Sunday, October 13, 2013

News entrepreneur advises, 'Don't think about it - do it'

Olga Lucia Lozano, creative editor
of  La Silla Vacia
Versión en español aquí.

The cofounder of one of the most important investigative journalism sites in Colombia, La Silla Vacia (The Empty Chair), has some advice for those who are thinking about creating their own website, app or whatever:
"Don't think about it, do it. Doing things is the best way to learn. To try means to fail. To fail means to learn."

Olga Lucia Lozano, creative editor of La Silla Vacia, recently shared what she has learned in the nearly five years of working on the site during a "Journalism Hangout" (in Spanish, she comes on at the 30-minute mark).

Avoiding mistakes

Lozano believes journalists need to be educating themselves constantly. They should share what they  learned so others can avoid making the same mistakes.  

Part of the added value of La Silla Vacia, she says, is in the workshops and seminars on investigative journalism that the staff holds for other media all over Latin America. 
The team is constantly experimenting with new forms of telling stories online and new ways of financing their journalism. She views the experiments much as a scientist would: if they don't produce the desired result, they aren't a failure. They're a learning experience that should be shared.

300,000 unique users

La Silla (as it is known for short) has a staff of 11. The site averages 300,000 unique visitors, 500,000 visits and a million page views a month.  

In financial terms, it is breaking even. The monthly costs, mainly salaries, run to USD $30,000. Last year, 82 percent of the income came from international sources: the Open Society Institute, National Endowment for Democracy, Ford Foundation, United Nations Development Program and the Fondo Principe Claus. 

Ten percent of the income came from advertising and 8 percent from consulting and workshops. At the end of last year, Lozano and Juanita Leon, cofounder and publisher, decided to drop the consulting on technology and communication because it was a distraction from the goal of the publication, namely producing high-quality journalism. 


La Silla has innovated in creating a series of lists of the "super powerful" in a number of sectors, including politics, finance and NGOs, all displayed in compelling data visualizations. 

La Silla is also trying to move to a system of support by its community of readers. As of last year its "Super Amigos" included 512 individuals and institutions who contributed about USD $26,000. The publication used some of that to finance one of its most successful reports, Proyecto Rosa, which won the German Prize for Journalism and Development.

The project looked at the people in Colombia who have lost their land during the armed struggles of recent years. Its narrative was built around one person, Rosa Amelia Hernandez. Visual artists, musicians, journalists, researchers and hundreds of Colombians contributed to create a collective memory of this chapter in the country's history. 

The anti-academic

Lozano's university major was journalism and she teaches at two universities in Bogota, but she doesn't really believe universities are equipped to train journalists. For the past 12 years, she has been editor and publisher of various cultural and artistic websites while also working for print media.

She was also editor of new media for a major news publisher, Publicaciones Semana, when she left to join La Silla. For Radio Netherlands she created a course in how to write for the web and participated in an entrepreneurial journalism lab, co-sponsored by the New Journalism Foundation of Ibero America (Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericana). She is co-author of a book, "Colombiano es..."

Be business-minded

During the Hangout mentioned above, Lozano offered two more tips for journalism entrepreneurs starting their own projects:
  • Think about the business aspects from the beginning. Good ideas without financial backing will simply disappear.
  • Start small with few employees to reduce costs and to avoid burning through your financial resources.

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