Janine Warner is a digital media pioneer and an enthusiastic promoter of entrepreneurial journalism. In 2015, she founded SembraMedia, a nonprofit virtual organization dedicated to helping digital media entrepreneurs in Latin American develop sustainable new projects. She is also an ICFJ Knight Fellow. Warner visited Chile as a keynote speaker for the XXII World Congress of the Association of Women Journalists and Writers in December, 2016. While she was here, we spoke with her about Spanish media in the U.S., why it may be safer to start a digital venture in some Latin American countries, and the emerging new business models for news that are starting to get traction. Here’s a hint: people do pay for news on the Internet. » Versión en español.
—SembraMedia was officially launched in 2015. This morning, you explained that one of the reasons you started this organization was the experience you gained while teaching online courses for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas. You said that you were inspired to see that many of your former students were starting their own news organizations. Are there other reasons that led you to launch SembraMedia?
In many ways I started to work on SembraMedia twenty years ago, without knowing it. My first startup was a bilingual newspaper in Northern California that I launched in 1992. Without knowing anything about business, I had a sincere desire to help inform the community of Spanish-speaking immigrants in Northern California. At the time, there were many news sources in English, but very few places to find news in Spanish. Many people talk about the digital divide, but what motivates me is the “information divide,” which is so much older and so much deeper. The thing that inspires me most, that is really at the heart of SembraMedia, is the realization I had that by growing up as a native speaker of English, I had access to a tremendous variety of sources of information. But many Spanish-speakers have never had access to local news and other vital information.
—It may be hard to identify a secret formula for success. But based on your experience teaching and traveling, as well as the research you are doing at SembraMedia, what is working among entrepreneurial journalism entrepreneurs?
I often start speeches with the message: “If you stay until the end of my presentation, I will tell you the secret of success.” And then when I get to the very end, the secret is a slogan I borrowed from Nike: “Just do it.” In Spanish: Hazlo ya. What I’ve learned from working with so many journalists is that often the biggest obstacle is that we’re too perfectionistic. We think we have to get everything exactly right before we launch a project, so we end up spending weeks, months, even years, experimenting in the dark, on our own, without ever testing our work out on an audience and seeing how they react, and studying the results to learn what else they want and need.
» If you’re an entrepreneur, waiting until everything is perfect is a problem. That’s why I talk about the ideas from “The Lean Startup,” and why I recommend that you start with a “Minimum Viable Product.” You need to develop just enough of your idea in some digital form so you can start to test it, to see if anyone is interested, and to start building a loyal audience that helps you decide what else to do.
» I have a million ideas about what we can do at SembraMedia, but instead of trying to do them all at once, I started putting our initial ideas online. We launched the website while I was still embarrassed by it, because we didn’t have anything to publish at first. We started with just the idea; then we started doing research, and only then did we start building a directory of media sites. When we began, we only had 10 sites in the directory. Then we had 20. Then we had 30. Now we have more than 550. We just celebrated our first anniversary, and I finally took the words “beta version” off the site. I’m finally starting to feel like it looks okay.
—A follow up question: What are the excuses you hear most often from journalists who are avoiding starting their own media project?
The main one is: “I don’t have enough money. I need a bunch of money for this.” I think in many cases — and there’s a lot of evidence of this — if you get too much money at the beginning with a startup, it can actually be bad for you. That may sound crazy, but it’s true. When you start with very limited resources, you’re forced to be very creative, you’re forced to figure out how to do as much as you can with as little as possible.
» The challenge then is, how do you get from the “minimum viable product” you need to get started, to making enough money so that you can publish over the long term? And that’s why I talk so much about all the different ways you can make money, because if there is any “recipe for success,” it’s finding as many creative ways to support media projects as possible. Some people start with crowdfunding campaigns; others start with grants from foundations. Those are not bad ways to start, but in the long term, you need to think about more sustainable sources of income, like donations from readers, sponsorships, events, digital products, and so many more.
—In journalism, a business model is something very slippery. We don’t get a clear idea of what it is. It looks like a holy grail. Most of the time the question is, “what is the business model for journalism?” But I think that you can provide better questions regarding business models for entrepreneurs.
Let me give you a short sequence that I put a lot of journalists through that helps them understand business models and what’s really the business model of journalism. I start by asking: “What’s the business model of Uber?”
» People say “Oh … well … rides.” Ok. “But does Uber own cars?” No. “Does it owns buses?” No. “What does Uber really do?”
