Esther Vargas: 'Journalists need to educate themselves to stay relevant'

by James Breiner
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

Esther Vargas is a force of nature. She is social media manager for a Peruvian government news agency, she teaches at the Catholic University of Peru, and she is a tireless promoter of education for journalists through her website, Clases de Periodismo.

She and her team of four dedicated collaborators compile the latest news and courses of interest to journalists and share it all through social networks such as Facebook (54,000 "likes") and Twitter (@cdperiodismo 109,000 followers).

In addition, Clases de Periodismo -- "The Virtual Journalism School of Latin America" -- attracts 10,000 visits a day and generates enough revenue to pay salaries to its staff.

The financing model

The site has low costs. There is no office. The staff meets in cafes or at Vargas' home. "We finance the site with workshops, consulting work and social media work for various companies and events," Vargas said in an interview in Puebla, Mexico, where she was giving a lecture.

Vargas takes no salary. Her main income is from her job with the news agency and her university teaching. The question of how to finance the operation is always before her. "There is no clear model. I have to use my intuition," she said.

Despite her university affiliation, Vargas wants a non-academic flavor to the language of the website, which has tutorials, news about training seminars and articles on topics such as the challenges of drone journalism and a new tool for taking notes with your smartphone.

About a third of the site’s content is produced by her own staff, and they link to breaking news about journalism around the world. A recent piece covered Iran, where the government announced it would stop blocking access to Twitter and Facebook.

"I believe in getting scoops," Vargas said. "I want to be the first with news for journalists. We're open to try anything to improve our website. If you want to be a leader, you can't rest, you can't sleep."

Her team of young journalists works in four-hour shifts, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., updating the site with the latest on topics such as the first visit to the Washington Post newsroom by the new owner, Jeff Bezos.

The mission: teach yourself

For Vargas, the goal of the site is to help journalists improve, teach themselves and achieve independence. "Journalists have the responsibility to change and learn and evolve,” she said. “It's your responsibility to not stand still, to not get behind so that you won't be replaced by an intern or recent graduate. And you have to learn from young people because they help you understand the new stuff."

Vargas said she got the idea to start her website five years ago while taking a course in entrepreneurial journalism at the Digital Journalism Center at the University of Guadalajara. (I was the director and taught the course). Part of the course took place online and part in Guadalajara, where she met a dozen other journalists from all over Latin America.

"I started in the Digital Journalism Center, on an impulse. When I heard about the experience of other journalists, for me it opened the door to many opportunities, it gave me an understanding of the business," she said. "One of the best moments of my career was when I met you in the Center. And the experience told me that I needed to run my own show. That was fundamental to my development. I'm trying to keep going, keep working, keep looking for funding, keep moving ahead and continue doing my own projects."

Her goal: independence

Her personal and professional goal has always been to learn more about journalism and become independent. She has worked for various traditional media organizations, such as Peru.21, but she was always thinking, "When I have enough resources, I won't be dependent on any organization." Vargas' expertise is in management of online communities and social networks and how journalists can establish their own brands.

So it is somewhat surprising that this teacher of online sociability does not seem to be terribly social. She doesn't smile a lot, she speaks in a very flat, professional manner and comes off as a very serious person. By contrast, online she is sociable, conversational, warm.

Maybe it is because producing your own website isn't easy. "The audience is more and more demanding all the time and very critical. After all, they're journalists. You have to pay attention to this. If not, everything falls apart. It's my obsession," she said.

The obsession that motivates her.

This post originally appeared on the blog News Entrepreneurs. It is published on IJNet with the author's permission.

James Breiner is a consultant in online journalism and leadership. He is a former co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University and a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. He is bilingual in Spanish and English. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Image: Screengrab of Clases de Periodismo's homepage.