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July 20, 2017, 9 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Chicas Poderosas is launching an accelerator in Latin America for digital news projects led by women

“We are hoping to change the narrative in Latin America, where most media organizations are led by men.”

Over the past decade, Latin American news organizations have made some strides in introducing more women reporters into their newsrooms. In 2000, women made up 27 percent of the journalists working across newspapers, radio, and television in the region; in 2015, they represented 41 percent, according to the most recent report from the Global Media Monitoring Project.

Slice the data other ways, though, and wider gaps resurface. More than half of male journalists were between the ages of 35 and 49, compared to 33 percent of female journalists, for instance (that’s flipped among younger journalists: 43 percent of female journalists were between the ages of 19 and 34, compared to 14 percent of male journalists). Such numbers offer a window into what newsroom leadership in Latin America still looks like.

“And maybe you’ve seen, stories are shut down in newspapers because the government pressures; there’s censorship. Sometimes, people don’t publish stories at all, afraid they’ll get killed, or get their families killed,” Mariana Santos told me matter-of-factly. “So our goal this coming year: How can we empower women to start their own news organizations, independent, women-led news organizations?”

Santos is the founder and CEO of Chicas Poderosas, a Latin American initiative that conducts trainings and events like hackathons around newsroom technologies and new storytelling formats, with a focus on advancing the work of Latin American women journalists online.

Chicas has now secured initial funding for a formal accelerator program aimed at women across Latin America interested in starting their own independent digital news organizations or projects, whether for profit or nonprofit, and will focus on sharpening these news ideas in their earliest stages.

“We are hoping to change the narrative in Latin America, where most media organizations are led by men,” Santos said. “Hopefully new independent news sites emerge from this, led by women.”

Chicas Poderosas will open up for proposals this fall for the New Ventures Lab’s first cohort of teams, to officially start in January 2018. The first edition of the accelerator will be based in Brazil. The organization plans to hold three design-thinking workshops in three different Brazilian cities, after which it will choose six to eight teams through another application process (the teams are required to be majority-women and women-led) to take part in a 17-week program. The program will offer sessions on all the aspects of a news business from budgeting to audience and distribution strategies, as well as virtual and in-person coaching, and some funding to kickstart these projects after the 17 weeks are up (it’s seeking out additional funding to help expand its reach in the region). Interested in starting your own news site? Apply. Interested in developing a fact-checking outfit to supplement other news organizations? Apply. If the first iteration of the Lab in Brazil goes well, Chicas plans to take it to other countries.

When the Chicas Poderosas organization first launched in 2013, it involved Santos, then on an ICFJ fellowship, personally criss-crossing countries to work with women with all levels of experience on bolstering their digital journalism skills. The network expanded across the continent as some of those who benefited from training and connections to real newsrooms in turn continued to volunteer as “ambassadors,” setting up other Chicas events in their own communities. It’s trained more than 3,000 “chicas” over the years, according to Santos (the organization is called Chicas Poderosas, but people identifying as any gender are welcome).

The four-year-old initiative is now a full-fledged nonprofit organization, helmed by Santos, who left her day job as director of interactive and animation at Fusion last summer, and her co-director Vicki Hammarstedt, the digital media director of the Berkeley Advanced Media Institute. The two met three years ago when Santos was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, and Hammarstedt began helping Santos plan ways to broaden the scope of what Chicas Poderosas could offer to women working in Latin American media.

“When Mariana started the organization, it was about, ‘let me train women in newsrooms to use technology better, and help them advance in their career — that was a unique effort in Latin American journalism,” Hammarstedt said. “We stayed in contact with Chicas, with stakeholders, on what it was they really needed. And since then, we’ve evolved and expanded quite a bit.”

Santos will be based in São Paulo in the coming year, where the organization also plans to offer a co-working space for participating news teams as needed.

“There were so many spaces available to men to learn technology, but not so many for women specifically in news,” Santos said. “Our goal was always not necessarily for women to become developers, but to help them understand the power of technology and what they have to know in order to work collaboratively with other developers.”

She and Hammarstedt hope the new accelerator will attract teams from regions that are underserved when it comes to access to news and technology, and will try to spread the word by traveling to different sites in the north and interior, northeastern, and southern parts of Brazil. There are plans, for instance, for a design thinking weekend in Manaus in Amazonia.

“I know we cannot be everywhere, and we cannot be everything to everyone. But we can go to these areas, where indigenous groups are living, and let them be aware this is an opportunity for them,” Santos said. “Especially in those more remote regions, current news outlets often don’t cover what happens there. So we’d like to let people know there’s an opportunity for them to come learn how to make their ideas for storytelling and news come to life.”

“We want diversity of voices — and that diversity of voices can come from anywhere in the region,” Hammarstedt said. “So even though we’re working in Brazil, even if a team came to us from another country, and we saw that they had a great project and they were willing to work remotely and we could facilitate in-person sessions with them, then we could try to work with them still.”

In addition to the New Ventures Lab, Chicas Poderosas is trying to push its mission forward in numerous other directions — and seeking more funders and more partners (it already has a web of partners in other collaborative Latin American media organizations such as Connectas and Gênero e Número).

It’s broadening trainings in new digital media tools, such as around video and virtual reality, and doubling down on trainings and events to advance skills relevant to robust investigative journalism, including around fact-checking and identifying mis- and disinformation online.

It’ll soon be working, for instance, with the Google News Lab-supported collective First Draft News. First Draft’s strategy and research director Claire Wardle and senior fellow Nicholas Dias are headed to Bogota, Colombia, in August to train journalists in the area ahead of the upcoming elections there on monitoring conversations online and political candidates’ use of social media (“We will be basing our training on our learnings from the CrossCheck France project and the more recent project in the U.K.,” Wardle told me).

“I’m knocking on so many doors right now,” Santos said.

Photo of an event in El Salvador, courtesy of Chicas Poderosas. Used with permission.

POSTED     July 20, 2017, 9 a.m.
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