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June 4, 2018, 9:11 a.m.
Business Models

Spurned by Facebook’s News Feed, Guatemala’s Nómada prepares for a more independent future

“At the beginning, we were very upset. But at the end, we can thank it because it exploded the bubble we were living in.”

When Facebook announced the News Feed changes affecting publishers worldwide — slicing the percentage of page content shown on users’ feeds, and cutting publishers’ Facebook reach in the process — several news groups were not surprised. The wake-up call for publishers in Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia, and Sri Lanka had come last fall with the Explore test, when the company ran an experiment that moved Page posts to a separate “Explore” News Feed altogether.

“It was an issue we [had been] avoiding addressing: we were too dependent on Facebook,” said Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, the editor in chief and founder of Guatemalan investigative outlet Nómada. “At the beginning, we were very upset. But at the end, we can thank it because it exploded the bubble we were living in.”

Pellecer founded Nómada in 2014 as an investigative journalism outlet with more teeth than his previous reporting venture, Plaza Pública. Plaza Pública had been housed at Rafael Landívar University. However, independent reporting in Guatemala comes with risks (Reporters Without Borders ranks the country as 118 out of 180 for press freedom, 180 being North Korea), and the university was becoming skittish about some of the reporting, Pellecer said. “We wanted to have more independence and be able to not depend on a bigger institution to maintain a media outlet,” he said.

Pellecer sought shareholders to contribute money to get Nómada off the ground and also to publish their names as supporters and allies of Nómada. “We told them that while they were doing their business work, someone else could take care of bringing more transparency to our democracy, so their businesses and the businesses of the next generations can operate in a market that is more transparent,” he said. “In countries like Guatemala, it’s very important who your shareholders are to resist political pressure.” Those shareholders today include Pellecer himself and Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo, co-creator of CAPTCHA, and now a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor. The outlet also receives funding from Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, and Planned Parenthood (it does reporting on reproductive health and women’s rights), among others, and some reader donations as well.

In its first few years, Nómada contributed to the political groundswell in the country, as Guatemala’s president resigned in a corruption scandal in 2015. Independent outlets including Nómada helped expose the corruption. Nómada has also taken a decidedly feminist stance, recently launching a vertical on feminist-focused blogs covering sexual health, intersectional feminism, and motherhood. Overall, the 16-person organization is divided into three pillars: the journalism branch, a content agency, and events production. The events help to bring the online-only publication in closer contact with its audience of young (most under 35) professionals, Pellecer said, but Facebook has been, by far, its greatest connector to its readers.

So the Facebook Explore test — which Pellecer said caused Nómada’s traffic to drop by 57 percent — wasn’t exactly welcome.

To address the longer-term change, Nómada hired a digital strategy manager, Paola Hurtado, in January and began building out more of its other channels, like search engine results, newsletters, WhatsApp, and Instagram (though the two platforms are owned by Facebook). “It helped us awake to realize that we need to be sovereign in our ways of distribution,” Pellecer said.

Hurtado, an experienced journalist, spent time with Univision and the International Symposium of Online Journalism to beef up Nómada’s plan, which involved changing its production model and its posting habits. Pellecer also moved his video blogs from Facebook to YouTube, even though Nómada’s YouTube audience is smaller.

The new production model encourages the journalists to focus more on quicker features and “Vox-type inspired” explainers rather than deep investigations, but Pellecer is optimistic.

“Journalism shouldn’t only be investigative [because we also have] a very important role explaining things,” Pellecer said. He said that taking a step back to help readers walk through current events has been helpful in more ways than one.

“The content is less in-depth, but we understood the audience needed explainers because we’ve been in political crisis for 30 months,” Pellecer said. “The audience wanted daily explainers of the political situation as much as they want investigative journalism.”

These steps, like the explainers, have helped increase site visits beyond pre-Explore test levels. Before the test began, Nómada had an average of 333,000 monthly visits, Pellecer said; the three months of Explore brought it down to 230,000 a month. Now, it’s at 800,000 monthly visits.

Hurtado is still developing a sustainable strategy for Nómada’s social media and audience growth, though she and Pellecer are split on paying for Facebook ads to boost their presence.

“If we want more engagement on Facebook…we should invest money. There is no other way,” Hurtado said.

“We lost the confidence in Facebook so we barely invested before and now we won’t invest anymore,” Pellecer countered.

Overall, Nómada is seeing signs of early success after Facebook’s pivot helped it rethink its production model. It’s not all sunshine and daisies. But it’s progress.

POSTED     June 4, 2018, 9:11 a.m.
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