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May 11 2011


No Gloom Here: In Latin America, Newspapers Boom

If you spend much time in U.S. newsrooms these days, you might contract a serious case of gloom and doom. Talk is still focused on declining circulations, aging readerships, and the absence of new business models to pay for the production of quality content.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this is the case for the rest of the world. In fact, in many regions, the newspaper business is booming. Some countries' newspapers are pulling in record advertising and those double-digit profit margins that were common in 1990s America.

I recently had the chance to observe this phenomenon firsthand at the Bogota, Colombia, conference of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), where there was little gloom or doom to be found.


Instead, newspapers were reporting extraordinary growth in advertising sales from 2005 to 2009: 62 percent in Argentina, 70 percent in Brazil, and 57 percent in Colombia itself. (These figures, drawn from a ZenithOptimedia forecast, contrasted with 34 percent drops in the U.S. and the U.K. over the same period.)

Newspaper circulation is growing sharply in Brazil (29 percent), modestly in Argentina and Bolivia, and holding steady in Colombia and Chile. (It was down more than 12 percent in the U.S.)

But what's most striking about the Latin American news industry is the sense of dynamism. The digital revolution is coming to Latin America -- but it's arriving hand-in-hand with the news organizations, and that makes all the difference.

Multi-Platform Success

That point was reinforced with a visit to the newsrooms of El Tiempo, Colombia's leading daily. The newspaper understandably prides itself on the way it has implemented newsroom convergence. Its expansive headquarters are a few decades old, but look freshly minted, refitted top to bottom with new technology. They include the daily paper, two television channels (CityTV and Canal El Tiempo), as well as a vast array of online products.

In El Tiempo's model, information is endlessly produced and recirculated across platforms. Pieces that air on the television channels are recut by a team of young online editors into two- and three-minute pieces that can circulate online. Breaking news goes out on Twitter, leading traffic back to the website and the newspaper. Each platform is carefully monitored for editorial quality.

According to newspaper director Roberto Pombo, "We had to appoint a journalist to be our Twitter editor because we had a report that went out on Twitter that diverged from the story on ElTiempo.com. It was a garden-variety error, but it convinced us we needed editors to be responsible for social networks."

Pombo has shaped the paper's news to be platform neutral. "We're going with everything in every medium, and the audience can stay where they are," he said. Pombo said the newspaper El Tiempo, whose staff create much of the core content, generates about a 9 percent profit, which is augmented by profits from the television and online operations. "Our newspaper readers are not diminishing, our online audience is growing, and the ads are holding," he said.

Online earnings are smaller but are growing more rapidly. The company has no plans to charge for online content, but goes to great lengths to leverage cross-promotion.


Spanish Ownership

"You can't carry out convergence as a cost-cutting measure -- but you save money in the long run," Pombo said. "All I care about is that if somebody gets a news update on Twitter and somebody asks, 'Where did you get that,' they answer 'Tiempo.' It's all about the brand."

El Tiempo was founded in 1911 and long operated under the leadership of the Santos family. In 2007 the paper was sold to Planeta, a Spanish publishing group, which had to readjust to the Colombian market.

"The owners are living two realities. There's an economic crisis in Spain, but things are fine here, so we have to explain it to them," Pombo said. Spain's newspapers are suffering worse than those in the U.S.

El Tiempo is not alone in its prosperity. Sebastian Hiller, director of La Vanguardia Liberal in the city of Bucaramanga, said, "Most of the major Colombian papers are making 15-20 percent profits, and some of them 30 percent, especially if they've been investing in convergence." (One exception is the venerable Bogota paper El Espectador, which has recently struggled back from the brink of extinction.)

Slow, Steady Economic Growth Good for News

What explains the robust health of these Latin American news organizations?

The first answer is the local market. The Andean nations have largely dodged the 2008 economic downturn, and have been experiencing steady growth in recent years.

Second, this growth has been more evenly distributed than in the past. Many Latin American countries are seeing incomes rise among the urban poor, and with them disposable income. This is a sweet spot for newspaper sales, since there may be discretionary spending for a daily newspaper, but not enough for a computer and an Internet connection.

In Colombia, as in other Latin American countries, there has been a boom in new tabloids and glossy consumer magazines, many of which subsidize quality broadsheets in the same company. Some of these tabloids have reached circulations of 2 million to 3 million within two years of their launch.

Capturing Digital Sales

Third, and perhaps most intriguing, digital is arriving in Latin America, but more slowly than in the U.S. and Europe. This has allowed news organizations to learn from other markets' mistakes, and claim larger shares of the online advertising space before the search engines and aggregators can dominate it. The managers don't care whether the advertising ends up on paper or online -- as long as it ends up with them.

