I’m in Central America for the next two weeks to try to better understand a new phenomenon — the rise of small, online, non-profit, investigative journalism projects. They tend to be led by the giants of Latin American journalism who over the decades have developed close relationships with international donors, and they attract the smartest and most ambitious young journalists who work longer hours for less pay in order for the opportunity to break stories that actually make a difference. Some of the leading examples:

El Salvador: El Faro

El Faro (“The Beacon” in English) describes itself as “Latin America’s First Digital Newspaper,” a bold claim that is probably true. El Faro was founded in 1998 to provide an alternative source of news to El Salvador’s mainstream media, which “has traditionally been an instrument of a conservative elite that openly supported ARENA since its beginnings,” in the words of editor and co-founder Carlos Dada. The Argentine blog el puercoespín published an excellent feature about the history and impact of El Faro a few months back:

El Faro appeared in 1998. In 1998 Nintendo was more serious than the Internet. Google still didn’t exist. Nobody used the Internet; it was just a little toy … El Faro was born almost a decade before the digital revolution would absorb the journalistic profession. And in El Salvador, one of the poorest and most unequal countries in all of Latin America with less than 13% internet penetration in a country that had just concluded a civil war a decade earlier.

For years El Faro was run by young, volunteer journalists and was mostly read by Salvadoreans living in the United States. It started out as a collection of columns and a summary of news from other sources, but soon its novelty attracted the participation of leading intellectuals, which in turn attracted a new generation of ambitious, young journalists. Carlos Dada continues:

Later a very special generation of youth that have already made their mark in the history of Salvadoran journalism began to arrive. While they were studying they approached El Faro and said that they wanted to learn journalism by working here. I had already developed something of a name in the field and so they wanted to learn from me. So that was the deal and they began to work at El Faro without receiving any pay.

El Faro continued for seven years without paying anyone a single cent. Dada says that this isn’t replicable today; that part of El Faro’s appeal was its novelty, but that soon its best reporters moved on to higher paying jobs at mainstream newspapers. El Faro sought funds from international donors like Open Society Institute, the United Nation, and the Danish government, and began to focus on long-term, investigative reporting projects. First they expanded election coverage, then focused on gangs, and most recently launched a two-year reporting about Salvadoran migration through Mexico to the United States that resulted in two books and a full length documentary movie.

Carlos Dada (standing) with Alvaro Saravia, one of the assassins of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

El Faro’s watershed moment, however, came on March 22nd with the article “How we killed Archbishop Romero,” published on the 30th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which was orchestrated by El Salvador’s conservative ARENA party. The article attracted over 70,000 hits in just two days, which brought down the whole website. In an interview with James Breiner of the Center for Digital Journalism in Guadalajara, Dada says the article quickly spread on Facebook and then via Twitter where “#Romero” became a trending topic.

Peru: IDL Reporteros

El Faro’s ability to attract support for its investigative journalism from international donors surely had to do with Carlos Dada’s journalistic reputation. The same is true in Peru where award-winning investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti founded IDL Reporteros in October 2009 with a meager team of four investigative journalists, an administrative assistant, a part-time IT assistant and Gorriti who directs the team. Alexandre Gamela published an interview with IDL Reporteros journalist Jacqueline Fowks in April and I’ve written previously about the role they played in the repeal of a congressional decree that would have given impunity to human rights abusers from Peru’s horrendous era of leftist terrorism and state-sponsored, extra-judicial violence. I also highly recommend an interview with Gorriti about IDL Reporteros in el puercoespín.

Nicaragua: Confidencial.ni

Another giant of Latin American journalism is the Nicaraguan Carlos Fernando Chamorro who was featured in a long New York Times Magazine piece last year. (Chamorro also spoke at the Wilson Center last week about “democratic setbacks in Nicaragua.”) This year he was awarded the “Maria Moors Cabot Prize” for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean via his TV shows Esta Semana and Esta Noche, his radio show Onda Local, and what was long a weekly newsletter called Confidencial. Today Chamorro and his staff are trying to transform Confidencial from a weekly newsletter to a modern digital news platform. Unlike many of the other projects mentioned in this post, Confidencial, so far, focuses more on opinion, analysis and news than investigative reporting. It is also the only project I mention that distributes a weekly print version with ads that can also be downloaded as a PDF file from the website.

