Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Innovative podcasts and the future of journalism

Olga Ruiz: Create something unique.
PAMPLONA, Spain -- In August of 2013, Olga Ruiz returned from a refreshing summer vacation ready to start her 16th season on the COPE radio network in Barcelona.

But on her arrival, the managers told her and her team that they were being fired. "The best period in my professional life began the moment they fired me," she told me. "They gave me a second life in journalism."

Two weeks later, she invited her old team and some other journalists to her home for dinner. They decided to launch a new radio organization with long-form stories of up to 30 minutes on topics ignored or treated superficially by mainstream media. They would devote obsessive attention to the quality of the sound.

Versión en español

Thursday, December 3, 2015

An investigative journalist leaps from print to digital

Oscar Castilla: "You have to think about the business model"
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Oscar Castilla spent 12 years at El Comercio, Peru's most important daily newspaper, honing his reporting skills with investigations of organized crime and corruption. 

Versión en español

Then in 2014, Castilla and some colleagues from the investigative unit decided to leave the paper for editorial reasons. "The editor at the time had one view of journalism and we had another," he told me in an interview. "We wanted to do some innovative things and the organization was against it."

So they decided to launch their own news publication online, Ojo Público (Public Eye). Their first investigation about conflicts of interest among the mayors in metropolitan Lima was honored in Barcelona in June with a Data Journalism Award from the Global Editors Network.

Monday, November 23, 2015

An investigative journalist who thinks like a capitalist

Martin Rodriguez Pellecer of Nomada
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- You usually don't hear an investigative journalist talk about the importance of learning business skills.

But that is the case with Martin Rodriguez Pellecer, 32, founder of two notable digital news media organizations in Guatemala, Plaza Publica and Nomada, the latter launched last year.

Versión en español

"The most difficult thing for a journalist is to think like a capitalist, to realize that you have to invest and put money on the line", he told me in an interview. "You have to be flexible; you can't wed yourself to just one thing. You have to have lots of eggs in different baskets. No successful capitalist has just one line of business; all of them have lots of businesses." 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Investigative journalists form alliance in Latin America

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The United States has been the world's biggest market for just about everything, including illegal drugs, and that creates big problems for its neighbors.

Carla Minet

Versión en español

So much money from the drug trade flows into Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean that it corrupts governments, courts, police, armed forces, trade regulators, and other institutions that were not that strong to begin with.

The result is that many of these countries are ruled, de facto, by the whims of organized crime and not in the public interest. Criminal organizations have gone global, and investigative journalists need to go global as well in order to expose this corruption and serve their communities better. 

Cross-border cooperation was the big takeaway from a three-day meeting of investigative journalists from 17 countries in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 4-6. Billed as "The First Caribbean Meeting of Investigative Journalists: Tracking the Stories that Connect Us" (in Spanish), one aim was to create a counterweight to the power of organized crime by cooperating across borders, according to Carla Minet, executive director of the host organization, the Center of Investigative Journalism of Puerto Rico. Sponsors included the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Media innovators inspire hope around the world

A year ago I wrote an article about digital media startups around the world and attempts to categorize and analyze them. Some of that material is now a bit dated, and I have come across some other analyses and lists that have good road maps for media entrepreneurs.

The Open Society Foundations has sponsored a series of studies. One of them is Publishing for Peanuts: Innovation and the Journalism Startup, by JJ Robinson, Kristen Grennan, and Anya Schiffrin of the Columbia University School of International and Political Affairs.

The study takes an in-depth look at 35 "innovative media outlets" producing high-quality news that have a chance at long-term survival. Researchers have often neglected examples outside of Europe and North America, so this study included examples from South Africa, China, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Bosnia Herzegovina, among others.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Handful of data journalists shake up Mexican Congress

The truth hurts, especially when the truth is contained in receipts from bars, hotels, spas, and luxury vehicle dealers.
Israel Piña, from Quien Compro website.

