Angel Alayon is an economist in one of the craziest economies in the world, Venezuela, where inflation is more than 60 percent annually. It is awash in petroleum yet has chronic shortages of milk.
And he is a journalist in a country whose government has been censoring enemies by buying them up and turning them into pro-government mouthpieces or cutting their supplies of newsprint.
Add to that, only 41 percent of the population are Internet users. So he is used to challenges. Maybe that is why he has been undaunted about creating a website with the unsexy concept of journalism of ideas, ProDaVinci.
With a full-time staff of only three, ProDaVinci has monthly traffic averaging 1.5 million page views to articles about economics, art, literature, science and technology.
The latest month's numbers from Google Analytics were:
- 1.6 million page views
- 852,000 users
- 1:22 average session duration
- 84 percent bounce rate
- 49.9 percent new users
"We don't compete with the news sites," Alayon told me in an interview in Mexico City, where he had given a workshop. "Our network of 50 collaborators, who are experts in their fields, responds very quickly to news events and offers analysis of what they mean and what their consequences will be."
The website's collaborators include professors and experts in architecture, economics, literature, public policy, culture, and many other topics.
Probably more important from a business perspective is that 15 percent of those users are coming to the site more than 9 times a month — loyal users, in other words. And 7 percent come more than 25 times a month.
The volume of traffic has started to attract advertising from media buyers, which has allowed the site to continue expanding gradually.
The biggest expense is the three full-time journalists. The business model has been to keep costs low and expand only as the growth in revenues allows. Alayon declined to give specific revenue numbers. Any profits are re-invested.
Alayon draws a monthly salary as director but the majority of his personal income comes from his work as a professor and consultant. He dedicates about three hours a day to ProDaVinci. A year ago he added a partner, the Venezuelan writer Oscar Marcano.
Journalism of ideas
Alayon started out writing a blog five years ago and converted it to an online magazine 2 1/2 years ago. I got to know him in 2011 when he was one of 10 participants in an online course in entrepreneurial journalism that I coordinated for the Foundation for New Journalism in Iberoamerica (FNPI, for its initials in Spanish).
From the beginning, Alayon's idea has been to create something more in-depth than the journalism he was seeing all around him. Obtaining high traffic numbers was never his goal. "Being a part of the conversation is more important than the number of clicks. You can't let yourself be tyrannized by clicks."
The big challenge for any digital medium, he said, is to attract a part of the fragmented digital audience. All media and social networks are competing for people's attention. But for him, it is not as important that a particular article received 100,000 page views as it is that an article with 1,000 page views reached people who have the power to steer policy or effect change.
It is easy to get lots of clicks with stories about sex and celebrity scandal, he said. What gets him excited is to hear that an article on ProDaVinci started a discussion among people over lunch or at a meeting.
Censorship in Venezuela
Another challenge is avoiding the heavy hand of the government of President Nicolas Maduro, whose socialist policies have lost popularity because of rampant inflation and chronic shortages of basic products. The falling price of crude oil has hit the government hard since it depends on exports for much of its revenue.
For Alayon, the formula is not self-censorship but high ethical standards: don't attack people or institutions, but do challenge their ideas. For topics that are controversial, he and his team give special attention to verifying facts and figures. They do not let writers express opinions that are not buttressed by facts.
Alayon, 42, has a bachelor's degree from the University of Santa Maria in Caracas and a master's degree from the University of Chicago, where he focused on applied economics. Although Chicago is famous for nurturing conservative economists, Alayon's own writing does not necessarily follow that line.
Audience becomes mobile, social
Alayon worries every day about how to compete for attention and keep the traffic coming. The Internet audience has changed dramatically in just the last year. Half the site's traffic now comes from mobile devices, so he is planning to invest and create a mobile version of the content.
The other big change is that two-thirds of the traffic is now coming from social networks, with half of that from Facebook alone. When Facebook tweaks its algorithm, every website feels it.
"The issue is the same for social networks and the whole ecosystem of digital media --reputation," he said. "The goal is that people know if they enter your site it's because your content is carefully crafted and responsibly researched. And it should not be boring."
Alayon wants everyone who comes to ProDaVinci -- even those who visit just once or twice month to read a particular writer -- to experience carefully crafted and edited work.
ProDaVinci is also on the country's top non-music radio station with twice a week with one-hour interview programs during drive time and is producing a 15-minute video interview program twice a month that has obtained a sponsor.
Alayon compares the business of attracting and keeping an audience to the secret of maintaining a successful marriage. He quoted the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who said, "You have to get up every day with the goal of winning your spouse's love as if it were the very first time."
Below is a full video interview with Alayon in Spanish.
James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Gabriel S. Delgado C.