Colombia: La Silla Vacía

In Colombia it is renowned journalist and author Juanita León who decided to found La Silla Vacía in 2009 during her time as an Open Society fellow. Previously she oversaw investigative reporting for the online edition of Semana, Colombia’s largest weekly. There is an hour-long audio podcast with Juanita discussing the project in its infancy on the Open Society website and James Breiner of the Center for Digital Journalism has a fascinating interview with Juanita focuses mostly on her efforts toward financial sustainability.

The four examples above are all recipients of funding from Open Society Foundations’ Latin America Program, the same program that employs me as a full-time consultant. They are also practically the only online, non-profit, investigative journalism projects I am aware of. (Ciper based in Chile is another example.) If you are aware of others, please let me know. I am sure that we are going to see many more in the years to come.

A recent blog post by the Hewlett Foundation put it well: “Experiments Blossom, but Solutions are Elusive.” After all, launching an “online investigative news site” really requires nothing more than a blog and a topic to investigate, which is probably the easiest option at hand if you’re one of the thousands of professional journalists who have been laid off over the past couple years. This explains why “investigative non-profits” was the big story at last week’s Online News Association conference in Washington DC, why membership of the Nonprofit Investigative Journalism Network has doubled to over 50 member organizations in just the past year, and why the Center for Public Integrity decided to take over the Huffington Post Investigative Fund (with $250,000 of help from the Knight Foundation).

These trends have inspired a wealth of analysis and punditry. “Nonprofit investigative journalism outfits are breaking new ground. Can they sustain themselves,” asks Jill Drew in the Columbia Journalism Review. Or an entire hour-long Diane Rehm Show dedicated to “Not-for-Profit Journalism.” In the American Journalism Review: “The Nonprofit Explosion.” On Radio Open Source: “$30-billion to save journalism.” At the International Journalists Network: Investigative Journalism 2.0. Perhaps the most catchy title: “All the news that’s fit to fund” by John Honderich. And the best analysis of non-profit journalism I’ve read so far: Steve Katz’s dissection of “Clay Shirky’s ‘second great age of patronage,’ foundations, and journalism.”

The phenomenon has also caught the attention of media observers in Latin America including Juana Libedinsky from Argentina’s La Nación who declares that philanthropy is rescuing and reviving investigative journalism. Or Uruguayan journalist Miren Gutiérrez who acknowledges with much sobriety that the future of journalism is non-profit.

Predictions aside, what is the impact of non-profit, investigative journalism today? What are the greatest challenges and opportunities? What are the new models for sustainability (both in terms of quality and finances) and what are the new problems confronting the ethics of journalism? Over the next two weeks I’ll be taking a closer look at some of the organizations I have listed above, and at others that have yet to even get off the ground. Among the questions I’ll be asking:

  • What is the minimum level of resources needed to consistently engage in hard-hitting investigative journalism that holds the powerful accountable?
  • What are the issues that simply can’t be covered in Central America because of safety concerns?
  • Do online media invite wider participation from diverse sectors, or is it still the same media elite?
  • What are the roles of bloggers, social networks, and traditional media in amplifying the investigative reports published by online non-profits?
  • What are the most effective models of financial sustainability, and what are their weaknesses?
  • What is the role of databases in their long-term reporting?
  • What are their technical challenges?
  • Where is there a lack of autonomy?
  • What are the demographics of their audiences?
  • What are their most popular types of content?
  • How do they incentivize their reporters?
  • How do they measure their success.
  • What is the best role that a donor like Open Society Foundations can play to support effective and sustainable investigative journalism?

Are these the right questions? Should I be asking others? Do you know of any noteworthy investigative journalism projects in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador that I should be aware of? Please do let me know, either by leaving a comment or via email.