Sunday, October 11, 2015

Handful of data journalists shake up Mexican Congress

The truth hurts, especially when the truth is contained in receipts from bars, hotels, spas, and luxury vehicle dealers.
Israel Piña, from Quien Compro website.

A group of five young Mexican journalists has spent the past year or so sifting through thousands of expense reports of Mexico's senators and deputies (congress) to see how they are using taxpayers' money.

Among their scoops:
  • Members of the Senate bought 10 Harley-Davidson motorcycles at a cost of 2.12 million Mexican pesos, or about US$130,000, in order to serve their constituents better. 
  • Senators spent 43,800 pesos on 210 bottles of wine, or US$2,700 in a four-month period.
  • One senator bought a loaded Yukon Denali SUV for 890,000 pesos, or $60,000, for the use of an obscure agency whose purpose is to "do studies to help the Congress make decisions." The senator declined to respond to numerous requests for comment. 
Cartoon that accompanied the Harley-Davidson exposé.
Versión en español

These journalists, led by Israel Piña, 33, were doing the investigative work in their spare time, for nothing. So they were surprised that their reports attracted enough attention that a year ago, television stations and major print media outlets -- including El Universal newspaper -- began paying them for their content.

They were providing a kind of investigative journalism that no one else was doing. Typically, political reporters in Mexico spend their time covering the pronouncements and accusations of the political class. It is very much inside baseball. They don't do much basic research using public documents.

But the journalists at (literally, who bought it) describe themselves as a "data journalism platform to reveal the use of money in the Congress of Mexico."

Safety first

At the moment, QuienCompro is moving to a new platform and a new business model. According to the journalism advocacy organization Article 19, a number of independent digital news sites have been subject to denial of service attacks after publishing information that questioned the government's version of the disappearance of 43 university students.

So Piña and his team have enlisted the help of an NGO, the Engine Room, to have their work hosted on a more secure platform. They also want to protect themselves personally. In the first half of 2015, 66 journalists have been subject to physical attacks, according to Article 19.

Piña, a native of Guadalajara, covered police and public safety for several years for Mural newspaper there. He moved to Mexico City in 2009 to study for a master's degree in journalism and public affairs at the prestigious Center for Economic Research and Instruction (CIDE).

He has paid the bills by working as editor for Etcetera, an online publication, and also free-lancing. These days his income is primarily from running the technical side of websites for a number of digital media.

Media in financial crisis

It is good that Piña has other income, because the media that were paying Quien Compro earlier in 2015 have mostly stopped. They are facing a two-pronged financial crisis. The government has lost revenues because of low crude-oil prices, so there is less government advertising in media. In addition, the increasing power of the dollar has increased costs for media organizations.

Quien Compro now has only one paying media client, a national group of print, television, radio, and web businesses called Capital Media. That deal provides a salary for a reporter and covers some infrastructure expenses, Piña said.

He and his team are working with Engine Room to develop Internet products that would not just be text articles but graphics and charts updated in real time. They are also trying to set up a system in which members of the public assist in the transcription of data from PDF files of expense reports to electronic databases. At the moment, this process is done by hand by the five staff members.

A small, interested audience

While traffic to Quien Compro's website is low by most standards -- about 2,100 page views and 1,500 unique visitors a month -- the average time per visit is 7 minutes, about twice what most news sites get. Their articles often get thousands of "likes" in Facebook, but those do not always convert into links.

People are paying attention to Quien Compro, especially in the Mexican congress. This has meant the journalists have been denied access more frequently to documents that are supposed to be public. The stonewalling increased after the article about the luxury SUV. Piña assured me that he and his team will not be deterred. They are finding their way around the roadblocks. That is what journalists do.


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