As the journalism industry continues to evolve and change, encouraging newsrooms to adopt an audience-first strategy is one of the key focuses of innovation agency Hackastory – but what happens when your audience are regularly fed disinformation by their government, and many of them do not have internet access?

Back in April this year, two members of the Hackastory team, who are based in the Netherlands, visited Efecto Cocuyo, one of the last independent news outlets in Venezuela.

Nienke Huitenga, co-founder, Hackastory, and Alka Anna Goos, interactive storyteller at the organisation, spent a week in the country to witness the pressures reporters have to deal with in their newsroom, all while living and working in Caracas, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

"The team are inspiring - they really reminded us why journalism is so important," said Goos.

"They are very open to innovation, but they have so many different challenges than we do in Europe – they are under constant threat of how the government will handle them."

Huitenga described the news organisation's relationship with those in power as a 'difficult dance', where the government relies on Efecto Cocuyo for news coverage, and picks up stories that are favourable to them, but also slate anything negative, and also creates their own disinformation.

"They put out propaganda to pump out misdirected messages through Twitter and state television, while Efecto Cocuyo is just aiming to report what is actually happening on the street,” she said.

Huitenga and Goos meet the Efecto Cocuyo team

The team of journalists has even had to employ an audience editor, in charge of tracking content from the government on social media and television, so they are able to redistribute helpful, accurate information, but highlight fake news.

Stories covered at the organisation range from health and human interest stories to economics and politics. Although the organisation covers breaking news, Goos said the team works at a slower pace, aiming for two or three bigger stories in a week, often publishing explainer videos.

"A lot of people don't understand the big political or economical topics because they are so complicated, so Efecto Cocuyo focuses on telling stories with not just basic facts, but explaining consequences of those facts – what it means for them and their future," said Huitenga.

"It's constructive news to help people survive – one day they go for the tough political stories, but the next they will teach how to cook agave root, just to make sure it is not toxic."

But one of their most successful ways to build trust and a strong relationship with their audience has been to use Periscope to livestream events. Where there is no doubt of manipulation by officials or journalists, the public are able to see clearly what is happening out on the streets.

"It is the simplest innovation but it is very impactful," said Huitenga.

"Every newsroom should ask themselves: what is my value to my audience? Efecto Cocuyo have found their value and really know their value.”

Nienke Huitenga tries on the protective gear, worn by Efecto Cocuyo journalists

Unfortunately, many people living in the slums do not have access to the internet, and are only able to get their news from the radio and state television – an ongoing problem for the news outlet.

"In our world, we look at this digital future as something positive and new, but you can see in Venezuela that when your access to internet is not equally spread, you get this big divide in knowledge."

The news organisation is aiming to combat this in any way it can, and has just run a festival to educate over 300 people through workshops, panel discussions and presentations, and has been working with a school in order to educate people to take up journalism as a career.

"They are very progressive in how they are not only innovating their journalism, but also innovating everything surrounding it to achieve good journalism."

But one of the main challenges for the newsroom is keeping their reporters in Venezuela – so many journalists in the country are moving away for their safety, Goos explained. 

“Reporters have to constantly ensure they are safe, and question themselves on what they'd do if the government decides to prosecute them," she said.

"We don't have to be afraid of our government when we tell a story, and they really do."

Managing director Luz Mely Reyes showing Goos the changes in the city

Their small team of 18 journalists, are mainly made up of enthusiastic journalism graduates who are trained on the job. Although the role can be stressful, they are given the opportunity to do regular team building events, such as after the 2017 conflicts.

"We went through a walk in the city to experience the culture and asses the danger – it's one of the last bubbles where life is still organised," said Huitenga.

"People get on with their lives but the efforts of the government to regulate things are not working out – there are limits to how much money you can take out at a bank every day, but this is too little to even pay for bread – which affect reporters who in their everyday lives have struggles to get to work.

"On top of this, the buses are so full in the city, but it is too dangerous to walk with your kit across the street, and they have to get home before dark most of the time."

If there's news breaking, the reporters will get a taxi motorcycle from across the street from their office. However, their access to stories is often restricted, as access to press conferences organised by the government can sometimes be denied.

"Their daily life is an improvisation to stay safe but report the truth," added Goos.

"We can practise journalism 24/7, but for them it is different because of the dangers - a lot of Western worldwide newsrooms can really learn from those newsrooms that are struggling with problems we don't even know.

"When something happens, they are not scared anymore, they only see a story that needs to be told – they have so much heart, love and soul for the country, that this is their way to fight for it.”

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