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Study: Independent digital media under attack in LatAm

Researchers interviewed 100 digital media entrepreneurs — 25 each from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico — concluding among other things that 45 percent have suffered violence or threats because of their reporting, and 20 percent admit self-censorship as a result.

SembraMedia, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurial journalists, in partnership with Omidyar Network published “Inflection Point,” the most comprehensive study to date on the growth, impact, and threats to independent digital media in Latin America.

The research report, which studied 100 digital media outlets across Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, reveals that these organizations are increasingly influential in covering issues that promote better governance and fight corruption, but face escalating pressure and threats that could force them to self-censor or terminate operations.

Many of the platforms — run by journalists seeking greater freedom to cover the critical issues facing countries across the region — are accessing new audiences and building impactful, profitable, and sustainable businesses.

More than 70 percent of the ventures in this study started with less than $10,000, with 12 percent now bringing in at least $500,000 a year in revenue. The study also showed that 66 percent of these outlets have had their stories picked up by international press and 55 percent have won leading journalism or humanitarian awards.

However, in many cases, this independence and success is coming at a high price. Economic and physical attacks are hindering these media platforms’ ability to operate and are pushing them towards self-censorship.

Forty-five percent of the organizations questioned have been subject to violence or threats as a result of their reporting, while 20 percent have changed the topics on which they report as a result.

“After years of working with entrepreneurial journalists in Latin America, I knew their work was increasingly important, but I didn’t realize how much of an impact they were having, or how vulnerable they were, until we completed this study,” said Janine Warner, co-founder of SembraMedia and an ICFJ Knight Fellow.

“Digital media entrepreneurs are deeply transforming the way that journalism is conducted in Latin America. They are generators of change, promoting better laws, defending human rights, exposing corruption, and fighting abuses of power,” Warner said.

“They are driven to produce independent news in countries that are highly politically polarized — and some of them are paying a high price for it,” she added.

The report identifies three key requirements to enable these organizations to grow and deliver greater impact:

  1. Protection: These organizations need to be protected, from physical and economic attacks, if they are going to continue to grow and have the freedom to fully cover sensitive issues. Funders and investors could provide further financial and legal support to help these organizations to better insulate themselves from attacks and respond to them when they come.
  2. Professionalization: Sustainability is critical. Stronger business and commercial models will not only enable these organizations to expand their work but will also help them to maintain their independence and shield them from economic sanctions, such as the loss of advertising, a common tactic when governments and others don’t like their news coverage.
  3. Partnerships: These organizations can have greater reach and impact. There is an opportunity to explore partnerships that enable wider syndication and promotion of content, to raise international awareness of the issues these platforms are reporting on, and to develop additional revenue streams.

“The breadth, depth, and scale of the challenges to democracy, openness, and accountability at play across the region is deeply concerning. This makes the role of independent media more important than ever,” said Felipe Estefan, investment principal at Omidyar Network.

“Funders, investors, and civil society need to support these organizations to ensure their continued ability to drive real impacts, build sustainable businesses, and act as inspiring models for others across Latin America and beyond,” he said.

The study was conducted by interviews with the founders or directors of 100 digital news startups — ranging from small, volunteer-fuelled projects serving niche audiences, to significant news organizations reaching tens of millions through websites, podcasts, and social media. These 100 were divided to accommodate 25 each from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

Some key insights

  • The number of independent digital media sites has shown steady growth.
    • At least 441 organizations have been founded in the decade since 2006 — an average of 44 per year.
  • More than half of the outlets interviewed are over four years old, and 12 percent are more than a decade old.
    • Established outlets include “Animal Político” in Mexico, “Chequeado” in Argentina, and “La Silla Vacía” in Colombia.
    • Newer platforms include “Economía Femini(s)ta” in Argentina, “Meio” in Brazil, and “Así Como Suena” in Mexico.
  • Nearly 40 percent of the founders of the digital platforms interviewed were women, including: “Economía Femini(s)ta,” Argentina; “Escritura Crónica,” Argentina; “Genero e Número,” Brazil; “Agência Pública,” Brazil; “La Silla Vacía,” Colombia; “Mprende,” Colombia; “Aristegui Noticias,” Mexico; and “Lado B,” Mexico.
  • More than 20 percent of all organizations interviewed admit avoiding covering certain topics as a result of intimidation and threats.
    • 24 percent report self censorship in Colombia;
    • 12 percent in Brazil;
    • 32 percent in Mexico; and,
    • 16 percent in Argentina.

A local source who represents SembraMedia in Puerto Rico said the island was not included in the report partly because local independent outlets often refuse to share corporate and financial information and other data needed to measure the industry.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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