HOW TO BUILD ON THE MOMENTUM
Digital natives in Latin America are having an impact, but they are also vulnerable to physical, legal, financial, and cyber attacks, which threaten their lives and livelihoods.
One of the things that jumped out as we conducted this study was the lengths that some of these journalists are willing to go to in pursuit of the truth—even at enormous personal cost. Journalists in Latin America, particularly investigative reporters chasing down corruption and criminal enterprises, face increasing risk.
We believe that helping them to strengthen their businesses, helps them to have more independence and better resources to defend themselves. Yet while they are growing and developing these ventures, they need more support and protection from the threats.
Our analysis on the proprietary data we gathered for this study reveals that there are steps that can be taken to help these entrepreneurial journalists build stronger businesses while maintaining editorial independence.
Some of the ventures in this study have already found their way to sustainability – and even profitability, and the diversity of models presented in this study offers a range of options for those still developing.
We believe that if investors and foundations act in the following specific, measurable (and relatively low-cost) ways we suggest, many of these digital natives will quickly grow into impactful, sustainable (and even profitable) properties.
Here are our recommendations.
Connect them with organizations that protect and defend journalists
The desire to produce independent journalism drives their need to be fiercely self-sufficient. Their independence is what enables them to do reporting others won’t (or can’t) do, but it also leaves them isolated and vulnerable.
Although there are some support organizations in place for journalists, such as TrustLaw (Thomson Reuters Foundation), too often entrepreneurs are unaware they exist, or these startups are so small that they are unable to meet all the requirements on their own.
Part of the problem is that there are so many new media organizations that it’s hard to identify which ones need (and are worthy of) the support that is available.
Similarly, when digital natives need help, they lack a professional association to help them find support and denounce threats.
Recommendation: Fund the creation of a matchmaking program or umbrella organization to better connect digital natives with legal, technical, and business support services, including those that protect websites from hackers and DDoS attacks, such as Deflect and Project Shield.
Recommendation: Create a protocol for these journalists that they can follow when they are covering high-risk topics and are most vulnerable to physical, legal, and cyberattacks, and distribute it via the umbrella organization, or via a series of trainings and workshops throughout the region.
They don’t have to ‘suck’ at business
Journalists make great entrepreneurs when it comes to working independently, finding a problem to solve, connecting with an audience, and producing great content, but many of them suck at business.
We use the word “suck” as a technical term here, because we know that humor helps break down the barriers to learning.
After working with thousands of digital entrepreneurs over the last decade, we know they can get better at business, and it doesn’t require sending them to get an MBA.
What these journalist-turned-entrepreneurs need are classes that don’t suck and don’t waste their time.
The founders and directors of these digital natives need practical training based on real-world best practices, and they need it fast. They need to learn what’s working now and they need to start preparing for the next big disruption.
Recommendation: Create a mix of online courses designed to teach key skills quickly and flexibly, combined with local and regional seminars and events. Training should also be supplemented by mentors, consultants, and coaches.
The training needs to emphasize core business concepts that meet the unique challenges of digital media, and include case studies and courses based on the latest trends and technologies.
For example, native advertising is a growing revenue driver; but courses in how to manage sponsored content need to be developed with sensitivity to journalists who are naturally concerned about protecting their integrity and independence.
Similarly, they need help keeping up with technology trends, from new multimedia formats, to best practices in social media. For these kinds of ongoing updates, we recommend case studies and short online courses.
Provide training in ad placement, optimization, exchanges, and analytics
The use of ad exchanges among the top revenue earners in this study indicates that better use of the latest advertising exchanges, as well as ad technology and optimization, could could significantly increase advertising income.
The growing use of ad exchanges stands out as an increasingly important revenue source, especially because it seems to be helping them monetize their U.S. audiences. Even at the lower tiers, helping them learn to use ad serving and tracking technologies could increase revenues relatively quickly.
Recommendation: Create a series of courses and seminars to teach digital natives how to measure and track advertising response rates, and to use revenue optimization tools, such as AdNexus, to better optimize ad formats and placement. We identified more than 20 ad exchanges in use by those with the highest revenues.
Recommendation: Fund a regular series of research reports that explains which ad networks drive the most revenues for the news organizations in Latin America.
Foster sustainability with grants for business development
While we would never suggest cutting back on funding for great journalism, there is also a clear need for funding that supports business development. Many of the organizations we studied report that they are “stuck” because they lack the funds to hire qualified business staff, but the lack of such valuable revenue-generating staff is also what contributes to their chronic lack of funds.
Recommendation: Foundations should provide grants to organizations that show promise, but that are trapped in this classic “chicken and egg” situation. We recommend grants that help entrepreneurial journalists hire, manage, and develop professional sales, accounting, and business teams, as well as dedicate resources to audience growth, product development, and business strategy.
Prepare entrepreneurs for investment
Although only a handful of the media in this study are attractive investment opportunities for traditional investors today, many show promise. However, entrepreneurial journalists generally lack the skills to effectively present and pitch their organizations to experienced investors.