One of the side benefits of this development is a dramatic rise in quality. A number of papers in the region have expanded their foreign coverage and investigative journalism, and have won the prizes to prove it. (For a striking example, look to Costa Rica's La Nacion, where exemplary reporting in 2004 landed two past presidents in jail.)

This is not to say that everything's rosy south of the border. Mexican newspapers are under attack from narco traffickers and corrupt government officials, while Argentina's leading newspaper, Clarin, is locked in a bitter contest with the government. On the other hand, news media are playing a stronger role in Latin American society than ever before, and their business models may buy them precious time to forge a path into the future.

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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February 23 2010


A New Model of Media Research

How to piss off the subjects of your research study

Everyone who had the opportunity to do so pointed out that we were just a few blocks from one of Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods. But we were also just a couple blocks from a Starbucks, snuggled comfortably in a new shopping center with more security guards than window shoppers. Over the next couple weeks such juxtapositions would form the basis of how I viewed most aspects of Beirut. On the second floor of the Hazmieh Rotana Hotel - catering to foreigners, the wealthy, and anyone who enjoys snail-paced internet connections - Razan Ghazzawi was getting a little worked up. Ghazzawi, a highly respected and sometimes hot-tempered Syrian blogger, was criticizing the Berkman Center for Internet and Society for a study they published in July of 2009, a "mapping of the Arabic blogosphere."

It soon became clear that Ghazzawi's frustration and downright anger about the study stemmed less from its findings (which were, by all accounts, rather self-evident for anyone who has paid much attention to blogs from the region over the years), but rather from how they conducted the study and the labels they used to categorize networks of bloggers from throughout the region:

This whole labeling issue is first very simplistic and second it does not really help anyone to understand the Arab blogsphere as it is self-representing itself. Bloggers are not anti- homosexuality merely because they're Muslims, and Islam is certainly not the reason why they're anti-homosexuality. Moreover, if these bloggers were representing themselves as "Muslims against homosexuality", doesn't that mean that they, too, are reformists? Who is a reformist? and who decides so?

No one likes to be placed into a narrow box, especially when that categorization comes from a group of outsiders, and even more so when that group of outsiders comes from an elite research center at the wealthiest university in the world's most powerful country. To truly understand the Arab blogosphere one would need to facilitate a conversation among both Arab bloggers and outsiders who have been observing the space for years. But most researchers don't seek to facilitate conversation so much as produce seemingly authoritative papers that are widely cited at academic conferences. The co-authors of the Arab blogosphere research study would have been well served to have paid a visit to fellow Harvard researcher, Howard Gardner of the GoodWork Project. Part of his research looks at ways to overcome the inevitable problem of individuals who hoard expertise. He distinguishes between social and antisocial expertise, noting that antisocial expertise often benefits the individual while social expertise benefits the entire institution, and even entire networks of individuals and institutions:

Antisocial expertise has a more complicated side. There is an inherent inequality of knowledge and skill between expert and nonexpert. Anti-social expertise emphasizes the sheer fact of invidious comparison. One obvious consequence of emphasizing inequality is the humiliation and resentment this expert can arouse in others; a more subtle consequence is to make the expert himself or herself feel embattled.

I am sure that all four co-authors of the study felt embattled after reading Ghazzawi's harsh critique, just as Ghazzawi felt resentment at their antisocial expertise and at the extensive resources at their hands to conduct this research. Still, it must be pointed out that the Berkman Center is lightyears ahead of most research centers when it comes to sharing information. Their study of the Arab blogosphere after all was written for a pretty specific audience: the United States Department of State. In 2007 the Berkman Center was given a $1.5 million grant by the State Department to "examine how the Internet influences democratic norms and modes, including its impact on civil society, citizen media, government transparency, and the rule of law, with a focus on the Middle East." Hence the politically charged labels applied to Arab bloggers.

This type of highly paid, commissioned research is commonplace. The State Department needed to better understand Middle Eastern cyberspace in order to meet their diplomatic objectives and so they commissioned the Berkman Center to do the research for them. The Berkman Center should be applauded for publishing the resulting research publicly and disseminating it via blog posts, Twitter, and conference presentations. (Though they could have been more transparent about who was funding the study.) But it is time to open up the research process even further and encourage the expertise of individuals across the network. Had they done so, ideally Razan Ghazzawi would have shared her extensive knowledge of the Arab blogosphere with the researchers. And if she didn't, well, then she wouldn't have a right to complain about the final study and its conclusions.

