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How online journalism’s shaken up political coverage in Mexico

With traditional media facing scandal and a loss of trust, a new generation of digital-only news organizations is trying to fill the void.

Una versión de este artículo se puede leer en español aquí. Read a Spanish-language version of this story.

Mexico will elect a new president on Sunday, completing a 90-day campaign in which the media has been one of the key issues. Traditional news outlets have been sharply criticized for playing favorites — most notably Televisa, the largest Spanish-language TV network in the world. The ledes of a couple Guardian stories lay out the case:

Mexico’s biggest television network sold prominent politicians favourable coverage in its flagship news and entertainment shows and used the same programmes to smear a popular leftwing leader, documents seen by the Guardian appear to show.

The documents — which consist of dozens of computer files — emerge just weeks ahead of presidential elections on 1 July, and coincide with the appearance of an energetic protest movement accusing the Televisa network of manipulating its coverage to favour the leading candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto.

A secretive unit inside Mexico’s predominant television network set up and funded a campaign for Enrique Peña Nieto, who is the favourite to win Sunday’s presidential election, according to people familiar with the operation and documents seen by the Guardian.

The new revelations of bias within Televisa, the world’s biggest Spanish-language broadcaster, challenge the company’s claim to be politically impartial as well as Peña Nieto’s insistence that he never had a special relationship with Televisa.

The scandal and the blowback from it have some people talking about a “Mexican Spring” — one powered by social media and ground-up movements. (Read about Yo Soy 132 — a movement prompted by this viral video and this tweet — for more background.)

When traditional media is untrusted, it opens up space for new competition — new outlets, new voices, new approaches. And that’s what’s happened in Mexico, where a generation of digital-native news organizations has changed how at least some Mexicans have learned about the election.

“Digital outlets’ main contribution was that they’ve dared to do a different kind of coverage: more in-depth and investigative reporting, and they are faster and more flexible to update the news,” Gabriela Warkentin, a communications scholar at Universidad Iberoamericana, told me.

This new digital generation has nowhere near the reach of a network like Televisa, she said. (Less than one-third of Mexico’s 111 million people have Internet access.) But their impact comes from doing stories others won’t. “They have provided much more information and analysis [than traditional media] that could help voters on their decision-making process — and that’s not a minor thing,” she said.

As in the earlier days of the United States blogosphere, the number of readers may be small compared to traditional outlets — but those readers are disproportionately politically engaged and influential. They’re also younger, a demographic that could be decisive in the election.

La nueva generación

Animal Político (Political Animal), ADN Político (Political DNA), and general news site SinEmbargo.com are the most prominent new players. All launched within the past 18 months and report audiences ranging from 900,000 to 1.3 million unique visitors a month. (For context, Mexico’s most visited news site claims 2.2 million unique visitors per month.)

The editors of the three sites say there’s a hunger for independent political coverage attached more to audience needs than to politicians’ interests.

“Traditional mass media has lost credibility in Mexico, and portals like ours have made a difference,” Alberto Bello, ADN Político’s editorial director, told me. His site does some original reporting but also relies on aggregating content produced by other publications from Grupo Expansión, a media conglomerate owned by Time Warner and to which the site belongs.

“There are newspapers where journalism is not the priority because they don’t depend on their readers. The scandalous majority of papers live from public funds,” Daniel Moreno, Animal Político’s editor, said.

Animal Político, SinEmbargo.com, and ADN Político are funded by investors who, they say, have no ties with any political party and who believe editorial independence should be the foundation of their business. “If a politician wants to dictate us the content in exchange for advertisement, we don’t want it. Being independent editorially could bring you immediate economic consequences, but it will assure sustainability,” ADN’s Bello said.

“Revenue is a very important issue and a big concern now for the digital-only orgs,” Warkentin said.

None of the three organizations gave specific details on the amount of their initial funding, but all three said they expected investment support would continue until they reach break-even financially. In the cases of Animal Político and SinEmbargo.com, that will be “soon,” their editors say, while ADN Político estimates it will end the year with no financial losses.

“We are optimistic that Animal Político will have a long life,” Moreno said. Daniel Eilemberg, president of Elephant Publishing, the Miami-based company behind Animal Político, acknowledges that online advertising in Mexico is still immature, but he says it’s growing rapidly. (IAB Mexico projects online ad spending stands will approach US$500 million this year and is grew 33 percent last year, with particular strength in automotive and financial services.)

Trying new things

Not everyone is sold on the impact of the digital outlets. Guillermo Osorno, a veteran journalist who edits the magazine Gatopardo and who writes a column for newspaper El Universal, says “digital coverage has became more important during this campaign, but I wouldn’t say that journalists are making a difference on the Internet.”

León Krauze, a Mexican journalist who’s a columnist at SinEmbargo.com, said that the new outlets are headed by experienced journalists with background in broadcasting and print. “I don’t think there’s innovative digital journalism in Mexico,” he said. But he added that the mere presence of more outlets is refreshing. “It is the beginning of a phenomenon that’s here to stay,” he said.

Animal Político, SinEmbargo.com, and ADN Político have each tried to innovate. A few examples:

  • Animal Político crowdsourced what questions should be asked of the candidates under an effort called 10 Preguntas. It used the Personal Democracy Forum’s platform; you can see the questions and answers from most of the candidates here. “Animal Político has done a great job using social media, not only to share its contents but to monitor what its audience wants and to discover stories that were not covered,” said Warkentin.
  • ADN Político offers Encuestas de encuestas (Poll of polls), which compiles data from all public polls and lets the users interact with and visualize the data, comparing different pollsters and subgroups.
  • SinEmbargo.com runs video op-ed pieces. “They get as many hits as the written columns. That’s a big paradigm shift in Mexican media,” the site’s content director, Alejandro Páez Varela, told me. SinEmbargo.com also tried interactive graphics to visualize controversial statements, flip flops, and achievements by each candidate during the campaign.

With election day approaching, all three sites are focused on providing the best coverage Sunday. But the biggest challenge will start on Monday, when they’ll face the same question American political sites face: How do you sustain interest — and revenue — once the election cycle is over? Eilemberg of Animal Político says they’re hoping to expand in new ways, like events and syndication.

“That’s why we are also thinking about diversifying our revenue streams,” he said.

Photo of Andrés Manuel López Obrador campaign rally by Rosa Menkman and photo of anti-PRI graffiti by Randal Sheppard used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • http://www.dfwrealties.com/ Omni – DFW Realties

    Traditional media are not being independent in their outlook anymore. That is why online media are  being successful at filling the void. 

  • http://twitter.com/mututemple Mu Lin

    Just curious: If the digital-only sites also depend on advertising as the main revenue source, how can one be sure they will not bend to the same business/political interests that have biased the traditional media?

  • http://twitter.com/ernestopriego Dr Ernesto Priego

    “I don’t think there is innovative digital journalism in Mexico”, says Leon Krauze, of all people. Please follow this link for my article (from 2010) on how in my view he represents an old media hierarchy which keeps resisting change.