Erick Falcon started out as a journalist. Mainly he liked writing about science, technology and fine food in long feature articles as a freelancer for the Sunday magazine of El Universal newspaper.
That might seem like a strange mix, but he lives in Ensenada, Mexico, on the northwest coast, about 65 miles south of Tijuana. Ensenada, with a population of about 470,000, is in the heart of Mexico's wine country and also is a center of research, in particular the Center of Scientific Investigation and Higher Education.
In 2010 he wrote about agriculture in the desert, an article that Reuters recognized as the best environmental reporting for Latin America in 2010. He wrote in Spanish and English, including for Cosmos magazine in Australia.
Then late in 2011, everything changed. El Universal decided to shut down its magazine, Dia Siete, that had been his main source of income. He was not going to be able to earn enough from his other freelance sources. Then his wife suggested that if the magazines wouldn't hire him, he should start his own.
So Falcon threw himself into this new project. He told me the whole story in a Skype interview. He experimented with the blogging and web-page platform WordPress. He learned how to set up a YouTube channel.
He drew on experience from a digital journalism course he took in 2009 that included online training and a three-day in-person session. (We met at the time. I was the director of the program, at the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico.)
Then in April of 2012, he invited about 35 local chefs, restaurateurs, vineyard owners, and opinion leaders to a luncheon where he described his plans for a new online magazine covering local science, technology, ecology and gastronomy. Thus the digital publication Todos Santos was born, named for Ensenada's ocean bay.
It was and still is a low-budget operation. Falcon worked from home and wrote most of the articles. Some of his journalism students (he taught part-time at the Universidad Autonoma of Baja California) earned academic credit by writing for the publication.
The lure of print
After a short time, the site was getting about 9,000 visitors a month. In the eight months of publishing in 2012, digital advertising brought in about US$2,300. The next year, digital generated about US$3,800. Nearly all of this was profit, but it was not a lot more than the minimum wage for a journalist in Mexico, which is about $4,800 a year. Experienced journalists make around US$10,000-US$12,000.
Falcon was savvy enough to realize that his locally focused coverage on narrow topics would never generate the number of visitors needed for Google AdSense or other third-party advertising networks to produce significant income.
Local business people were rather old-school about advertising and didn't understand digital media, Falcon said.
They would ask him, "Where is the print version?" So in 2013, he decided to give them what they wanted in a quarterly magazine.
The first edition of 36 pages, and 3,000 copies, came out in the summer of 2013. It focused on food, wine, restaurants and vineyard owners. It was mainly free distribution and produced about US$4,000 in revenues. After printing, taxes and other costs, Falcon netted about $1,200.
The next quarter's issue focused on science and had a cover story on the colony of great white sharks located around nearby Guadalupe Island. It bombed financially. "Scientists don't like to spend on advertising," Falcon explained. Still, he made a small profit, about $300.
He decided that science and technology coverage would appear only in the digital edition. Future print editions would focus on the profitable sectors of wine, food and the hospitality industry.
At the end of 12 months, the revenues for four print editions totaled US$16,000 of which Falcon netted about US$4,000 after taxes.
"We're a tiny David when compared to the three local newspapers and many competing social scene magazines, so we constantly have to innovate to make up for our boutique-size circulation," Falcon said. Innovations include use of infographics, online social contests and promotions with businesses, and a website design that optimizes how content is displayed to mobile users, which are 45 percent of their traffic.
Tough transition to businessperson
Falcon has learned a great deal about marketing, administration and business. Asked about what it is like to sell advertising, he switched to English: "Time-consuming. Hard. Discouraging. [Business people] say I am stubborn and ambitious."
Falcon, 32, attributes the quality of his English to growing up in Ciudad Juarez, on the border with Texas. He studied journalism at the University of Texas at El Paso and worked for several years for daily newspapers in Juarez and Tijuana before settling in Ensenada, his wife's home town, eight years ago.
"My wife Anna (Garayzar) is my editorial advisor. She knows the people and the place and suggests story ideas and angles that are often very successful. She's the one who actually convinced me to publish my own magazine after months of unemployment, so I have to give a lot of credit to her."
They have a son, almost 2 years old, who is a constant reminder to Falcon of the importance of business goals. "Digital journalism won't pay for his diapers."
It was Anna who advised him to focus the winter edition (January-March 2014) on the best places to have a wedding in Ensenada. This edition was successful financially and led Falcon into the tricky area of native advertising (also known as advertorials, sponsored content or paid content).
Five venues paid to have articles written and published about them, Falcon said. The articles were intended to carry the label "paid advertising" (inserción pagada) on them, but in the rush to complete the 40-page edition (he is also the page designer and production manager), he neglected to label the articles properly. The articles are labeled as paid advertising in the digital version, he said.
Falcon sees a difference between this kind of advertising for businesses and accepting money from government figures to publish favorable articles, which is still practiced in Mexico. For one, the content is labeled as advertising, he said. Two, the content is not meant to cover up corrupt practices of politicians.
Journalism and commerce
Falcon believes he can still be true to his original goal of doing a different kind of local journalism focused on topics that he cares about. It is just that some of the topics, as he has discovered, are not commercially viable. They will continue to appear in the digital edition, which does not have high production and distribution costs.
The commercial future was reinforced recently by the response to a print article, which also appeared in the digital edition. It was called, "15 reasons to Consider Ensenada the New Gastronomy Capital of Mexico," and featured photos and descriptions of the best dishes prepared by local chefs.
The article reached 180,000 people on his Facebook page between April and June ("reached" means that the article appeared in their timelines). The article received 2,000 likes in Facebook, which drives 70 percent of the traffic to the website. Falcon used other social media to share photos of the dishes.
When he talks to potential advertisers these days, Falcon likes to tell them he is offering them a "triple hit" — print, Facebook and the web page. Sounds like a businessman to me.
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 Sean Winters. Secondary image courtesy Todos Santos.