Earlier this month I had the good fortune to be interviewed by my friend and former colleague José Luis Orihuela, professor of communication at the University of Navarra in Spain.
José Luis had suggested that we talk about which news media are doing well in spite of all the bad news surrounding the collapse of the old advertising-supported business model. He sent me some questions in advance, and I was grateful he did so: I have been away from Spain for six months, long enough for some crucial vocabulary to slip away.
We started off with some reflections on my nearly seven years at the University of Navarra. That period represented a major career shift. José Luis and other colleagues invited me to participate in academic conferences and research. That in turn opened doors to new ways of thinking and resulted in many publications. For me, landing in the uniquely generous culture of that university was a lucky break.
The interview was conducted in Spanish, which I have translated and edited for space and clarity. The podcast lasted 45 minutes and can be seen in video format here.
José Luis Orihuela: When we talk about the impact of the internet and digitalization on journalism, we tend to describe it in terms of a catastrophe. And then we turn to the eternal debate about the business models of media organizations. Why have the news media been so slow to change in the new digital environment?
James Breiner: It’s partly a question of the administrative structure of the media in terms of how they have produced and distributed the news. It was very difficult for the journalists, the owners, and the investors to change all the processes and practices. Legacy media organizations like El País and its parent, Prisa Group, had borrowed many millions of euros to build an infrastructure of printing presses, broadcast media, and distribution networks.
By contrast, digital media startups like elDiario.es in Spain did not bear these heavy costs and debt loads. They could build a newsroom with low-cost or free digital tools for production and distribution. They launched about nine years ago with about 10 employees and were still able to produce products of high quality. They were more agile.
JLO: The previous business model for the media was scarcity. The newspapers, TV, and radio had costly infrastructures, but the internet lowered the barriers to entry. Again and again, they tried to maintain their systems and routines and processes but couldn’t compete with social media and mobile phones.
JB: That’s right. Change is very difficult for people. At the beginning of the digital disruption, the model was slowly decaying, but suddenly it accelerated rapidly. And the response of many media had a negative impact. They cut costs by laying off journalists and other employees. They protected their investors and their profit margins but they reduced the quality of their products. So, many people abandoned the established media, especially newspapers.
As a result, a space opened up for new digital media startups to offer something different, of high quality, with a mission of public service, and independent of the powers that be. And they have captured a new market.
Amid the overabundance, the inundation of news and information, often frivolous, the new digital players offered something different, in niches, very focused. They created value for users, not as measured by page views but by loyalty to their mission of public service. Those users are loyal because these media take into account the needs and the daily problems of the users. They provide solutions journalism rather than coverage of the political class, with its internal insults and press releases. The new media try to help their users improve the quality of life in their communities.
JLO: The new media develop new topics and new languages to reach younger audiences who were escaping the attention of what we call traditional or legacy media. They’ve used these tools to reach new audiences, haven’t they.
JB: Yes. Amid all the abundance, there really is a scarcity of media that people trust. There is an oversupply of frivolous news. On the other hand, there are many good examples from Latin America, like LaSillaVacia of Colombia. Their business model is based on mapping the way power flows in Colombia.
They have created a database of the most powerful people in the country which lists the personal, business, and political connections of each. You can enter a name and see their connections. [Correction and update since the podcast: the database no longer creates visual maps of the connections; it just lists them.]
JLO: These media offer new ways to tell stories in visualization of data and new relations with the users, giving them more of a role in how they interact with the information.
JB: Another example is the use of the comics format by news organizations. One example is El Surti of Paraguay. Comics aren’t just for young people. They can be literary and of high quality. And when I talk about high quality I mean information that is cross-checked, whose sources are verified, with an ethical commitment to truthfulness.
El Surti used a comic format (left) to tell the story of a former heroin addict.
JLO: Since the 1990s, the media have been giving away information on the internet without thinking about a business model. But in the last year and a half during the pandemia, many major publications have launched digital subscriptions successfully, such as the New York Times. Do you think that these media have been rehabilitated and that digital subscriptions are going to be a viable and profitable business model?
JB: For many traditional media that have suffered a disastrous loss of advertising revenue because of the pandemia, these new paywalls, these digital subscription programs, are going to fail. Fail in the sense that they won’t provide sufficient revenue to survive.
