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June 7, 2018, 9:26 a.m.
Audience & Social

La Pulla’s wildly popular YouTube videos (born at a 130-year-old newspaper) are bringing hard news to young Colombians

La Pulla is run out of El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest newspaper. But to remain independent, the team fundraises for its own salaries, equipment, and expenses.

María Paulina Baena gets stopped on the streets of Bogota, Colombia. Young people ask to take selfies with her and tell her how much they love La Pulla. The 27-year-old is the public face of the satirical video column that has shaken up the way young people consume news in Colombia. Created two years ago by five young journalists from the country’s oldest newspaper, the 130-year-old El Espectador, La Pulla has succeeded at what publishers worldwide long to do — connect with millennial audiences.

La Pulla (which translates to “The Taunt”) was the idea of a group of friends — five reporters who were covering different beats for El Espectador and also “terribly bored,” Baena explained. “We never expected that it would become what it became — a life project.”

They didn’t really know how, but they did know that they wanted to fill the informational vacuum that existed for millennials in Colombia, and that they wanted to speak to them with emotions and a language that sounded real. YouTubers were a big influence on the team. “In Colombia, people are pissed off and they don’t know why. They don’t do anything about it. We said, ‘Let’s use that rage to do something more than war. Let’s have a conversation.'”

Colombia is going through especially convulsive times. The country recently ended 50 years of conflict with its biggest guerrilla group, FARC — the longest-running conflict in the Western hemisphere — after four years of peace negotiations, and faced its first presidential elections “in peace” at the end of May (with no candidate receiving a majority of the vote; there will be a runoff on June 17). Homicide rates are among the highest in Latin America, and corruption scandals are constant.

La Pulla doesn’t shy away from these complex and highly sensitive topics — on the contrary. Following a John Oliver-esque style of raw, no-BS language combined with in-depth analysis, Baena asks the tough questions in two- to eight-minute social-media-friendly videos: What does the peace agreement say about land property? Are we really going to have a country free of drug trafficking? Why aren’t FARC guerrillas going to jail? Why do we kill each other so much in Latin America? Why is everyone afraid of Álvaro Uribe?

The first script the team wrote, two years ago, focused on a scandal involving sexual abuse by police officers. It went viral. “The day after, I woke up and I had 500 friend requests on Facebook,” Baena recalls, still with some horror. “My Twitter followers went from 500 to two or three thousand.” Fame is something that she hasn’t gotten used to yet.

In 2016, one of La Pulla’s videos about allowing same-sex couples to adopt children was awarded the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award, the most prestigious journalism award in Colombia.

Before La Pulla, El Espectador had been trying to reach young audiences with video for some time, but its efforts kept failing. It lacked a strategy, and its videos had “no identity,” Baena said — leadership would just tell reporters to “go out and shoot some video.”

La Pulla turned the newspaper’s video efforts upside down: The team’s YouTube channel has more than 562,000 subscribers (compared to El Espectador’s 140,000), and some of La Pulla’s videos have nearly 2 million views on YouTube, while the newspaper’s rarely top 100,000.

YouTube has become La Pulla’s primary distribution channel. After a new video is released each Thursday afternoon, the team spends time answering people’s comments and listening to their suggestions. “We pay a lot of attention to our followers — that’s what makes us different,” Baena said. The team members have noticed that YouTube is where they’ve able to nurture and grow an engaged community, with more meaningful interactions than the ones they have on Facebook or Twitter. “A YouTube subscriber is not a troll,” she added.

Through that direct engagement with its audience, La Pulla has a very clear idea of who is watching and how to speak to them. Eighty percent of its followers are between the ages of 18 and 34, though it’s also popular with people as young as 13. When La Pulla gives public talks at high schools, “children go crazy,” Bena said. says. “The myth that millennials are apathetic, that they only care about themselves, is a big lie.”

All that La Pulla’s team had when it entered the battle for public attention was a retro microphone, a suit, a pair of red eyeglasses, and an office desk — the office of El Espectador’s publisher, Fidel Cano Correa, which they still squat in every Tuesday morning to shoot. Baena feels a little embarassed when she rewatches those early videos: “They look like they were produced by a bunch of primary school students.” But they already convey what La Pulla is all about: “No filters. We are honest.”

For the six-member team, the show’s “spine” is its investigative work. It’s the part of the production process that takes the most time for them — they spend a week or more digging into every story before they start writing the script.

Because of its biting criticism — which equally affects everyone who is mentioned in their videos —La Pulla’s content is labeled as “opinion” by El Espectador. One of the most common criticisms the team faces is that what it does is not journalism, and that its visceral tone spurs polarization.

But Baena believes that information and opinion are not mutually exclusive. “We do take a stand, but we are also journalists,” she said. La Pulla sees its role as going beyond selecting a quote from a press conference — it’s a translator of “empty concepts,” like the peace process or the Odebrecht corruption scandal, so that audiences can make better decisions as citizens.

El Espectador has been supportive of La Pulla since the beginning. The newspaper leadership believes that it has rejuvenated the brand, and publisher Cano Correa has given the team the freedom and independence it needs to equally attack all the subjects of their columns. (Still, “we are like El Espectador’s child,” Baena said. “When someone calls to complain, they call Fidel, they don’t call us.”) In a 2016 editorial, Cano Correa wrote: “Serious journalism can connect with new audiences and keep demonstrating why its existence is necessary. For El Espectador in particular, [La Pulla] has shown that, even if you’re 130 years old, you can be young and creative.” And at the INMA World Congress Conference last week in Washington, DC, Cano Correa touted La Pulla’s success.

La Pulla’s satirical tone has made it a huge social media success, but also a commercial challenge. “We burn all possible bridges with advertisers,” Baena said. Because the team treasures its independence, it’s looked into other ways to fund the project, including seeking grants from foundations and nonprofit organizations with like-minded visions. Some current funders include the Open Society Foundations and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. (Another revenue source: doing workshops at Colombian universities.)

The team currently functions as a small startup within El Espectador’s parent company. They are El Espectador employees and use the newspaper’s platform for distribution and recognition — but they also raise those funds to help cover their own salaries, equipment, and expenses so that they can work on La Pulla full time. La Pulla is one of the newspaper’s biggest digital assets, both because it’s its most viewed product and because it attracts an audience that would be very hard to reach otherwise. Its content all remains free, even though El Espectador recently launched a metered paywall.

La Pulla’s brand has opened up the path to other video products for El Espectador. Besides the weekly column, the team now also produces a weekly two-minute video of news analysis called “Me acabo de enterar” (“I just found out”), which is performing well on social media. The newspaper has initiated other more personalized projects on its YouTube channel that better connect to young audiences, like a show telling stories of the LGBTQ community and a feminist talk show.

“Information should be useful for something,” Baena said. “Taking a stand makes people wake up.”

Photo of La Pulla’s team by Daniel Alvarez used with permission.

POSTED     June 7, 2018, 9:26 a.m.
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