» It connects people who have cars with people who need rides. Great. In that context, what’s the real business model of a newspaper? Is it producing news? Well, that’s what they do. But the business model, the way they make money, is really about connecting readers with advertisers. It’s helping people who want customers get customers.
» I have a lot of friends who have started very political news organizations online, and that’s a very hot area. People who are frustrated with the limitations in traditional media start their own sites that are very political and then they tell me “I don’t want any advertisers because I don’t want any political ads.” Fine, I say. Don’t accept political ads. “Really?” Sure. But you could still accept other ads. Because remember, you’re not selling your content to advertisers. You’re selling your audience.
—You said that people actually pay for news and you mentioned the case of eldiario.es in Spain. Why do you think the idea that people won’t pay for online news has become such accepted wisdom?
In Venezuela, people don’t trust the traditional media because most of it is owned in one way or another by the government. In Mexico, a lot of people don’t trust traditional media because the government pays so much in advertising to support them. But what is happening on the other side of that spectrum with these new digital media projects is absolutely fascinating, and quite the opposite.
» It’s turning out that there are a lot of readers who very loyal to independent media sites and are quite happy to donate money to them. Eldiario.es is one of the most successful with this model; half of their revenue comes from individual donations of about 5 euros a month. Some people pay more than that. And that’s another secret: they’re not charging a subscription. They’re rewarding you for paying to become a member. Some people think that digital media entrepreneurs are only creating little tiny operations with no money, but ElDiario.es making three million euros a year, and half of that money comes from donations from readers.
—Also you mentioned the case of El Faro from El Salvador as a digital pioneer in Latin America. And one of the reasons to launch some ventures in those years was “this is cheaper than print.” Is that still the same reason to launch something now?
It’s a little different. In 1998 in El Salvador, there was one major daily newspaper, which was relatively conservative, particularly compared to the rest of that country. El Faro wanted to do something different, and they didn’t have the money to pay for a print edition. So they started as “digital natives,” and that makes them one of the oldest in the region. But today, what’s really transformative in the world, as well as in my own career, is that never in the history of journalism has it been so easy to start your own digital media site. Historically, you had to pay millions of dollars for a printing press or a television station or a radio station.
» That meant that prior to the mid 1990s only a very few people in society had the resources to even think about being a major publisher. Today, with WordPress.com for free, anybody can start a blog. What I’ve found is in each of the countries we’re studying, the economic realities are different, but across the board it’s cheaper, it’s easier, and in some places it’s actually safer, to start a digital media site than work in traditional media.
—Why is it safer?
Well, you can be further away from things. In Cuba, one of the things we’re studying is the number of sites that are run and hosted on the island compared with those that are hosted and run off the island. There are a couple of digital media sites that cover Cuban news, and they have correspondents in Cuba. The sites don’t always publish the names of the journalists, and the administration, the business, is run outside the country. That can make it safer.
» In Ecuador there’s a really unusual system of laws — well, unusual in comparison to other countries I’ve studied — in that there are a number of things that you can’t do in traditional media that you can do online. Because of the way the laws were written, and because some people defended the laws of freedom of information on Internet, you can write things online that you can’t print in a newspaper. You can be more critical of the government. You can write stories about economics in a different way. They’re legally permitted to do more online than in print, and in that sense, again I would say it’s safer, because journalists have gotten arrested in Ecuador for what they’ve written in traditional media.
—You have traveled to more than 40 countries doing workshops with reporters and entrepreneurs. Can you establish a common denominator for the challenges or the questions that people have when they reach you?
I’ve been to every Spanish-speaking country so far, except Cuba and Uruguay. But I’ve also been to Asia, to Europe, to Africa, to other parts of the world, and I think the thing that’s most impressed me, is that we all have more in common than we have differences. There are a growing number of journalists who are frustrated by the constraints of traditional media and want to start their own thing. They have questions like “How do I make money doing this?” That’s the number one question.
» As far as follow-up questions, the more sophisticated entrepreneurs ask about how to use crowdfunding to get started. Definitely, they’re interested in how best to get donations from readers. And in the long term: digital products, digital content you can create for partners, and throwing events turns out to be a nice way to supplement your income. There’s a long list of things that different digital media sites are doing.
» But for the most part, this idea of diversified revenue, of having at least two or three different sources — if not four sources of revenue — this is what gives you the independence to do the kind of journalism that makes most journalists want to do this in the first place.
—What is happening in the U.S. with the Latino news organizations? Because in the directory you have a few of them. The most famous probably is Radio Ambulante. What is the situation there?