Many of these organizations don’t have the culture of serving users rather than advertisers. That’s a big change. There are success stories. El País really surprised me when they reached 100,000 paid digital subscribers. That organization previously seemed to me to be very rigid. But when an organization is committed to a digital culture, and a change in processes and practices, it’s possible.
But the user revenue will only be sufficient to support smaller newsrooms. They will still be able to produce quality journalism, but they will need fewer people.
JLO: The successful model for digital subscriptions that we usually see is the impressive example of the New York Times. We have seen efforts in many countries to improve the editorial quality of publications in the very uncertain environment that the pandemia has created. The users of social media have been eager to receive trustworthy news and information during this pandemia because it is really a matter of life and death for us and our families.
I would like to ask you about two distribution channels in particular that have had major impact during the pandemia, namely podcasts and newsletters. They’ve existed for many years but it seems that we have rediscovered them yet again, for the second or third time, in the past year and a half. What do you think of this resurgence?
JB: I’m a consumer of many podcasts, and I believe there is a quote in your book Culturas Digitales in which you quote Professor Piscitelli saying that the era of Gutenberg, the era of the book of the past 500 years, was merely a pause in the evolution of the more natural form of human communication, namely oral communication.
I’ve discovered during the pandemia, while consuming even more podcasts, that the human voice has the power to persuade and influence me even more than a well written text. The human voice has the power to communicate the emotion, the sincerity, and the honesty of a person involved in the news. And, of course, the dishonest can be persuasive, too. I think podcasts and audio books have a great future. They’re not a fad.
And as for newsletters, I’ve written blogs in Spanish and English for many years, but the traffic was not very great. However, with my weekly newsletter, I have been getting much more response. A third of the recipients open each newsletter, which is quite high for this format, and they are getting shared much more. In one year, this free newsletter has gained 240 subscribers organically. The power of this format is that it is personal and direct, from one person to another.
JB: Above all it’s a journalism of innovation. These entrepreneurs are creating something that doesn’t exist, either in terms of the content, or the multimedia format, or in terms of the distribution channels. It’s an independent, digital journalism. For example, the 900 digital media publications [Update: it’s now more than 1,000] from Latin America in the database of SembraMedia are independent of political parties or business interests. They are also committed to public service and have a commitment for improving the lives of the people in their communities.
JLO: We often focus on what the big media are doing in the U.S.–the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times–but the truth is there are many media doing interesting things in Latin America. You’ve been a keen observer of what’s going on there for many years, from the Digital Journalism Training Center at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. What are some examples of innovation you’re seeing there?
JB: There is a publication in Cuba called 14 y Medio whose director is . . . I’m forgetting her name . . .
JLO: Yoani Sánchez.
JB: Yoani Sánchez! Thank you! And they distribute the news within Cuba by USB or PDF to avoid suppression by an authoritarian regime that doesn’t allow freedom of expression.
Chequeado of Argentina has innovated in many ways in which they do fact-checking. Their business model involves many revenue sources. And they have extended their influence in all of Latin America by training dozens of other media organizations in how to start their own fact-checking operations.
I also like very much Ojo-Público of Peru, which has innovated in their use of huge databases, for example 50,000 examples of cultural artifacts stolen from Latin American countries by museums in North America and Europe. Form this they produced a series of articles about efforts to recover these articles [the project was called Memoria Robada, Stolen Memory].
Also I like Ánimal Político of Mexico, which started out as a Twitter account. They’ve won the Ortega y Gasset prize for their investigative journalism, one example being Las Empresas Fantasmas de Veracruz (The Phony Businesses of Vercruz), which resulted in the governor of that state going to prison.
Ánimal Político used a comic format (left) to explain a complex scheme of government corruption in La Estafa Maestra, The Master Fraud.
A key part of these innovators is investigative journalism, topics that other media aren’t reporting on. They show what’s really happening in their communities. Because of this they confront terrible threats, like television journalist Carlos Chamorro in Nicaragua. He had to leave the country because of threats of the government. These media leaders show a great deal of courage.
