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July 17, 2013, 1:58 p.m.

Independent news orgs in Latin America band together in search of new business models

“Independence is the most important — otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”

A loose federation of independent news organizations in Latin America have decided to make it official.

Rosental Alves of The University of Texas’ Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas has been convening an informal spring colóquio in Austin for some time now, gathering together many of the most innovative new news outlets in Latin America, and many of those attendees have collaborated on reporting and publishing regional stories in the past. But this new network, called ALiados (meaning alliance), is meant to serve an entirely different purpose.

“The aim,” says Natalia Viana, of Agência Pública, one of ten members (some of whom are former or incoming Nieman Fellows), “is to chase new forms of coverage and to find out solutions — financing solutions and economic solutions — in a moment in which the media is in crisis and the traditional model of financing is facing a huge problem.” (We wrote about Pública last summer.)

If ALiados is aligned against anything, it’s the ever-darkening financial prospects for much of the news business. While collaborative journalism and content sharing are interesting prospects to some of the members, the primary goal is to band together in an attempt to locate innovative and alternative sources of revenue for their news organizations.

Who are they?

CIPER (Chile)
El Faro (El Salvador)
IDL-Reporteros (Peru)
Animal Político (Mexico)
Agência Pública (Brazil)
Confidencial (Nicaragua)
El Puercoespín (Argentina)
La Silla Vacía (Colombia)
Plaza Pública (Guatemala)
The Clinic (Chile)
While many of ALiados’ members receive foundation funding, and some are nonprofit organizations, most are actually for-profit journalism enterprises reliant on ad revenue. Their most important shared characteristic is that they are all independent from corporate and state-owned media, which in some of the members’ nations can be a powerful and even oppressive force. Keeping that in mind, the founding members of ALiados were particular about which news organizations would be a part of the early stages.

“We had a discussion about if independence is the function of the owner, and that’s not so easy to determine,” says Juanita León of Colombia’s La Silla Vacía. “So we decided not to use who owns the media as the standard.” Instead, members were evaluated based on their standards of verification, impact in the region, and narrative quality.

The ten organizations come from nine different Latin American nations — Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and Argentina. Some focus on regional issues, while others are more focused on national or local politics. And, importantly, they are all at different stages of development, of various staff and circulation sizes, and have different levels of experience when it comes to experimenting with fundraising.

“Agência Pública finances by nonprofit institutions or foundations. Animal Politico is commercial media. The Clinic is basically a magazine and a website that has their own bar — a franchise. La Silla Vacía has involvement from the public and has done a very good crowdfunding operation,” says Viana. “We are exchanging experiences, and seeing what we can do in the future.”

Indeed, León says La Silla Vacía raised over $30,000 in small donations (under $500) in its first crowdfunding experiment. “We didn’t want a millionaire or politician giving us a lot of money that would create a special relationship that would make it difficult for us to write about them,” she says. “Independence is the most important — otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.”

As it turns out, learning through collaboration how to combine that fierce sense of independence with the kind of savvy for fundraising that is sustaining these institutions will be ALiados’s core challenge.

The mission

Some ideas have already come out of this nascent alliance that go beyond merely trying the tricks that other members have already tried. “One thing is, in terms of finding a sustainable model, doing joint things together that will save us money,” says León. “For example, if we need information on how the market is changing, how the audience is changing in terms of consumption of information — to know exactly what percentage of the population in Latin America is using the mobile applications instead of desktops — we need that information, and it would be a lot cheaper if we all hired one consultant to do that study instead of each doing it on our own.” Software and other resources could also be purchased this way.

Joining together in a network also provides the group with more opportunities to apply for larger grants that they would be less likely to win independently. INN’s Kevin Davis, who serves as a friend and unofficial consultant for the alliance, says the group has even kicked around the idea of forming a nonprofit arm through which they could receive foundation grants directly.

Says Martin Pellecer, who represents Guatemala’s Plaza Pública (which we also wrote about last summer), “It will be much easier to find funds from foundations if we are Latin American than if we are national.”

But the reality for all news organizations relying on grant funding is that it’s not sustainable. Says Davis: “They are concerned that that money, if not now, will soon — as foundations do — move on to something else, and they know they need to replace those revenues.” As such, many of ALiados’s members are highly interested in talking about what kind of networked innovation they can accomplish around ad sales.

One idea is to create a cross-national marketing alliance “through which they raise awareness of those brands in order to attract local advertising,” according to Davis. Alves compared the idea to the Grupo de Diarios América, an alliance of Latin American newspapers based in Miami that sells ad space jointly to international advertisers.

Juanita León gave one example of how this idea could work. “In Colombia, universities are very interested in attracting students from Central America or from the Andean region,” she says. “We have talked about this with some of these universities, and for them, it would be great if they could buy ads in those media. They don’t really have the connections or the logistics for contacting that media, but I think we could cross sell advertising.” Other customers could include government offices or airlines.

But León is less confident in the second idea, a plan which Alves says was the brainchild of Peru’s Gustavo Gorriti. “Gustavo has this dream of using the same principles of fair trade to have fair advertising, showing that there are websites that are practicing journalism in Latin America based on high standards and aggressive independent investigative journalism,” says Alves. “Isolated, their audience might not interest advertisers, but together it may be a good point. The fact that they work with ethical principles and independents means they deserve consideration of advertisers who want to be associated with quality journalism.”

While it’s not clear yet exactly which strategies they’ll rely on to get there, most ALiados members are on the same page regarding their general goals. Pellecer said, within the year, he hopes to see a certain percentage of every member organization’s revenue coming from the alliance — maybe 10, maybe 15 percent. “It’s really important when you start one of these organizations to have a clear sense of what it is that you’re forming, what is the objective,” says Davis. “If you can agree on that, it’s easier for you to be successful. It’s not enough to say, ‘We represent the interests of these independent journalistic outlets.’ You have to have a sense of what you’d like to accomplish with the group.”

A challenge for everyone

In trying to follow this advice, ALiados has already run up against some differences of opinion within the group. While content sharing where appropriate is a natural fit for nonprofit networks like INN, not all ALiados members feel the same way. Says Alves, “There are some organizations that are more jealous because they are more concerned with syndication than sharing.”

León, for example, says she has no interest in publishing stories about what’s going on in other countries just for the sake of an alliance. “It’s obvious that we will end up doing joint stories, on national crime, and drug wars, or mining and its impact on the continent, and China’s presence in Latin America. But I was insistent that our focus should not be on that. We tend to think only on stories, and it’s so hard for us to think about the business model.”

Kevin Davis, pointing to the INN’s opt-in member strategy, which allows the network to enter into contractual negotiations without binding every member to every agreement, seems confident that a piecemeal approach for ALiados could be productive. In a time when the organizations doing this kind of impactful, investigative journalism are increasingly atomized, the need for flexible but strong joint networks like this one will only continue to grow. As Alves points out, some of the member organizations work in countries where their very independence from the state puts them at risk. Being part of ALiados not only makes them feel stronger, but also safer.

But Davis also warns: “If you truly want to be a bigger revenue target, or you’re trying to save costs, there’s a certain level of independence you have to give up. If you’re selling advertising and using a contract, you have to deliver or you have to give the money back. If there are collective revenue opportunities, how do you coordinate that when everything is so independent? That’s going to be challenging. It’s challenging for everyone.”

Image by Michael Heiss used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 17, 2013, 1:58 p.m.
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