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May 4, 2016, 10:34 a.m.
Reporting & Production

In Latin America, a digital community of media startups hopes to make entrepreneurship easier

“Our mission is to support people who are creating new projects. One of the best ways to do that is to empower as many people as possible.”

Entrepreneurs tend to take for granted how easy it is to start media companies in the U.S. The abundance of capital and potential ad revenue and lack of governmental censorship make it relatively simple for anyone with an idea to get something started. (Whether they’ll be able to sustain it is another question entirely.)

Other countries aren’t so lucky. Take Venezuela, where years of inflation have tripled food prices and brought economic growth to a standstill. That’s made daily life hard not just for Venezuelan citizens, but also for the country’s media entrepreneurs, who have struggled to find the funds they need to get started and stay afloat.

Media entrepreneurs in other South American countries face similar challenges, and they lack a central place to share ideas on how to solve them. SembraMedia hopes to fill that gap. The site, whose name is a play on “to sow” in Spanish, is trying to build both a directory and digital community of media startups in Latin America. The hope is that by bringing them together, SembraMedia can help founders turn ideas into reality, and startups into sustainable businesses.

“Our mission is to support people who are creating new projects. One of the best ways to do that is to empower as many people as possible and bring them together,” said Janine Warner, SembraMedia’s executive director. (SembraMedia itself is supported by the Institute for Nonprofit News, and is funded by National Endowment for Democracy and the Cook Family Foundation.)

The first step, however, is figuring out who those people are. While SembraMedia estimates that there are as many as 2,000 Spanish-language media sites in Latin America, there hasn’t been one central directory that collects them all. To help with that process, SembraMedia has hired ambassadors in each country, who will be in charge of building and maintaining the communities within their countries.

The idea for SembraMedia came from Warner’s experience teaching an online course in enterprise journalism at the University of Texas. Warner saw no shortage of students with great ideas, but they lacked an understanding of how to turn those ideas into actual businesses. “Across the board, almost all of them needed the most help with making money, building a business model, and understanding what it means to be a businessperson,” Warner said.

SembraMedia plans to offer entrepreneurs that education through its site, via monthly case studies of successful sites and video interviews with the people who run them. But it hopes that many of the insights will come via conversations between entrepreneurs themselves. Once it adds a few hundred sites to its directory, it plans to build an online forum for entrepreneurs to talk, share ideas, and collaborate on projects.

The effort is similar to ALiados, a network of independent news organizations in Latin America launched in 2013. The goal there, as with SembraMedia, was to help the member sites find sustainability by teaming up on grant applications and marketing initiatives.

SembraMedia’s biggest challenge, however, is understanding and managing for the reality that no two Latin American countries are alike, said, Mijal Iastrebner, SembraMedia’s regional director. While the governments of Cuba and Venezuela have a tight grip on the press, Chile has been more welcoming to both the press and entrepreneurs overall. These differences means that what works in one country might not work in another.

Ultimately, SembraMedia hopes that the best practices it discovers in Latin America can be applied abroad as well. Warner pointed to Ojo Público, a nonprofit investigative journalism and fact-checking site in Peru. Fabiola Torres, one of the site’s founders (and a SembraMedia ambassador), presented a project at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in Denver called “Intensive Care,” a searchable database of 60,000 doctors and health insurance companies. Chequeado, a fact-checking site in Argentina, has also built a model that Warner says media sites elsewhere should emulate.

“We hope what we learn can also help traditional media companies in Latin America to be more innovative and bring fresh ideas to media companies in the U.S.,” she said.

Photo by Phil Whitehouse used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 4, 2016, 10:34 a.m.
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