JLO: James, after many years of dedicating yourself to journalism and teaching and consulting, now you’re working with SembraMedia, what is SembraMedia and what types of resources can be found there?
JB: SembraMedia was founded six or seven years ago by Janine Warner of the U.S. and Mijal Iastebner of Argentina with the idea of helping digital media natives of Latin America to develop sustainable business models. It started with a directory of media organizations, and it now has more than 1,000 media. The idea from the beginning was to identify and share tactics and strategies that were working to make these entrepreneurial operations viable long term. [Disclosure: I am treasurer and a member of the executive committee of SembraMedia, which is a nonprofit.]
The idea was that many journalists launch a publication without any idea of how to manage a business and generate revenue. One of the resources is an online school, which offers more than 30 courses on topics related to sustainable business models.
SembraMedia has also done a massive study of 200 digital media startups in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America– Inflection Point International–which identifies trends and practices that could be used by other news media organizations. I’m an optimist. I see everywhere stories about the collapse of the news media, but the big story I see is the reform of journalism from the bottom up by these small organizations, and there are very many. At this moment they are like a small-budget soccer team that is trying to rise up . . .
JLO: … to the higher leagues.
JB: Right! The amount of money is small, but they’re advancing and creating valuable things that the big media are imitating, which is very ironic.
JLO: Yes, very ironic. Antonio Cambronero is collecting some comments in social media to round out this conversation.
Antonio Cambronero: The first would be, you have a blog about entrepreneurial journalism in English and Spanish, a newsletter, a podcast, and presence in Twitter and Instagram. Which platform is giving you the best results?
JB: My newsletter. People are more inclined to read something that they have chosen to receive and is sent directly to them. Twitter works, SEO with Google works, but nothing works better than the newsletter. And not just for me. Many journalists have created their own businesses on Substack or other newsletter platforms. They don’t want to work at a media company and they have realized that they have a brand that has so much value that they can convert this professional or personal brand into a business. There are many examples of this, large and small.
AC: You’ve taught entrepreneurial journalism in many countries. What have you learned from your students?
JB: The majority of my students at first were working journalists. I saw the great commitment to public service of these journalists. And this was an education for me. I had worked in journalism in the U.S. where everything is transactional. It’s a business. But for these journalists, it was all about serving society.
And from the university students, I learned to be more precise and accurate. They’re experts at identifying your mistakes and the weaknesses in your arguments. And they would also ask why. Why are the media doing things this way? And I had to get more precise in my explanations of how the media industry works. And the students were always introducing me to new media, new distribution channels, many things outside my circle of experience as a veteran newsperson. This was very gratifying.
AC: And finally, beyond a business model, what else is needed to launch an entrepreneurial journalism venture?
JB: More than anything, you have to recruit people who have skills in areas other than journalism–technology and the business side. Many entrepreneurs start with a team of only journalists. It’s like having a soccer team with 11 midfielders. You have to have a goalie, you have to have some strikers. The goalie might represent the tech expert, the strikers might be the salespeople who generate the revenue. You have to have a balanced team. In SembraMedia’s Inflection Point study of 200 media, the ones that had at least one person dedicated full-time to sales generated six times more revenue than those that did not. And those that had at least one person dedicated full-time to technology generated three times more revenue than those that did not. So for small media, you have to recruit people with a variety of skills.
JLO: James, could you take a look to the near future about what’s coming in artificial intelligence and the so-called metaverse proposed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. How are these technologies going to affect the news media?
JB: As for the metaverse, I don’t have any idea. But in terms of artificial intelligence, I think it is already having a big impact. The media that analyze the behavior of their users, for example, to determine which users are most likely to buy a subscription or attend an event. Many media are acquiring this technology from sources like Google News Initiative and other organizations. The problem with many media organizations is they don’t have this kind of database of user behavior. Many media organizations are sharing their data to create a bigger database that is more useful for applying machine learning tools. These kinds of collaborations and tools could help to create much more stable media organizations.
JLO: James thank you for accepting our invitation to Blogpocket Live, and best wishes to you and your family during the holidays.
JB: Antonio and José Luis, thank you, and I hope that I haven’t forgotten too much vocabulary in my six months away from Spain.