Credit: Photo by Pedro Lopes on Unsplash

A new digital media accelerator has been launched for startups in Latin America to help create more sustainable business models and support press freedom in the region.

Velocidad — Spanish for velocity — is providing $1.5m USD to entrepreneurial and digital news organisations conducting rigorous, investigative reporting, through philanthropic group Luminate, backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

There are also 1,600 hours of consultation up for grabs, provided by a range of experts on entrepreneurship and protective measures, facilitated by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and SembraMedia.

The initiative can be seen as Latin America’s answer to the Engaged Journalism Accelerator which gives startups across Europe a much-needed boost to get their businesses off the ground.

Luis Botello, deputy vice president, ICFJ said that media startups in Latin America have been challenged not just by the restrictions of press freedom across the continent but also a changing media market and a younger wave of news audiences with different consumption habits.

A study carried out by SembraMedia mapped out 100 startups in four countries to produce the first conclusive report on entrepreneurial journalism in the region. It was called Inflection Point. Amongst the key findings was the fact that 71 per cent of startups launched with less than $10,000 USD.

"Because they start so low in terms of investment and capacity, they lack the skills and networks that could support them with the know-how which can produce stronger business models," said Botello.

“We realised a lot of them were worried and were working very hard on putting out tremendous information but they didn’t have someone dealing with the business and marketing side."

Just 26 per cent of organisations had someone dedicated to sales or business development. Felipe Estefan, investment director, Luminate, said that revenue for the organisation would increase by as much as 3,000 per cent simply by filling this void.

Estefan explained that the extra funding will help news organisations get over key hurdles that startups on tight budgets usually falter at. With more funding, Botello added, news startups could flourish and drastically change the media landscape, giving them more options to face the reporting challenges.

But money alone will not fix the key issue of lack of press freedom in the region; building networks and providing consultancy are crucial.

For instance, a partnership with the US-based content analytics platform Chartbeat will allow recipients to gain valuable steering and advice, and is a good example of leveraging external support.

“Latin America needs more capital, but it isn’t sufficient to support those organisations in their development, said Estefan.

“Those consultancy hours will include everything from business models and sales strategies, to analytics and editorial engagement, to innovate newsgathering and distribution of content and to experiment with cultural narratives as a way to increase reach.

“We’re doing more consulting work on membership models as part of revenue generation and business plans. A stronger business model will allow the news organisations to have a broader community and greater financial independence, meaning greater editorial independence. That’s where you will see potential unlocked.”

Learning how to combat mis- and disinformation will also be key, said Botello, as startups are often discredited as a silencing tactic.

“The media industry cannot rely just on fact-checking, we need to be creative. One way to be creative is to explore and experiment with technology.”

Estefan added that the region is well positioned to continue exploring innovation, with Luminate having supported a number of initiatives already.

Argentina-based fact-checking project Chequeado, for instance, used animated GIFs as a new approach to multimedia storytelling. In Uruguay, La Diaria has paved the way for new models of audience engagement, which has helped both newsgathering and community-building leading to audiences demanding politicians to act on their reports.

But a solid business model is key to success, as shown by Brazilian Nexo Jornal which has shown early promise in crowdfunding and building a membership model, which Estefan said could be replicated.

“There is more to be done. I think of Venezuela and the work courageous journalists are doing there. Crowdfunding or membership models would work there as citizens of that diaspora could empower reporters' work,” he said.

The initial round of application will assess 25 applicants before 10 are selected for full support. Those who do not make the cut will still receive some transfer of knowledge.

The application process is open to all countries in Latin America whose primary audience is Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking, and whose clear goals are a commitment to independent and innovative digital journalism.

“We want to help startups that are committed to the highest standards in journalism. We are also looking at their flexibility, it is very difficult to experiment with storytelling and marketing, and not everyone can adapt quickly. We are going to have to work with those willing to adapt to their scenarios and the recommendations that we will be giving,” said Botello.

“Latin American journalists are going through very significant struggles but they are innovating in spite of that, and, in some cases, because of that. Being able to follow, highlight and celebrate that innovation is very much needed at this moment to allow the region to respond to threats to democracy that are not just exclusive to the region, but shared with others,” Estefan concluded.

Applicants have until 1 July 2019 to apply for Velocidad, see more details here.

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