When the news blows up in Mexico City, Dulce Ramos is on the case. She is editor in chief of Animal Politico, a digital media startup that began as a Twitter account. In a country known for “disappearing” reporters who look too closely at drug cartels and government corruption, Ramos, 33, feels that it’s her duty to cover stories that are being ignored by mainstream news outlets.
“We cover stories that make our readers outrage[d],” she said. “We also try to bring them hopeful stories, [about] successful citizens’ efforts to change their communities. [These are] issues mainly pushed aside by mainstream media.”
Animal Politico grew out of a Twitter account created in November 2010. A year later, the website launched with the backing of Colombian investors Daniel Eilemberg and Isaac Lee, who now work at Fusión and Univisión, respectively. Ramos said that the website’s audience is “young, educated, tech-driven Mexicans [who] use social media to keep themselves informed,” and that 60 percent of their audience accesses their stories through social media. Last month, Animal Politico reached 4 million unique views, and Eilemberg has said that he expects it to achieve profitability this year.
Animal Politico isn’t operating in a vacuum. A convergence of shifting demographics, the news environment, increasing internet penetration, and the relative safety digital media provides are reasons that Latin American media startups are on the rise.
Young adults in Latin America spend an average of seven hours online daily, the same amount as their US counterparts, according to a survey conducted last year by Telefonica and the Financial Times. That survey also showed that 45 percent of Latin America’s millennials—a demographic coveted by advertisers like in the US—believe digital media offers the most credible news coverage, more than trust television or print news.
Furthermore, digital media provides something of an escape from the dangers of censorship and physical threat that face some print reporters in the region. Press freedom in Latin America is at its lowest point in the past five years, according to Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom of the Press Index. But internet use there is on the rise, outpacing the rest of the globe, and, points out James Breiner, a journalist who tracks digital media developments in Latin America via the blog News Entrepreneurs, it’s often easier for governments to censor print media than digital media.
“It is more complicated to block a digital media site. The government has to somehow have control over the company that has the servers,” he said. In Venezuela, for example, the government owns a monopoly on newsprint, effectively controlling the media’s right to print a story, he explained.
Though some startups are rapidly growing, like Elmeme.me—an Argentinian website that models itself after BuzzFeed, covering news, entertainment, and pop culture—others are focusing on more local issues and simply trying to sustain themselves. Many of these new sites, big and small, owe their existence at least partly to Breiner. Four years ago, he moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, as a Knight International Journalism Fellow to create a center that would provide Latin American journalists tools for success in the digital era. “There was a big need for training Latin American journalists in digital media schemes,” Breiner explained. “There was tremendous demand for these skills.” Many trainees have since gone on to launch sites.
One such trainee, Cesar Angulo, runs an ecology-focused news website in Northwest Mexico, bionero.org. “He’s providing coverage of ecological issues that no one else is doing,” Breiner said of his reporting.
Another trainee, Emma Amador, runs several websites, one of which is an investigative news blog in Nicaragua that focuses on local issues. Amador wanted to pursue digital media because she didn’t feel print news was lucrative and she was interested in the burgeoning culture of online journalism, she said in an email. She also felt more free to pursue controversial stories online than she did in print.
“The majority of the themes that are… published on my blog are controversial,” Amador said. “[I] touch on issues that not every journalist wants to take on, such as political issues, corruption, gender, gender violence, and other issues that are at odds with the double moral standards of current society.” Digital media, she added, “offers the possibility of publishing [under] covert identities.”
Breiner described Amador as a motivated student in his program. “She was a veteran journalist, and she was doing service to her community and her country,” he said.
Breiner isn’t the only person realizing there’s money to be made from getting involved with Latin American media startups. NXTP Labs, a group that invests in Spanish-speaking technology startups, is funding some digital media sites. Ariel Arrieta, co-founder of NXTP Labs, wrote an article last year for VentureBeat in which he argued that the environment is ripe for investment.