A group of five young Mexican journalists has spent the past year or so sifting through thousands of expense reports of Mexico's senators and deputies (congress) to see how they are using taxpayers' money.

Among their scoops:
  • Members of the Senate bought 10 Harley-Davidson motorcycles at a cost of 2.12 million Mexican pesos, or about US$130,000, in order to serve their constituents better. 
  • Senators spent 43,800 pesos on 210 bottles of wine, or US$2,700 in a four-month period.
  • One senator bought a loaded Yukon Denali SUV for 890,000 pesos, or $60,000, for the use of an obscure agency whose purpose is to "do studies to help the Congress make decisions." The senator declined to respond to numerous requests for comment. 
Cartoon that accompanied the Harley-Davidson exposé.
Versión en español

These journalists, led by Israel Piña, 33, were doing the investigative work in their spare time, for nothing. So they were surprised that their reports attracted enough attention that a year ago, television stations and major print media outlets -- including El Universal newspaper -- began paying them for their content.

They were providing a kind of investigative journalism that no one else was doing. Typically, political reporters in Mexico spend their time covering the pronouncements and accusations of the political class. It is very much inside baseball. They don't do much basic research using public documents.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Laid-off journalist finds niche in data visualization

Getting laid off is not always a bad thing for a journalist. In the case of Manuel Benito Ingelmo, it created an opportunity for him to develop something he had been thinking about for a long time.

Manuel Benito Ingelmo. Photo by
He was a business journalist in Salamanca, Spain, with an interest in statistics and data visualization.  He felt that print newspapers were definitely on the way out, he told me in an interview via Skype.

"I wanted to make the jump to a digital publication but I did not want to do the same thing as we were doing on paper."

Versión en español

So when he was laid off from a small daily in 2012, he took his severance package and began to experiment with how to take advantage of the strengths of digital media -- interactivity, instantaneous publication, potential massive audience -- to create a journalistic product or service that would build on databases that were already available.

He and a handful of partners started out by giving away simple graphics on unemployment to media organizations. His idea was that these organizations could use these graphics instead of stock photos of people in unemployment lines. "In just two or three months, we reached 100 media organizations throughout Spain. We found that there was a market niche, the possibility to sell something. Then we had the problem of how much to charge for the service."

Monday, September 14, 2015

News thrives on smartphones, but publishers don't

The big players in digital news like The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and NBC News are struggling with a change in how they make money and how they define themselves as brands.

The cause is the rapid migration of news consumers and advertisers to smartphones. This migration has put the news brands at the mercy of Internet giants Facebook, Google, Apple, and others who already monopolize digital advertising.

Alan Mutter, the @newsosaur, has a deep dive on the trend and what it means for publishers.

In essence, the news publishers have discovered that much of their audience -- in some cases, most -- is accessing their content on smartphone applications provided by the big technology platforms and social networks. This means that the publishers are losing control of their users and revenue.

So the publishers have started doing something that looks like syndication of their product to the social networks and platforms. They tailor content to live on each of the platforms rather than their own -- distributed content, as described by Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab -- to increase the speed that users can access text, photos, and video (crucial on handheld devices).

Sunday, September 6, 2015

'Communities are more important than the media' -- Jose Luis Orihuela

Jose Luis Orihuela has been writing about digital media for almost 30 years. So I have been enjoying his new book, "The Media Since the Internet" (“Los medios después de Internet”), which is a compilation of his columns for newspapers in Spain and Latin America in 2011-2013. (His 159,000 Twitter followers around the world know him as @jlori.)

Orihuela, a professor and colleague of mine at the Universidad de Navarra in Spain, takes us on his intellectual voyage and shows us the courage and vision we need to navigate this sometimes scary new world of the Internet.

Versión en español

Each of these columns in the book is a like an entry in the logbook of a voyage of discovery through the uncharted waters that the new media environment represents.

