From Abuja to Accra, from Manaus to Manila, digital native media are building new kinds of news organizations, informing underserved communities, and covering stories often neglected by others.
The media we included in this study were born online and distribute their content primarily through digital channels. To be included, they had to produce original news content (not just aggregate news from others) and provide some kind of public service.
We sought out media organizations that were transparent, nonpartisan, and not overly dependent on government support as they strive to reach financial independence. They also had to have been publishing for a minimum of six months at the beginning of 2021, when we began this research.
We found a diverse group of media using these criteria, but despite their differences, there were some striking common threads.
More than 75% of their media leaders have backgrounds in journalism and little or no business experience, yet 43% are solely responsible for fundraising and business development, as well as serving as the director, editor, and so much more.
Some of the projects featured in this study are well-known to journalism organizations, foundations, and media investors. Award-winning news sites, such as Argentina’s Chequeado in Latin America, the Daily Maverick in South Africa, and Malaysiakini in Southeast Asia, some of which have been in operation for more than a decade, serve as models for other journalism entrepreneurs. But you’ll also find a growing list of newer entrants that also deserve recognition for their work. (The names and URLs of all of the media in this report are included in the About The Study section at the end of this report.)
At SembraMedia, we never do anything without studying it first. The insights from our first Inflection Point report, as well as our ongoing mapping of Spanish-language media for our Digital Media Directory, guide us in all of our training, mentorship, and consulting programs.
Our findings from our first Inflection Point report helped make the case for creating our Velocidad media business accelerator, which we run in partnership with ICFJ, thanks to support from Luminate (which also funded these studies).
We launched Velocidad in 2019 with a broad promotional campaign, and we received nearly 350 applications from 18 countries in Latin America. After a rigorous selection process, we selected 10 digital native media organizations for Phase 1, combining $350,000 in total grant funding with hundreds of hours of business consulting and training for six months.
Velocidad results: Even the most experienced media consultants cannot address all of the complex needs of these journalism entrepreneurs. This is why we created a model that matched each grantee with one of five strategic consultants who met with grantees every week to craft and implement action plans. We then hired more than 40 tactical consultants with expertise in finance and accounting, search engine and ad tech optimization, product development, and more, to provide specialized support.
“When we saw the financial monitoring chart that we put together with the consultant, we realized how little we were investing in the commercial area and how much was going towards operating costs. We learned that if we want El Pitazo to be sustainable we have to invest more in the commercial area,” said Yelitza Linares, business and strategy manager, El Pitazo, an investigative journalism organization in Venezuela that participated in Velocidad.
By far, the most requested tactical consultant was Mariel Graupen, an HR specialist who helped participants hone leadership skills and better manage their teams.
“Mariel helped us to better define the roles of each team member, starting with the director and editor. We clarified tasks and responsibilities throughout the newsroom and the agency team, which enabled us to work with more agility and efficiency,” said Alejandro Gómez Dugand, the director of Cerosetenta, in Colombia.
We measured many kinds of impacts during the program, including how these media formed partnerships or adopted new technologies, including customer relationship management systems, membership payment platforms, and other tech solutions.
Our main goal was to improve their sustainability, and we closely measured the financial results, as well as the types of new revenue sources. The following table provides a breakdown of the results.
At the end of Phase 1, new revenue came primarily from consulting and content services, grants, and membership programs (in that order). Based on our experience, it takes at least six months to begin seeing results in programs like these.
“The digital media that do independent journalism in Latin America are as diverse as our countries, our cultures and our audiences, but at the same time we share similar challenges,” said Chani Guyot, Director of RED/ACCIÓN in Argentina. “Being able to share problems and solutions with the other ten participants in Velocidad helped us grow.”
There is still no clear term of art to distinguish the media in this study that were born online from websites and other digital news products created by newspapers, magazines, radio, or television stations.
At SembraMedia, we favor the term digital native media, and we use it again in this report for consistency, but we recognize that some prefer digitally native media, and others are now calling them digital first media, a term we are considering using ourselves in the future. We generally avoid calling them startups because some are more than 20 years old.
For brevity and variety in this report, we also use the more general terms, including: digital media, digital players, ventures, organizations, and projects. We also use journalism entrepreneurs, media founders, and media leaders interchangeably.
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