Lessons for news startups from the Entrepreneurial Journalism Lab

by James Breiner
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

Tenth in a series on teaching entrepreneurial journalism. This post is excerpted and adapted from an article originally published in Spanish in Revista Mexicana de Comunicación.

Latin American journalists have a great thirst for establishing independent media. Many of them are tired of working for low pay at media outlets that protect the friends and punish the enemies of the owners.

They want to cover topics neglected by the mainstream media, such as education, health, environment, human rights and indigenous culture. They want to expose incompetence and corruption in government.

More than a dozen digital news entrepreneurs described how they are overcoming financial obstacles to sustain independent journalism during the Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism this spring sponsored by the Knight Center for Digital Journalism in the Americas.

And 10 independent news organizations doing investigative journalism in Latin America, including some Colloquium participants, recently announced an alliance aimed at sharing content and finding new sources of financial support.

Higher barriers in Latin America

These digital entrepreneurs have a tougher road ahead than their North American counterparts. They lack some of the sources that have helped fund independent journalism in the U.S., namely:

  • an extensive network of venture capitalists looking for the next big thing
  • a donor culture and tax system that create huge charitable and corporate foundations
  • emerging entrepreneurs willing to donate millions to community service projects
  • an economic system less concentrated than Latin America's oligarchies of linked political, media and business interests

Experimental online training course

Given these conditions, the Foundation for New Journalism in Iberoamerica saw a training opportunity. Two years ago, the foundation, founded by Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, decided to launch an experimental project aimed at giving technical and business skills to digital news entrepreneurs. The goal was to help them achieve financial sustainability.

From a pool of applicants, 10 websites were selected to receive training in the Entrepreneurial Journalism Lab (Laboratorio de Emprendimientos Periodisticos Digitales) based on their journalism and ethical standards, and their potential for growth. They all had been in operation at least two years and had a narrow focus on culture, environment, photography, local news or sports. They were based in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Uruguay, El Salvador, Peru and Costa Rica.

The course was sponsored by Asociacion Española de Cooperacion Internacional para el Desarrollo. Participants paid no tuition.

As coordinator of the Lab project, I helped select the 10 and coordinated the training over the next six months, beginning May 2011. The entire course was conducted in Spanish. There were several parts:

  • 12 webinars with experts in marketing, innovation, mobile
  • a series of written assignments and discussions on topics such as web analytics, creating graphics, analyzing web pages of other participants, and analysis of competitors, taught on the Moodle platform
  • individual coaching with Lab participants as requested
  • more than 50 blog entries that expanded the reach of the course to the wider web audience. These blogs summarized the webinars and discussed topics related to growth and sustainability, such as marketing, advertising, leadership and business as well as profiling successful digital news entrepreneurs.

Webinar presenters and their topics were:

  • Bar­bara Yuste, ABC Spain: The need to differentiate your news product
  • Est­her Var­gas, Peru21.com: Managing your brand and image in social networks
  • Mario Tas­con, LaInformacion.com: New narrative forms based on data visualization
  • Gui­llermo Culell, Grupo Mer­cu­rio de Chile: Business opportunities of independent journalism
  • Pablo Man­cini, Grupo Cla­rín, Argen­tina: Hack into journalism with new technologies and techniques
  • Chris­tian Espi­nosa, Coberturamovil.com, Ecua­dor: New tools of mobile journalism
  • Ana Ormae­chea, edi­tor of Muy Intere­sante, Spain: The entrepreneurial culture of Sili­con Valley
  • Leo Prieto, founder of FayerWayer.com, Chile: Hyperconnectivity and how to achieve it
  • James Breiner, Lab coordinator: 10 new revenue sources for digital media; Using Google Analytics to build traffic
  • Lau­rian Puerta Ordo­ñez, Zonacero.info, Colombia, a Lab participant: How the site gained rapid growth
  • Car­los Enri­que Lopez Vides, Elsalvadorfc.com, a Lab participant: How to build traffic in social networks

The results over six months

In terms of marketing and visibility, we tracked the cumulative traffic figures of the websites -- total visits, unique users and page views -- for the six months of the course and compared them with the previous six months. It is impossible to draw a direct correlation between the course and the results. However, the seven sites with analytics software (that is, beyond that available on the blogging platform) showed:

  • 80 percent average increase in site visits (median 39 percent)
  • 57 percent average increase in unique visitors (median 41 percent)
  • 73 percent average increase in page views (median 22 percent)

Two course participants gave permission to reveal their figures. El Salvador FC, a soccer website, increased its total visits by 264 percent to more than 1 million by employing a series of strategies, such as updating news at least 10 times a day, promoting news through email and seeding its news in other blogs and web pages. Although the site has not yet broken even, its investors have promised financial support through at least 2013.

"This type of marketing costs us nothing but does require a big time investment," says founder and editor Carlos Lopez Vides. "It recognizes the power of the users to share and recommend the product. We, the editors, have to empower the users to maintain their interest and support."

Zonacero, a site of local news and investigative journalism in Barranquilla, Colombia, had more modest growth of 12 percent in total visits, 3 percent in unique users and 17 percent in page views.

Still, it was generating 200,000 visits a month in a city of just 1 million. And it began generating revenue through the use of a contract salesperson, to total $40,000 for the year, roughly break-even.


Each of these 10 entrepreneurial ventures was unique, so the elements of interactivity, discussion and commentary during the course helped each participant find solutions uniquely suited to their projects.

Entrepreneurs need feedback from their peers and from a coach, even if they are physically separated by thousands of miles. The distance-learning tools were critical to learning. And, yes, entrepreneurial skills can be taught.

In the world of new digital ventures, a survival rate of 5 or 10 percent after two years might be good. This particular group of entrepreneurs was selected because they showed signs of beating the odds. Nine of the 10 are still publishing and are now at least four years old.

During the course, two of the participants did 90-degree turns to redesign their websites and focus more narrowly on their local markets. Based on analytics, they decided that their most loyal visitors -- the ones likely to pay for events, buy premium products or services or patronize local advertisers -- were close to home and interested in local people and news.

These publishers decided to forego the flyby visitors to some of the stories of national or international interest that had been padding their traffic numbers.

Passion is key ingredient

Of the nine, it is fair to say that they would have difficulty surviving if they were mere businesses. They are running on sweat equity and the passion of their founders to serve their online community. Some of these founders admit to being exhausted by the continual challenge.

Their modest financial goals are to survive, cover their costs and continue providing a public service that they believe in.

Laurian Puerta of Zonacero and his team live by this philosophy:

  1. We can do it.
  2. Yes, it's my responsibility.
  3. Let's do it now

"With this spirit," he says, "you can accomplish a lot."

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

James Breiner is co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University. He is 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 and is a consultant in online journalism and leadership. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via JunCTionS.