Like the explorers of the 15th century, Orihuela observes, processes, analyzes, speculates, and makes recommendations based on his investigations. He drops some marker buoys to help us follow his path. The result is a guide that is valuable for students, professors, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens who want to understand this new media world.

At the outset, he says his purpose has been to communicate the idea that "to understand the transformations in the media (new and old), we have to put ourselves in the place of the users and rethink communication based on their practices and ways of using it."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Jarvis's new role for journalists: be the organizer

Jarvis: think first of the community
Several years ago I was working in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, where independent newspapers have a hard time surviving. The government denies them access to state-monopoly newsstands, overcharges them for their newsprint, and harasses them at every turn.

We looked at one publisher's website data to see if he might have an opportunity to generate revenue online. Turns out the website's most popular page contained the community's bus schedules. And what's more, his community spent more time on that page -- 5 minutes, 30 seconds per visit -- than any other. This publisher, a journalist, was humbled to see that a simple list was more important to his readers than the journalism.

The Belarus example came to mind as I was reading Jeff Jarvis's new book, in which he talks about a new role for journalists: "Helping a community better organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself." 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Cultural publication 'flirts with the Dark Side' in Spain

El Pais announces the alliance on its website.
(Updated Aug. 22, 2015; versión en español)

The iconoclastic Spanish culture magazine Jot Down is a strange creature in many ways. At a time when people supposedly read little and do it rapidly, it publishes long interviews and essays.

In an age of minute-by-minute updates and clickbait, Jot Down makes its money by charging about US$16.75 for each copy of its massive 320-page quarterly, which carries only two or three pages of advertising.

Another oddity: its target market is not the famous millennials so sought after by many media but rather more-mature folks in their 40s and 50s. It is an edgy publication that attracts people “who think of themselves as young,” says publisher Angel Fernandez, 44, who co-founded it four years ago.

Marriage of convenience

Surprisingly, it is viable, profitable, and growing. But possibly strangest of all, it has just reached agreement to share its content with one of the media icons of Spain, in fact a symbol of much of what Jot Down criticizes about traditional media, namely El Pais. Ironically, several of the magazine’s contributors were laid off by El Pais during the long economic downturn and have not hesitated to bash their former employer.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

An exercise on usability puts theory into practice

At the end of a semester-long course in digital journalism, I asked my students at the University of Navarra in Spain to say what they thought was the most interesting or useful part of the course. The survey was anonymous, so I give it some credibility.

The question was open-ended. The second-most-mentioned item was a class exercise I gave them in which they had to judge the navigability, usability, transparency, and other factors of any website they liked. This group exercise put theory into practice and developed their analytical skills.

(No. 1 was the video interviews with digital media entrepreneurs from Latin America. They are in Spanish and can be seen on my YouTube channel. Accompanying text in English is available elsewhere on this blog.)
The exercise took 45 minutes and followed a 45-minute lecture on the theory of Internet design, especially as it applied to taking advantage of mobile and social platforms.

First, I told the students that they were going to do an ungraded analysis of various characteristics of a website or application. They could do it in groups of three or four. I showed the students a list of about a dozen websites that I knew were popular but told them they could also choose any that they liked.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nonprofit journalism tries to make it in Spain

PorCausa is a new species of digital media for Spain: nonprofit journalism.

Its founder and director, Gumersindo Lafuente, is a respected veteran of some of Spain's most important media -- El País, El Mundo, and the late lamented digital pioneer Given the limited resources available, he runs the operation much in the style of a movie director by signing some of the 21 affiliated professionals on a per-project basis. 

gumersindo lafuente burgos iredes
Lafuente emulates Propublica of the U.S. (Photo: James Breiner)
"When we secure financing, we put together a team for the project. When we finish, we dissolve the team," he said in an interview.

Poverty and inequality

PorCausa is an experiment in several senses. It is not a news medium but a foundation that was launched in 2013. It is a novelty in Spain in that it is financed completely by private donations.

