With short stories and artistic illustrations, a 1-year old Cuban online magazine innovates to cover water problems

Almost one year after its official launch, Cuban digital magazine Periodismo de Barrio decided to use the month of August, a time when Cubans traditionally take vacations, to publish an innovative project that explored a major natural resource through short stories and original illustrations.

Unlike the long-form articles and documentary-style photos that usually fill the website, this edition features 35 short stories, from journalists across Cuba, that feature language, formats and illustrations more commonly seen in literary magazines. While each article touches on a variety of issues, they all explore a central theme: water issues in Cuba.

“Cuba is not what happens in Havana, so we were trying to create a mosaic of voices all over the country. People came up with pitches and it was incredible, I did not know there was so much about water to tell, and that every story could be different from the others,” said site founder and director Elaine Díaz to the Knight Center. “As a result, we have 35 stories, 35 illustrations that we can use in other reports, but most important, we have a team of journalist that are willing to unite and write for a cause.”

When Díaz formally launched Periodismo de Barrio in Oct. 2015 after being the first Cuban to complete the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, the idea was to create independent journalism that addressed urban issues and consequences of natural disasters and that served as a space for young journalists.

Six journalists from Havana contribute to the site on a permanent basis and another 30 journalists from around the country work as freelancers. Each month's edition normally features a handful of long-form narrative pieces on a single particular issue.

For August, the team decided to look at water scarcity, access, misuse, as well as community solutions, Díaz explained, calling attention to the country's record-breaking drought.

Cuba has been in a severe drought since 2014. Citing official estimates, the Inter Press Service reported in June that 75 percent of Cuban territory was affected by water shortages.

Water reservoirs in the province hardest hit by the drought, Santiago de Cuba, measured at 36.1 percent of their capacity in early June, as reported by In Cuba Today. That province was receiving hundreds of thousands of Euros in aid from the European Union.

One of the Periodismo de Barrio articles published this month tells the story of “Iris” who lives in Santiago de Cuba. Author Lian Morales Heredia describes how Iris completes daily tasks while the need to conserve the scarce resource of water looms in her head.

Another by Julio Batista Rodríguez tells how truck drivers spend the days delivering water to the luxury hotels in Old Havana despite the lack of water in the capital’s pipes. More hotels are on the way.

Díaz said local communities have been receptive to the journalists and willing to share their stories. Those personal accounts make up the majority of the site’s reporting, according to the journalist.

“We also try to be respectful about their realities. It is very hard to work with people so poor or living in a building that it is about to collapse, or with a community that has to deal with an open landfill that´s increasing allergies, asthma and other diseases. All have something in common: they expect that you, as a journalist, can solve their problems," Díaz explained. “And we can´t. What we can do is telling their stories in a fair way and follow up in every case.”

One of the goals for the Periodismo de Barrio project was to work with local governments to come up with solutions for problems the site covers.

Díaz said local governments “are almost always open and cooperative, they give interviews, share data and facts and are honest about any situation in their constituencies. But sometimes, solving their problems is not easy and it is a matter of policy, at a higher level.”

Accessing government sources in Cuba is difficult for a non-state media site like Periodismo de Barrio.

State media in Cuba are regulated by the Communist Party and are considered state or social property. The Constitution prohibits privately-owned media. Some independent, non-state outlets are tolerated, while others see their internet sites blocked within the island.

Díaz said that some officials have refused to give interviews to Periodismo de Barrio journalists “arguing that we are non-state media, and they confuse non-state media with political opposition. Which is extremely desirable in some cases where we found weaknesses in the government.”

“A lot of non-state media outlets are dealing with this problems by using ‘life stories’ of regular people in order to challenge the way the government monopolize access to information,” Díaz said. “But, in my opinion, that´s not enough. Reports are weaker and you never get a deeper sense of the problem you´re reporting on if you miss official sources and the kind of information they can provide. For that reason, we have tried to push the limits imposed on non-state media and to talk with all the people working at the administration levels, to convince them that they hold data in the public interest.”

There are times when the effort pays off, and when it doesn’t, she explained. But they keep trying. Experience has taught them that interviews almost always will be given “when administrations have nothing to hide.”

When Díaz officially launched the site, the plan was to release the stories online, but also in paquetes, flash drives for sale that are uploaded with different media content. Since internet access is historically limited in Cuba, paquetes are a popular way of sharing information.

Díaz said getting the site’s content included in the paquetes in PDF form is expensive. Periodismo de Barrio plans to start paying the fees soon after the next edition.

However, internet access is growing in Cuba. Since state telecommunications company Etecsa first launched WiFi hotspots in the country last year, 100 have been established, according to Quartz. Despite the still relatively high price of internet access, the site quoted the state company as saying that about 150,000 people on the island connect to the internet on a daily basis. Quartz detailed how Cubans are using offline apps, creating personal wifi hotspots and producing other methods to gain access without paying high prices.

Most of the traffic from Periodismo de Barrio’s site comes from Cuba (25 percent), Díaz explained, citing Google Analytics. Another quarter is coming from the United States, with the rest scattered among countries like Mexico (6%), Spain (6%), Russia (5%) and Brazil (3%).

Unlike this month, September’s issue of Periodismo de Barrio will cover an array of environmental issues, including genetically modified organisms, organoponics, social housing policies, access to water, recycling and coastal communities at risk due to climate change.

The site also will return to its usual format of five to six long-form stories accompanied by photography from around the island.

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.

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