A New Model of Media Research

At Global Voices we were recently commissioned by Open Society Institute's Information Program and the Omidyar Network to help them gain a better understanding of the current state of online technology projects that increase transparency, government accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. They could have gone about this the traditional way and contracted two or three well established academics to sit in their offices, pouring over dozens of websites, conducting a few interviews, and eventually publishing a lengthy white paper to be distributed at academic conferences and stuffed away in ivory tower filing cabinets.

Instead we built a network of regional researchers - experts in their field and region - and a platform that enables collaborative participation from anyone with an interest in better understanding the impact, effectiveness, and sustainability of technology projects that aim to improve governance. I don't pretend to know all the best metrics to measure the impact and success of these projects, but I do feel confident that by opening up this research to the larger public we will be able to come up with better parameters to think about the projects' impact online, in government, and in civil society.

I couldn't be happier with our team of researchers, advisors, and with the amazing Drupal-based platform built by Dan Braghis and Gleb Kanunnikau. So far we have published eight case studies - all complete with audio or video podcasts (you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here). Over the next ten weeks we will publish thirty more case studies and a number of blog posts looking at the intersection of transparency and technology.

Promoting Research Collaboration and Cross-Platform Data

Back in October of last year, after attending the Salzburg Global Seminar on "Strengthening Independent Media", I stressed the importance of promoting more collaboration between media funders, media researchers, and media development workers. All three groups want to gain a better understanding of media's role in a country's governance and development, and yet all three groups tend to seek that understanding in isolation.

Last month, in the hope of encouraging better coordinated research on media development, Open Society Institute hosted a meeting of major donors, researchers and project implementers to discuss some of the challenges facing media research. Anne Nelson, an advisor for the Technology for Transparency Network, was at the meeting and documented it on Media Shift. There seemed to be consensus around the obvious - that we need more in-country research about the impact of media, especially digital media - but few ideas about next steps forward. CIMA has built up an impressive dumping ground of PDF's, but it's a clunky way to understand the role and impact of media anywhere. IREX's Media Sustainability Index is a more user-friendly overview of the world, but it still leaves much to be desired. Global Integrity, Audience Scapes (still not launched), and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation are all trying to build more interactive and comprehensive frameworks for thinking about the media's impact on governance and transparency, but what we lack is integration of that research in ways that inform funders and project implementers where they should focus their time and money.

Fortunately that conversation is starting to take place. There is understanding that we need to have an inclusive conversation about the metrics used to evaluate media projects and their impact on government and society. Also, most researchers seem to now believe that their research should be published in an open space that is publicly available rather than in exclusive and costly academic journals. In the future we need to focus on sharing content and data across platforms. For example, on the Technology for Transparency Network's website when you click on a country in the map I'd like to see more than just a list of technology projects that we've evaluated; I also want some basic contextual information from Wikipedia, Global Integrity, and Audience Scapes. Similarly, I'd like to see Global Integrity's country reports not just show analysis and indicators, but also list the projects that we've reviewed so that readers have a sense of what is being done to address corruption and where they can lend their support. Their country report for Kenya, for example, should include a section on Kenya-based projects reviewed by the Technology for Transparency Network. We will all need to develop API's for our platforms before such data sharing becomes the norm, but my hope is that soon enough it will in fact become the norm.

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January 19 2010


Announcing the Technology for Transparency Network


Internet technologies give governments an unprecedented ability to monitor our communication, internet activity, and even the microphones on our cell phones. The Internet, however, also empowers citizens with new tools and tactics to hold their elected officials accountable, increase transparency in government, and promote broader and more diverse civic engagement.

Rising Voices, the outreach and citizen media training initiative of Global Voices Online, has launched a new interactive website and global network of researchers to map online technology projects that aim to promote transparency, political accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. Over the next three months eight researchers and eight research reviewers will document at least 32 case studies of the most innovative technology for transparency projects outside of North America and Western Europe. By thoroughly documenting and evaluating each project with a standard methodology we aim to come to a better understanding of what tactics, tools, and tips are most effective in 1) making government information accessible to the general public in a meaningful way, 2) holding political and corporate leaders accountable to the rule of law and their campaign promises, and 3) promoting civic engagement so that a wider and more representative portion of citizens are involved in policy making and political processes.

Over the next three months we hope to find concrete answers to the following questions: Can technology for transparency projects be evaluated individually for impact, or should they only be seen as part of a larger accountability ecosystem? Does citizen participation in such projects lead to greater overall citizen engagement and more widespread demand for accountable public institutions? Do public institutions change their policies and behavior based on the input from citizen-led initiatives? To what extent does the usage of technology tools drive action around transparency?