Recommendation: Train digital natives how to get their books in order, how to create a “pitch deck,” how to identify the most attractive facets of their business, and how to give a business-focused presentation to investors.
This may require establishing a long-term mentor-type relationship between the journalists and experienced entrepreneurs, but with the right support (in some cases combined with micro-investments), many of these sites could take the leap from just scraping by to profitability relatively quickly.
Help develop interdisciplinary teams
Most digital natives are led by one or more journalists with little or no business experience. In many cases, their teams are composed primarily (and sometimes entirely) of journalists.
To help them diversify their teams, they need more than just investment, they need help identifying and recruiting talent, especially in sales, where their lack of experience can hinder their ability to make good hires.
Recommendation: Create a regional recruiting service or job listing board focused on business people interested in social entrepreneurship and media. This kind of service would not only help entrepreneurial journalists, but other social entrepreneurs in the region.
Connect women journalists with international programs and mentors
There are a growing number of organizations and investors interested in supporting women entrepreneurs, and most would likely be surprised by the number of women launching digital media businesses in Latin America.
More coverage of this trend could help bring women entrepreneurs greater visibility and support and inspire more women to launch their own media companies.
Recommendation: Fund more extensive and in-depth research into this unprecedented phenomenon. Obviously, there are social, economic, and personal reasons that have led women to becoming entrepreneurial journalists.
Further research will help uncover whether women are becoming digital entrepreneurs because they have to – or if there is some characteristic unique to women journalists that is making them more successful at building high-impact organizations.
Recommendation: Create a travel fund so that women who run digital natives can attend conferences by and for women entrepreneurs. Such conferences are key opportunities for women to share experiences and knowledge about much-need revenue streams, mentors, and training opportunities.
Provide tools and training to better serve and grow audiences
It all comes down to audience. Whether you’re trying to increase page views to deliver more ads, or you’re working to strengthen loyalty and encourage readers to become members, the key is understanding your audience.
Many of these organizations could increase audience loyalty through email lists, events, and targeted marketing efforts — all of which have been shown to help convert users into customers, members, and donors.
Recommendation: Create classes and seminars to train digital natives how to read analytics, how to measure audience engagement, search engine optimization, and better use social media to build loyal audiences.
Negotiate group discounts for tech services and web hosting
Many digital natives can’t afford the high cost of the latest tech, and even those who can are often paying the highest prices because they are too small to qualify for bulk discounts. This is another barrier to growth.
Recommendation: Create a membership organization that negotiates on their behalf to help them save money and gain access to better technology. This organization will leverage economies of scale to get better pricing, and will also help entrepreneurial journalists choose which technologies are most appropriate for their level of development, rather than just blowing money on the latest “bright shiny toy.”
Recommendation: Create a technology resource directory with recommendations for the best tech options based on their size, needs, and expertise.
Create more opportunities to encourage collaboration
Some of the best projects produced by the organizations in this study were the result of cross-border collaborations by teams working both jointly and independently. These collaborations often arise through personal connections forged at journalism conferences and seminars that attract the best and brightest talent.
Recommendation: Organize a series of events around the region, with a special emphasis on sessions that explore innovative ways that journalists can work together to crack complex (and often dangerous) stories.
Recommendation: Funders could sponsor travel grants for entrepreneurs to participate in existing journalism conferences and events.
Recommendation: Fund research and case studies about how journalists collaborate and use the latest high-tech tools to produce award-winning stories and investigations.
Build bridges between traditional media and digital natives
From syndication deals to joint marketing efforts to transnational reporting projects, partnerships with traditional media help digital natives grow faster, make more money, and have greater impact.
When stories are picked up in national and international media, they reach a wider audience and put greater pressure on governments and other organizations to be more accountable.
When traditional media jumps in and covers stories broken by digital natives, it helps takes some of the pressure off, because more people become aware of the attacks that all-too-often follow in the wake of great, high-impact journalism.
There are precedents in Latin America that suggest pressure from the international community can help protect journalists, and even get them released from prison. International media attention also helps digital natives build credibility, strengthens their position among colleagues and peers, and validates their work and the quality of their reporting.
But it is not just the digital natives that benefit from working together; legacy media gain access to high-quality content that covers geographic areas, investigative stories, and topics that require specialized reporting, including health, the environment, and underserved communities.
Recommendation: Partner with organizations, such as the Inter American Press Association, the International Center for Journalists, among others, who are already working to protect journalists, but do not always include these new digital media players.
Recommendation: Sponsor conferences and meetups that bring together digital entrepreneurs and traditional media, where they can explore ways to collaborate on complex projects. Funders could sponsor travel grants for entrepreneurs to participate in traditional journalism conferences and events.
Recommendation: Fund the creation of a regional organization that matches startups and established media on projects of mutual interest, so they can share the cost of content creation, while also working together to build audiences (and thus revenue opportunities) for their reporting projects.