100 digital news startups in Latin America show paths to achieving sustainability

A new study of 100 digital news startups in Latin America by SembraMedia in partnership with Omidyar Network -- Inflection Point -- offers many clues to achieving the elusive goal of sustainability.

Extensive interviews with the founders -- 25 each from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico -- produced data that clarified the elements of successful business models and showed the best places to invest resources and training.

Janine Warner, co-founder of SembraMedia and an ICFJ Knight Fellow, directed the study, which was managed by her co-founder, Mijal Iastebner. (Disclosure: I participated in the study as an editor.) Among the insights:
  • You don't need a lot of money to get started. 71% of the media in this study had startup capital of less than $10,000, but a tenth of those now generate at least $500,000 in revenues (p. 8). 
  • Those that focus on business development do best. Those with at least one sales person reported median annual revenues of  $117,000; those with no sales staff had a median of $3,900 (p. 9).
  • Women are playing a key role in development of new digital media in a region where men traditionally have held almost exclusive control of the industry: 62% of the 100 organizations  had at least one woman founder, and women represented 38% of the total founders of all the media (p. 41).  
  • Differentiation is key. In terms of content, technology, distribution, or style, these media positioned themselves as offering something different from traditional media and independent of political or business interference. In some cases, they exposed the cozy relationships between big media, politicians, and business (p. 25). 
  • Even a small organization can have big impact nationally and internationally. Although these organizations had median staff size of 13 employees, 72% have had their stories picked up by national news media in their home countries and 66% by international media (graphic above).
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