It is an experiment in subject matter. Its specialty is two topics, inequality and poverty, especially childhood poverty. The founders (a list, in Spanish) believe that these topics have been neglected by the major media in Spain ("The crisis of childhood poverty", in Spanish). No cats on skateboards.

Monday, June 22, 2015

'Desktop is the new print' as public goes mobile

Julio Alonso, director general WeblogsSL (James Breiner photo)
BURGOS, Spain -- In 2004, management consultant Julio Alonso got the itch to write about gadgets and technology. He started a blog and a year later that evolved into the website Xataka.

Since then he and his partners have built WeblogsSL, a community of 36 websites in Spanish with more than 13 million unique visitors a month. The sites focus on autos, lifestyle, business, leisure, and technology.

They have survived the global financial crisis, which hit particularly hard in Spain. And they have expanded their websites to Mexico and recently Colombia.

However, Alonso, 45, struggles with what to do about the latest tsunami of change. The audience has flooded to mobile devices and advertisers are going with them. He has more than a decade of experience in the business of digital media, and an international perspective, having studied in Holland and worked in Brazil and Italy, among other places.

Still, he and his team have their doubts. "The question of how we should migrate to mobile is crucial. We have internal debates about whether the mobile users read in the same way as desktop users, if we have to provide the same contents, if the way we slice up the articles should be different. The times when they consume are different. It is not the same to be seated at a desk at work or at home as to be standing on a commuter train looking at a smartphone."

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mobile metrics are failing publishers and advertisers

According to eMarketer, half the digital ad spending this year will be on mobile, a total of $29 billion.

Advertisers want to know if their messages are reaching the right target groups of people at the right time so that ad dollars are not wasted. Some people are better targets than others for messages about, say, infant car seats, or trips to Mexico, or eye makeup, or Hummers.

It is not a simple matter to measure Internet traffic, whether on the web or on mobile apps. But metrics matter to advertisers, who use them to determine the amount they are willing to pay for having their messages in a digital publication.

Advertisers want to know not only the size of the audience, but its characteristics -- income, location, interests, spending habits, hobbies, and more.

But for technical reasons, it is difficult to track a single user across all the devices they may use at home, at work or on the go -- smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop. Cookies, those bits of information placed on your browser when you visit a web site, are great for tracking people and giving hints about what they are searching for and are interested in, but not when they move into the walled gardens of mobile devices and applications. (The technical reasons are explained in an article by the Internet Advertising Bureau.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

8 practices of successful entrepreneurial journalists

Editor's note: This post was updated 3 June with an eighth best practice.

For the last seven years I have been interviewing and profiling successful entrepreneurial journalists in various countries of various  socieconomic classes. I've talked to publishers and editors with staffs of as many as a hundred as well as some one-man/one-woman bands.

The ones that survive and thrive after several years share some common practices:

1. They develop multiple sources of revenue. They embrace sponsorships rather than advertising, memberships rather than subscription paywalls. They recognize that they can't make money on standard cost-per-thousand or cost-per-click advertising rates. They seek sponsors who embrace their mission and core values. They monetize their audience by creating clubs or groups of members who support their journalism mission. They can actually charge much more than a subscriber would ever pay.

Among other revenue sources: direct sale of products such as books, music, clothing; creation and management of websites and social media channels for third parties; creation of content for blogs and websites; consulting on digital media; sale of data; foundations; events; crowdfunding; and more (12 revenue sources for digital media organizations).

2. They build communities around high-quality contents. They satisfy a need of their users or help them solve a problem. of Spain has created a type of club of 10,800 partners who pay 60 euros a year and receive certain benefits, such as access to articles a few hours before non-partners. However, access to the site is free, so what they are really paying for, says founder Ignacio Escolar, is to support high-quality watchdog  journalism that is free of political influence. Although these users represent only 2 tenths of 1 percent of the 6 million monthly users, they are enough to provide 570,000 euros and a third of the annual revenues (his financial report to readers, in Spanish). The site has a staff of 40, and growing.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Professors of The Book, students of The Smartphone

Photo from U.S. News & World Report
The Internet is a revolutionary tool of communication. Because of that, teachers of communication have to face up to the possibility that our models for teaching and learning are becoming less effective and relevant.

