surround ourselves with journalists, and that's good. We feed off this kind of creed and faith in what we do, which is often needed in complicated situations," he said. “But it’s also quite necessary to understand that projects are made up of many other things that escape us. There is an administrative part, an accounting part, and a financial part. It’s very important to take care of and surround yourself with capable people who know how to do things that you don't.”

Diversification is a key issue for the sustainability and economic health of journalistic projects. And Dromómanos learned that diversification not only means having different sources of income, but also having different ways of saving and managing those resources.

"Now we have money in different accounts. We were already doing that, but precisely on the way towards good practices [this fraud] happened to us," Pardo said. "We did it anyway, and probably with greater urgency. Not to have all your eggs in one basket. Diversifying your incoming resources also has its parallel in diversifying your accounts, where you keep your money."

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