The Need

As of January 19, U.S. cellphone users have donated more than $22 million in text-message donations alone. In fact, roughly one-fifth of the $112 million total that the American Red Cross has so far raised for Haiti has come via text messaging. Technology has clearly had an impact on global giving for humanitarian relief efforts. The priority right now is that the money gets to Haiti quickly and is spent as effectively as possible to save lives, and provide medical care and shelter. But in the longterm, as billions of dollars of aid money flow in to help rebuild infrastructure and entire industries, how can both Haitian citizens and donors hold institutions accountable so that development programs are run properly and without corruption?

As traditional media companies are forced to cut their budgets because of falling advertising revenue, investigative journalism and international coverage are the two most common areas to be disappear. David Simon, in his testimony before Congress about the death of the newspaper industry, said that with a vacuum of investigative journalism, "it is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician." Meanwhile, Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index reveals that corruption is still a severe and worldwide problem.

However, there is also growing enthusiasm about the use of social media as a powerful tool in promoting transparency and fighting against corruption. But how does the use of technology to promote transparency differ across regions, cultures, and types of governance? What skills and expertise are missing from the current technology for transparency projects? What types of relationships have they formed with media, government, and civil society organizations to increase their impact? We will document in-depth as many technology for transparency projects as possible to gain a better understanding of their current impact, obstacles, and future potential.

The Team

Global Voices has long been reporting about uses of digital media and technology to improve governance and fight against corruption. Several veteran Global Voices contributing authors are joined by leading transparency activists around the world to make up our team of researchers and research reviewers. We are also fortunate to count on the experience and insight of a board of advisors made up of the leading thinkers in the field of transparency and good governance.

For those of you on Twitter we have made lists of our researchers, reviewers, and advisors.

The Results

As of today you are able to read three case studies documenting projects based in Jordan, Chile, and Kenya. Ishki.com is a complaint brokerage which collects and organizes complaints from local citizens about the public and private sector. Vota Inteligente uses technology to provide Chilean citizens with more information about their elected officials. Mzalendo tracks the performance of Kenya's Parliament by documenting votes, publishing records, and providing analysis and context.

Over the next two weeks these three case studies will be joined by eight others. In addition to publishing at least 32 case studies over the next three months, we will also facilitate 16 discussions on Global Voices that provide more context and background information about the state of transparency, accountability and civic engagement in specific countries and regions. We are also building a toolset of the most effective tools used by the projects that we document. Click on any of the tools and you will see which projects have incorporated it as part of their strategy.

We realize that these are busy times and that few readers will be able to read all of the thorough case studies, background discussions, and tool profiles that we publish. For this reason we have created a weekly podcast that will feature five-minute interviews with leaders of some of the most interesting technology for transparency projects that we come across. You can click on this link to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. So far we have interviews with Waheed Al-Barghouthi of Ishki, Ory Okolloh of Mzalendo, and Felipe Heusser of Vota Inteligente.

At the beginning of May we will also publish a traditional PDF report which highlights the most innovative and effective tools and tactics related to technology for transparency projects. The report will make recommendations to funders, activists, NGOs, and government officials regarding the current obstacles to effectively applying technology to improve transparency, accountability, and civic engagement. It will also aggregate and evaluate the best ideas and strategies to overcome those obstacles.

Our research will complement - and collaborate with - the work being done by like-minded mapping, discussion, and toolset projects including ParticipateDB, Participedia, the International Association for Public Participation, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, ePractice, MobileActive's mDirectory, and LocalLabs.

How to Help

This is a collaborative research project which is open to the participation and input of anyone interested in the intersection of technology and good governance. If you have suggestions for case studies that we should document and evaluate please get in touch via our contact page. If you are interested in contributing as a volunteer researcher you can register for a user account.

You can subscribe to our RSS feed for newly published case studies and to our podcast for interviews with leading doers and thinkers in the field. Please follow us on Twitter and become a fan of our page on Facebook to receive extra updates about daily news and information related to technology for transparency. Finally, if you would like to engage in debate and discussion about the application of technology to improve governance in countries outside of North America and Western Europe, please subscribe to the Transparency for Technology mailing list.

For years now there has been an ongoing debate about whether the Internet is good or bad for democracy. But we have few case studies and even fewer comparative research mappings of Internet-based projects that aim to improve governance, especially in countries outside of North America and Western Europe. Hopefully the Technology for Transparency Network will lead not only to more informed debate about the Internet's impact on democracy, but also to more participation and interest in projects that aim to empower and improve the livelihoods of citizens who were previously excluded from political participation.

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