Like many of my teaching colleagues, I have complained that students don't read. Well, they do read, but in a different way.

To understand the trend, we should step back and look at another communications tool that was revolutionary in its own day -- the Book.

(Versión en español)

For at least 500 years, research and teaching at universities has been built around the Book. We teachers of communication are still People of the Book while our students are People of the Internet.

The professor and journalist Jose Cervera explains the difference (in Spanish) in a brief article called "In Praise of the User", on his blog, El Retiario (The Net Warrior), published on Spain's public television website. El Retiario comes from the Roman name for gladiators who used a net as one of their armaments.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Advice from a Spanish satirist: "Don't open a bullfighting school in London"

Eduardo Galan, "Emperor" of Revista Mongolia

BURGOS, Spain -- Eduardo Galan is a bundle of contradictions. He has a Ph.D. in psychology, specifically the psychology of marketing.

(Versión en español)

He has a background in online business marketing. And he speaks very seriously about business models for marketing a media product.

Yet he has the playful air of an adolescent who delights in mocking the pretensions and hypocrisies of Spain's political, business, and religious leaders, which he does in the satirical monthly Revista Mongolia.

Onstage at the iRedes Iberoamerican Conference on Social Networks, he delighted the audience of several hundred with off-color jokes and humorous asides. In an interview with me afterwards, though, he sounded like any other media executive struggling to make a buck amid fierce competition.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Deal with the Devil: Facebook, Google, mobile apps

A deal with the devil.
Versión en español

It was the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke who wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And clearly many people think that way about applications for smartphones.

Mobile apps can show us detailed maps of most places on earth. 
They can read QR codes that tell us when the next bus is coming to this stop. 
They alert us to the scores of sporting events we care about. 
They allow us to send text messages, free, to billions of people anywhere in the world (WhatsApp and WeChat users alone account for nearly 2 billion).
So we willingly give ourselves over to these services that do all these amazing things for us. Often we sign in to them using our Facebook or Google or Twitter accounts, thereby giving those social network platforms access to information about our preferences for products, who are friends are, where we are dining, and how we are amusing ourselves.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

181€ million to keep Catalan-language media alive

Front page of La Vanguardia, in Catalan

BARCELONA, Spain -- Americans are used to traveling thousands of miles within their wide open spaces and hearing only English, with variations of accent and expression.

But in France, Germany, Spain, and other parts of Western Europe, there are still regions of distinct languages and dialects preserved by geographic barriers, sedentary culture, and autonomous politics.

So it should not have been a surprise to find that an international media event in Barcelona, to which I was invited to speak, was conducted not in Spanish but in Catalan, that Romance language of northeastern Spain and southern France. Even Spanish presentations were translated simultaneously into Catalan. (Disclosure: The sponsors paid me an honorarium and my travel expenses.)

600 media in Catalan

But it was surprising to learn that there are nearly 600 media outlets in the Catalan language and that the government of the region has spent 181€ million (link in Spanish) since 2008 to prop them up with grants and advertising, according to a lengthy investigation by the daily newspaper El Mundo.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

'Every journalist has to be a user-experience designer'

Maria Ramirez of El Español interviews Gideon Lichfield.
(Photo: TIE Comunicación/Congreso Periodismo)

HUESCA, Spain -- A digital business publication like Quartz would seem to be making all the right moves. In just over two years it built an audience of 10.9 million unique users a month.

