What Can Mexico’s Digital Media Startups Teach The World About The Future Of Journalism?: Nathaniel Parish Flannery (Forbes)


Por Nathaniel Parish Flannery,  publicado en Forbes

NOV 4, 2015

Mexico is emerging as Latin America’s most important hub of digital journalism. At a time of turbulence in the global media market when traditional news organizations around the globe are being tossed around by tempestuous financial currents, many of Mexico’s most prestigious journalists are jumping ship, preferring to build their own digital news start-ups and navigate the difficult waters on their own. Standouts from Mexico’s new generation of digital media startups include SinEmbargoEl Daily PostHorizontalChiapas Paralelo,Animal Politico and Emeequis. During a recent interview, SinEmbargo’s Director of ContentRita Varela told me that Sin Embargo is pulling in an average of between 17 and 18 million unique visitors a month. Embracing social media has helped SinEmbargo connect with readers checking for news on their phones and tablets. “We’ve gotten a good response. We have high-quality readers; young people, students, graduates, professionals, politicians, business people, and social leaders. It’s the cream of the crop. We have a very elite profile of readers,”  she told me.

Over the last few months I collaborated on a report on digital media startups. In the study, which was published by Columbia University’s Anya Schiffrin, I explained “Mexico’s media market, like many other aspects of the country’s economy, is a paradoxical mix of encouraging trends and ominous threats. Mexico enjoys a leadership role within Latin America’s media sector, producing many of the region’s best magazines, TV shows, movies, and newspapers.” Chilango, which focuses on culture and politics in Mexico city, Gatopardo, which takes a regional approach to the same issues, and Nexos, a public policy magazine, are all recognized for being some of the best magazines in Latin America. Unfortunately, despite success stories in many areas, Mexico is also one of the most challenging places in the world to practice journalism. Serious threats from heavy-handed politicians and criminal groups make it very challenging for local journalists to cover crime and politics. At the same time, reliance on government advertising allows many small publications to operate but also limits their editorial independence. In a market where one TV company, Televisa, dominates the broadcast TV market, a new generation of digital media start-ups is playing an increasingly important role in Mexico’s political life.

One start-up, Chiapas Paralelo, is slowly starting to make a name for itself. As I explained in the report, Chiapas Paralelo, a digital media company reporting on the southern state of Chiapas, “frequently publishes op-ed pieces criticizing politicians for being corrupt and also runs news stories about citizens’ complaints and demands for government accountability. The group’s stated goal—providing news from a citizen’s perspective and eschewing the strategy of acting as an outlet for government publicity—means that the site isn’t likely to receive much advertising support from government agencies, the lifeline for many local media outlets in Mexico.” As is the case at other start-ups, the goal of editorial independence runs against many of their basic business interests. “We saw the need for news from a citizen’s perspective. The media weren’t meeting people’s needs,” the site’s co-founderAngeles Mariscal told me.

The challenge of generating ad revenue while also engaging in critical analysis is seen by other digital media entrepreneurs. Pedro Pardo, founder of a start-up called Liberacion, which is based in Acapulco in the state of Guerrero, told me, “We want to generate top-quality, critical, informative content. [But] we’re in a difficult stage—the economy in Guerrero is poor so it’s hard to get financing from the private sector. There are also universities that can invest, but it’s a very difficult process. It’s very hard to do business. The government is really the entity that can invest in publicity—it’s political publicity.” Pardo is based in Guerrero, one of the most poverty-stricken, violent, and politically complicated places in Mexico. He knows that his start-up faces challenges. “The risk is that we won’t earn enough to balance out costs and that we won’t have the ability to do real journalism if we want to business with the government, that’s the risk. We live in a state with a lot of security complications and the press is vulnerable. That’s a historical fact. I’ve had colleagues attacked by criminals and people say it’s because of their editorial line. So that’s the line: we have to be cautious about a lot of things, but we don’t want to censor ourselves,” he told me.

