Over the past decade, the Chilean community news network Mi Voz has transformed the way news is produced, consumed, and sustained in the often neglected small cities and towns outside of the country’s capital, Santiago. In the process, it has also proven that a local news network can be profitable. The innovative business model depends upon a mixture of advertising to and selling digital media studies, trainings, and intelligence.
“Every year we are growing,” says co-founder Jorge Domínguez, “and that’s what makes it interesting.”
Mi Voz consists of a network of 20 media outlets dedicated to bringing quality news throughout Chile’s narrow spine from the Peruvian border in the north to Patagonia in the south. Of the 20 outlets, 15 are local dailies and five are topical magazines covering issues such as food and sports. Together they bring in a combined traffic of 3 million unique visitors per month in a nation of 17.5 residents.
The initial goal was not to create a business, but to tell the stories from regions outside of Santiago which are rarely heard in Chile — where the limited news coverage that did exist was generally about scandals or crime. After Domínguez, who had a background working on digital communication with non-profits, observed how Korea’s Oh My News was activating residents to tell their own stories, he wanted to do something similar in Chile. He teamed up with Paula Rojo, a designer, and set out to launch Mi Voz in 2005.
When Rojo and Domínguez shared their plan for a citizen news outlet with national networks, the response was that there was no way it could succeed without crime, sex, and scandal. But Mi Voz persevered, proving that people were interested in other types of stories and that such an enterprise could be lucrative.
“We want to create a space where citizens, leaders, and officials can converse and discuss the collective future of the city,” Rojo said.
Even though the sites’ focus has been the neglected regions outside the media-heavy capital, Domínguez and Rojo chose to locate their business in Santiago, which made them accessible to working with big companies, NGOs, and government agencies. At the same time, they would discover their competitive advantage is knowledge of areas outside the capital. The formula appears to be working: Approaching its 10-year birthday, Mi Voz brings in $2 million annually and does not rely upon foundation or government support.
Key to the site’s development, Domínguez said, was incorporating as a business and not a non-profit: “My belief is that if we had been a non-profit we would not have learned about how difficult the competition is in the market. We wouldn’t have been obliged to innovate, to fight.” At the same time, he maintains, that being a purpose-driven business with a mission to give back to the community energizes and provides focus to their company. To keep it focused they adhere to four “checks”:
– The growth of the business
– The organization, its growth and employee satisfaction
– The purpose and vision of the project in terms of creating value for Chile
– Client satisfaction
About half of the company’s revenue comes from advertising, breaking down to about 60% sold throughout the network, and 40% sold individually to sites. The company’s 15 staff members dedicated to sales are similarly split between being located in Santiago and outside of the capital.
The other half of the revenue, about $1 million combined, comes from social media research, internet and media training, and internal studies on media and technology innovation, according to Domínguez. The center of social media studies produces its own research and then sells it to companies. For example, Mi Voz recently created a 200-page report entitled “What does Chile talk about on Twitter.” That was then broken down thematically, with reports such as “What does Chile say about water?” They sold those reports to 40 clients, including companies and non-governmental organizations.
Meanwhile, the trainings happen in the towns and small cities where the daily sites are located. Large Chilean companies, in particular mining or foresting, will pay them to train their workers in how to use the Internet and media. Domínguez credits this opportunity with the fact that companies are noting that they will have more satisfied, effective workers if they know how to use the internet and can use it to disseminate information to them: “This is a growing area, processes of community wifi, and new small community platforms,” he said.
The smallest of the four areas is digital strategy. This initiative was originally created to serve the company’s different sites and help them work together to grow the company. But when local businesses found out about it, they were interested in buying in and now the company sells its digital strategy materials to 10 clients, including a video network and a public health group.
In total, the staff has grown to about 70 full-time, along with about 30 part-time and contracted workers. Most cities have a local editor living in town, and reporters are paid for their work. Mi Voz also boasts having trained 30,000 unpaid community correspondents over the past 10 years — writers who primarily contribute first-person pieces and columns, and provide announcements. In addition to vetting stories and working on copy, editors are also responsible for mobilizing and training residents and sometimes help by providing correspondence a workspace with Internet capability.
Rojo said they have never received a complaint about the lack of pay from their contributors: “They feel [they are] owners of the media,” she said. “They can have influence.”
Part of Mi Voz’s philosophy is to not limit who is involved. They include submissions from public officials, representatives of community organizations, and even businesses right alongside reports from more objective “citizen correspondents.” In an area where mining is controversial, for example, both the mining companies and residents opposed to the mining can post. The editor tries to facilitate discussion, however, and make sure that one voice does not dominate. “We are interested in the conversation, the discussion,” Rojo said.
Plans for the future are to continue growing, aiming for 10-15 percent growth in sales for 2015. “It’s ambitious given the context of the country and the world,” Domínguez said. But that ambition is clearly crucial to their success: “We always wanted to have a national network, and to be the best.”
Daniela Gerson directs the Civic Engagement and Journalism Initiative at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her reporting, teaching, and research investigate digital media responses to diverse populations; how local news can positively impact civic engagement; and innovations in participatory news.