'Rebel Alliance' a new business model for Venezuelan independent news sites

by Nilsa Varela Vargas
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Sustainability
Woman on phone

The results from an innovative ad strategy run by three digital outlets in Venezuela suggest that despite facing a hostile environment, advertisers in the region still see independent news as a worthy investment.

The ad strategy, dubbed the “Rebel Alliance,” is an agreement forged between Tal Cual, Runrunes and El Pitazo in December 2016. The websites offer advertisers the chance to purchase banner space on all three sites over the same period of time, meaning marketers only have to submit one bill and oversee one design rather than multiple ones.

While this efficiency is meant to attract advertisers, the ultimate goal of the “alliance” is to sustain the independent reporting and editorials published by this trio of websites. Tal Cual has been dedicated to political analysis since launching 17 years ago; while Runrun.es (founded in 2010) is known for its investigative journalism. El Pitazo, launched in 2016, is known for its daily, beat-driven reporting. According to El Pitazo, the three sites combined reportedly have 600,000 unique monthly visitors who spend an average of six minutes browsing.  

So far this year, the “alliance” has signed five ad clients — and that’s despite the significant political and economic challenges in Venezuela.

While the Venezuelan Central Bank has not released up-to-date inflation figures, the finance committee in Venezuela’s Congress says the country ended 2016 with a 550 percent inflation rate. Given this grim scenario, the three independent websites decided to band together and highlight the benefits from investing in digital ads.

One surprise was that many clients consulted by the “alliance” said they were already familiar with the websites’ readership, so there was a high level of initial interest in purchasing ad space across all three sites.

“In the beginning it was tough,” said Yelitza Linares, head of business at El Pitazo. “January and February were wobbly months. But while some media sites ended their pre-sale period, we extended it.”

Linares said that media organizations like El Pitazo had to become more flexible to continue drawing revenue from online ads, given the current environment in Venezuela.

“We [raise] the fees every three months unless the client pays for a full year [in advance], that’s how we keep them on board,” she said. “That’s what the country has brought us to.”

As part of their agreement, the business directors at Tal Cual, El Pitazo and RunRun.es will also offer clients different forms of ad space besides banners, including video pre-roll, infographics and sponsored content. Ads can run on all three web home pages, or during the radio shows managed by RunRun.es and El Pitazo, or in the print edition of Tal Cual.

Tal Cual’s subdirector, Juan Pablo Arocha, said this flexible ad strategy wasn’t the result of changing reading habits due to new technologies — it was a matter of financial survival.

“We were a daily since 2000, and in 2015 we had to change because of economic reasons,” he said. “We decided to become a weekly, in order to avoid the situation experienced by other newspapers in which they run out of paper.” Thus, Tal Cual went from being a newspaper using a website to publish breaking news, to being a website that publishes its own weekly.

The business strategy will doubtlessly require lots of creativity and strong teamwork to pull off, but the “Rebel Alliance” team say they’re ready for the challenges ahead.

“Venezuela will stay in the news,” said Linares. “It’s going to be a year with lots of information, there are elections coming up and information will continue being a necessity.”

For more ideas on how to finance independent online journalism, be sure to explore the resources at SembraMedia, an NGO dedicated to helping online media entrepreneurs establish sustainable businesses. 

Nilsa Varela Vargas is the Venezuela Ambassador at SembraMedia, which was founded by ICFJ Knight Fellow Janine Warner. Warner is an expert at helping digital media entrepreneurs implement sustainable business practices and generate new sources of revenue online. Learn more about Warner's work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via David Hernández