On a Wednesday morning in January, two well-known Venezuelan journalists took to the streets of one of the poorest zones in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. There, in Petare, they spoke to residents about a host of problems and concerns. But the journalists weren’t reporting--they were there to spread the word about a new journalism initiative they had recently launched, Efecto Cocuyo.
In an increasingly murky climate for press freedom in Venezuela, Efecto Cocuyo is an independent media platform that delivers critical reporting and hard-hitting investigations.
Covering issues like politics, economics and human rights, the site is committed to holding powerful public officials accountable. Its name, which means “Firefly Effect” in Spanish, is a nod to the community the founders hope to build around them--because "millions of tiny sparks,” they say, “can illuminate an entire nation.”
As a symbolic gesture, co-founders Laura Weffer and Luz Mely Reyes, both award-winning journalists, went to Petare that Wednesday holding big empty buckets, asking for money to fundraise. They weren’t expecting to receive many donations, but to their surprise, every single person--even the most humble--gave support.
“It showed us that people are aware of the importance of supporting independent journalism,” Reyes said. “People feel uninformed. It was an impressive and moving experience.”
People across the spectrum--rich and poor, Venezuelans inside and outside the country, government supporters and opposition--are desperate for trusted news. According to the founders, it is “one of the darkest moments in Venezuela related to free journalism practice.” Over the last two years, private media that used to challenge the government and expose corruption have watered down their coverage. There have been secretive changes in media ownership. Reporters are quitting their jobs in search of new opportunities. In the last decade, 11,000 aggressions against journalists have been reported in Venezuela, according to a formal complaint filed by the National Union of Press Workers.
Last year, Weffer felt pressured to leave the country’s best-selling newspaper Últimas Noticias after leading an investigation of murders by rogue intelligence officers that paved the way for arrests of security officials. Reyes was arraigned last year by state prosecutors after President Nicolas Maduro lashed out at a story about gasoline shortages published by daily newspaper 2001, where she worked as editor-in-chief.
So the two women began to talk seriously about a new project. They’d seen entrepreneurial journalism ventures pop up in the country, but most were not run by journalists. They brainstormed a team that would combine the energy of young writers and techies with their veteran experience to cover hard-hitting stories. They found a local web developer excited about the idea, took up space in a small office, and began to work together. On January 8, they sent out their first tweet. Now, they have eight reporters and nearly 40,000 Twitter followers.
“We’re using social media to connect with the community, generate story ideas and keep up to date on breaking news,” Weffer said. “It’s important that we build a community around this so it’s something that feels like it comes from the people.”
And the site’s funding model, too, relies on that community. To ensure they’re not beholden to economic interests, Efecto Cocuyo is relying on individuals. Last month, they launched a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, which has raised over US$14,000 so far. With the funds, they plan to hire additional reporters to provide “post breaking news analysis, investigative reports and comprehensive content about crucial information.” They also hope to build a data-reporting investigations team.
“We’ve been doing this a long time, and people trust us,” Weffer said. “That’s our most important capital.”
In the future, they will monetize a number of products to be sold, including podcasts and other products, plus talks and conferences. They’re developing a permanent strategy of collective financing, so member-partners can give constant support over time. They also plan to host a journalism training center, or "lab of ideas,” where young journalists from across the country can come to learn necessary skills. Workshops will focus on training young reporters from the provinces, where the country’s economic crisis is being felt the most.
“We want to share with young journalists who need this exchange and discussion to do good stories,” Reyes said. “These young people have grown up in a restricted climate. They didn't have the training we did.”
When asked if they are worried about working in the current climate, Weffer shrugs. “Sure, journalists have fear,” she said. “But in our case, the fear is weaker than our passion to do good journalism.”