(Versión en español)

But the struggle is to continue growing amid heavy competition and to start turning a profit. So Quartz's senior editor, Gideon Lichfield, was looking for answers and ideas just like the other 350 journalists, professors, and students attending the XVI Digital Journalism Congress. He was also on the program to talk about Quartz, including its plans for expansion into Africa.

Win the competition

Lichfield worked for The Economist for 16 and knows both the print and digital worlds. Digital requires journalists to think more about the audience, he told me in an interview. "How people consume the journalism, how it reaches them, when they're reading it and so forth, that is completely different," he said. "In a print magazine, you don't really think about any of that. The formats are set.

"In digital, every journalist also has to be a user-experience designer to some extent. They have to be thinking about how is someone going to come across my article, what's going to make them read it, what's going to make them share it, what's going to make them get to the end. What sort of device are they going to be reading it on. What time of day might they be reading it. What methods could I be using other than text to get my point across more clearly, more efficiently."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Spain, two digital journalism success stories

Ignacio Escolar, left, of El Diario and Pedro J. Ramirez of El Español (photo: James Breiner)
HUESCA, Spain -- Two of the leading figures of the digital media revolution took the stage together and chatted about what it is like to wear the hats of journalist, shareholder, owner, and chief salesman of their respective media outlets.

Both had founded important print newspapers. Both had turned to digital media in search of independence from the control of public discourse exerted by the political and business elite. Both are evangelists for making better journalism to build a better society.

And both had achieved remarkable financial successes with innovative business models for digital media. A packed auditorium at the XVI Digital Journalism Congress wanted to hear how they did it.

'Partners' not subscribers

"How did we get here?" asked Ignacio Escolar, 39, who founded El Diario ("The Daily") in 2012 with a handful of journalists who had been laid off or cast aside by traditional media in the financial crisis. "We're journalists, shareholders, directors, and chief promoters because we were pushed into starting our own media companies."

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A finger in the eye for Spanish journalists

Arsenio Escolar, photo by 20minutos
Versión en español

HUESCA, Spain -- At first, there was timid, nervous applause from the journalists, professors, and students who were listening to harsh criticism from a respected colleague, Arsenio Escolar, the editor of 20minutos, a free distribution daily that is one of Spain's major digital outlets.

Maybe they were recognizing themselves among those who were being criticized.

In a call to arms, Escolar urged Spanish journalists to stop being so obsequious to the powerful and to call attention to growing inequality and poverty.

"We need a journalism that is fair, transparent, distant from power, ethical, and social," he concluded in the inaugural address at the XVI Digital Journalism Congress in this resort town in northeast Spain.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Universities and entrepreneurship don´t always mix

Versión en español

BRISTOL, England -- A few years ago, I was on a team designing a master's degree in digital journalism. The university required that we propose three areas of research for the professors in this program to pursue.

One subject area we proposed was new business models for news. Another was the use of social networks in distribution of news. I forget the third. All three were rejected by the university's academic authority because they were not on the list of approved areas of research, and it appeared that we could not launch the program.

However, we appealed to the vice chancellor, who persuaded the academic authorities that an innovative university program could (and should) include areas of research not on the approved list.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Reader loyalty gains strength as a news metric

Michael McCutcheon of
As the publisher of a business newspaper in Baltimore, I used to tell advertisers confidently that no other news medium could duplicate our audience of CEOs, business owners, and high-income decision makers.

First Yahoo Finance undermined us. With their user database, they could deliver advertisers the same people who were reading our newspaper, plus many with that profile who were not.

Now social networks like Facebook are using their data to do the same thing. They can promise to deliver that same targeted audience a lot cheaper.

This is bad news for news publishers, especially since they have become more dependent on Facebook and other social networks for their Internet traffic. Publishers have a harder time establishing the value of their brand to advertisers.

Pew Research reported in 2014 that 30 percent of U.S. adults get news from Facebook. That percentage has been growing, and other social networks, such as LinkedIn, are trying to become publishers, not just platforms, as Mathew Ingram of Gigaom has reported.