Still, despite the challenges, veteran digital news companies like SinEmbargo and Animal Politico are starting to establish financial stability. In a certain sense, being an internet-only publication also has benefits when it comes to editorial independence. Lower costs make it easier to cover expenses through a mix of small ad-buyers. Animal Politico’s founding editor Daniel Moreno told me, “Having a larger number of ad buyers prevents you from depending on one source. Clients have different campaigns. You lose a client, you get another. That’s how the ad world works.” Overall, though, advertising remains the biggest challenge for many startups. Mariscal told me, “Looking for ad buyers is very hard in Mexico. People in Mexico think buying ads means buying control of the editorial content. So we think it’s a long-term goal. We can get ads from social organizations. Ads from the private sector have been small so we are looking for other sectors.” Nevertheless, operating as a business that performs a social function and preserves editorial independence continues to be the biggest challenge. Octavio Rivera the Editor in Chief at El Daily Post told me that in Mexico, “violence doesn’t limit journalism. It’s the media outlets that are limiting their own coverage. They let the government limit the coverage. Media outlets don’t cover violence not because they are scared of criminals; it’s that they are worried about their financial security.” (Nevertheless, Rivera also explained that in many parts of the country, journalists do face serious security threats in relation to their news coverage.) As I explained in the report, “In rural parts of the country, where local politicians are often closely connected to organized crime groups, local media outlets have learned to survive (both literally and figuratively) by acting as mouthpieces for local politicians. In states such as Veracruz, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua and Sinaloa, engaging in critical journalism can be a death warrant.”

But, while many publications are eschewing government funding, they are also struggling to attract interest from the private sector. The luxury brands that advertise in glossy magazines such as GQ Mexico and Gatopardo haven’t yet embraced the new digital startups as a way to access Mexico’s fast-growing group of young, digitally-connected professionals. Vietnika Batres from Emeequis told me, “In Mexico brands don’t want to advertise with political and social news. I don’t think we have [stability] yet. All the media [here] is the same. They all face challenges with their budgets.”

Still, despite the financial pressure, Mexico’s new generation of digital media startups isn’t turning to click-bait to generate quick revenue. For instance, rather than flooding their site with short, quickly produced articles, Horizontal focuses on publishing longer, in-depth analysis pieces. Guillermo Osorno, the site’s founder, a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism program, told me, “We do analysis—it’s like Vox. Vox knows about public policy. They do more insightful pieces. That’s our model.”

As I explained in the report:

Mexico is a country defined by high levels of inequality. Its four wealthiest businessmen control 9 percent of the GDP. Overall, the people in the wealthiest one percent of Mexico’s population control 43 percent of the country’s wealth. At the same time, more than 50 million of the country’s residents live in poverty. One-tenth of the country’s public schools don’t have electricity. It’s a dynamic that many critics say that Televisa (the Mexican TV giant that controls 70 percent of the country’s broadcast TV market and is owned by a billionaire with close ties to Mexico’s government) isn’t doing enough to address. Other mass-market media outlets are also seen as having an uncomfortably close relationship with the government. Focusing on critically examining public policy and impacting the public dialogue on income distribution and income inequality are two of Horizontal’s biggest goals. For this reason, the site’s editorial strategy is directly linked to its business strategy. Osorno wants his team to have the editorial freedom to publish what they want.

“We didn’t make a huge website, we made a flexible one—with two or three updates a day, we are generating a lot of visits without generating a ton of stupid content. We have a small team. Our costs aren’t high, and that allows us to function,” Osorno told me.

The quality-first mentality is a common thread between the strategies of Mexico’s most successful startups. “You can’t have financial success without editorial success. If people don’t respect the content you can’t be successful,” SinEmbargo’s Varela told me. Despite the challenges, Mexico’s digital media startups have carved out a space for themselves in the country’s political landscape. Youth-driven political movements such as 2012’s YoSoy132 protests or 2014’s demonstrations about the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa school have been fueled by news coverage from outlets such as Animal Politico and SinEmbargo. Mexico already has Latin America’s highest rate of smartphone penetration and the market for digital news will keep expanding. Many Mexican young professionals are more likely to check Twitter for news than watch CNN. With strategies that involve keeping costs low, diversifying their ad base with a portfolio of small clients rather than relying on funding from government agencies, and whole-heartedly embracing social media, Mexico’s digital media startups are finding success. As many legacy media outlets struggle to secure ads to cover their print and distribution costs, editors at digital media companies may be starting to feel like they’ve chosen the right strategy.

Daniel Moreno from Animal Politico told me, “We don’t do digital journalism just because we can’t afford print. We don’t plan to make a print publication.”

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