First of all, the traditional media in Spanish in the U.S. is so strong and so dominant. If you look at television in the U.S., there are hundreds of channels and a very diversified marketplace. Univision dominates the marketplace; something like 80 percent of Spanish speakers in the U.S. watch Univision. And then the other three networks share the other 20 percent. That is a huge piece to compete with.
» So we start with an environment where there’s just some very strong media in Spanish in the U.S., and I think that makes it harder. Next, you find that there is a real complexity in the U.S. Spanish-speaking media in terms of bilingualism. More and more people are moving into English and younger people speak English, so they don’t need Spanish content as much.
—Some people say journalists are not creative, that we don’t have an entrepreneurial state of mind. What would be your advice for j-schools in order to create a more vibrant atmosphere among students and professors?
Journalism schools in general treat the students as isolated, self-centered entities. You do your homework and he does his homework and she does her homework and you get graded individually. When you look at digital media, and particularly entrepreneurial digital media, it’s all about teamwork. It’s all about figuring how to share responsibility, how to share decisions, how to share a task, how to specialize in different ways. This is a very, very different model than most of us learned in school.
» The first thing I would say, is that if you’re already looking ahead to how do we encourage entrepreneurship: think about how you can encourage teamwork.
» The business of journalism is something we should have always taught. I wish I had learned more about that in school. I learned journalism and law, which helped me a lot, and I learned lots of basic reporting skills, but nobody ever told me anything about business in journalism school. Even if you want to work for traditional media, you’re much better off if you understand something about the business model.
» I don’t think any journalist in any media entity should be completely ignorant about the business model. I understand why there’s a wall down the middle between the business and the journalism side. It’s about protecting the ethics in journalism. But I really think journalists are stronger and news organizations are stronger, when the journalists have some say and some involvement with the business side of the organization.
—You said you started SembraMedia 20 years ago. Have you felt that your ethical boundaries have moved to a different place from where they were in the beginning? Especially because of this wall you mentioned between financial and editorial side.
Let me clarify. I would say that 20 years ago — when I started my first entrepreneurial project and failed — is when I sort of started preparing for SembraMedia, which is based on my goal to to help other people not make those mistakes, and recognizing that there are lots of well-intentioned journalists who don’t understand business because that was my story, too.
» But in terms of ethics, no. I like to say I am a journalist first and I will defend the quality and the ethical integrity of the content to my death. That is the most important thing. As soon as you lose the respect of your readers because they don’t think you’re ethical, you don’t have anything to sell anyway. That has never changed.
» What’s changed for me, is coming to understand that smart journalists can also be smart business people, and that when you understand the business side, you actually can set things up to be more ethical, not less.
» This gets to the heart of what we teach at SembraMedia, which is the importance of diversified revenue streams. The more and different sources of revenue you have, the more independence you have. That’s one of the reasons that I like individual donations so much, because no one person has too much power.
—What is the next step for SembraMedia?
Our first year was really focused on a big research project and creating our online directory, which we’re still working on. Now we’re trying to turn that into a community. We are going to start having events. In Argentina in December, we partnered with Google to host a physical event at Google’s office in Buenos Aires to bring together a bunch of digital journalists. We hope to replicate that in Mexico, Chile and other places as well.
» The next thing we’re excited about is building a school. The number one request we’ve gotten so far as we’ve done this research is: training, training, training.
» How do I do it? How do I make money? How do I build a brand? How do I manage a team? How do I do the accounting? All those things.
» We are creating an online school that’s going to be open 24/7 and has many more classes in many more topics. It’s designed to try and address the increasingly complex questions that we are getting, and provide the best, and most up-to-date answers as we can. And we’re creating those classes in a very journalistic way.
» Then there’s this idea I have and I’m still working on – so I can’t promise that we’re going to do this. But we’re exploring what could happen if we were to get five hundred or a thousand sites that are in a directory to work together to purchase things. It’s a very common thing for associations, this shared purchasing power. If we can go to a big web hosting company like Amazon or one of the others, and negotiate a better price for 500 websites than anyone could get individually, I think that would be a good role for us.
» And not just with web hosting – we want to help journalists with better protection against DDoS attacks. Can we set that up technical support that is stronger together than any single entrepreneur could get on their own? Can we get other technical tools that people are trying to use in journalism, some of them prohibitively expensive? Maybe if we all joined together to buy them, we could make them more affordable.
Editor’s note: This interview was transcribed using speech recognition software. Since the result was somewhat flat, some responses have been revised and rewritten to reflect a more “human” tone.