[Digital Journalism] Guatemala’s Plaza Pública
On this website we usually review the use of digital media by civil society organizations. But for the next few days we are going to look at digital media that are civil society organizations. To put it another way, we are seeing an increase in online, non-profit journalism in Latin America. El Faro in El Salvador, IDL Reporteros in Peru, Confidencial in Nicaragua, and La Silla Vacía in Colombia are all commonly cited examples of the trend (and they all receive funding from Open Society Foundations’ Media Program). These projects have much in common, but there is also plenty that distinguishes them. We will go into all of that in more detail over the next week, but today we start in Guatemala to take a closer look at one of the newest online investigative journalism projects in Latin America, Plaza Pública, which is set to launch on February 22. I sat down with founder and director Martín Rodríguez Pellecer last month in Guatemala City to learn more about the project.
What is Plaza Pública? How is it different from other media outlets in Guatemala? Where did the idea come from?
Plaza Pública (“Public Square”) is a digital newspaper focused on investigation and analysis that was founded in late 2010 at Guatemala’s Jesuit university (Rafael Landivar University) that will begin publishing in February 2011.
It is an independent media organization that consists of four senior journalists and twelve students who will be the reporters. It shares the values of the university: the fight for equality, multiculturalism, the environment, and against corruption and impunity. It is different from other media in Guatemala because it combines both independence and quality. Plaza Pública is a medium that aspires to be critical of the country’s powers by introducing readers to serious, quality journalism.
The idea came from the Vice Dean of Research at Rafael Landivar University who contacted several reporters expressing his interest to establish a digital media project to contribute to the national debate, which is marked by conservatism and shallowness. The project will also serve to train journalism and political science students, and to connect them with the national reality.
Plaza Pública will be based at Guatemala City’s Rafael Landívar University, a Jesuit institution that tends to attract mostly upper-middle class students. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a national journalism project that is based at a private university?
There are several advantages by being based at a Jesuit university. First is the institutional support and seed money to found the newspaper. Second, we can rely on the structure of the communications and political science departments to help us select and incentivize student reporters. There is also the structural support of academic investigative institutions that will be allies of Plaza Pública.
Even though the university tends to be middle- and upper class, it also has the advantage of being positioned in the national imagination as being the most balanced and high-quality in comparison to the libertarian rightist UFM and the state-run USAC, which is perceived as orthodox leftist.
The “disadvantage”, if you describe it as such, is that absolute liberties do not exist. Plaza Pública shares the values and national vision of the Universidad Rafael Landivar and respects the views of the Catholic Church on moral debates such as abortion, euthanasia or gay marriage. We will make this very clear in our first editorial so that our readers are aware.
It has become increasingly difficult for journalists and newspapers to rely on advertising, classified ads, and subscriptions to support their work. How do you plan on ensuring Plaza Pública’s financial sustainability?
The core funding – the director’s salary and the part-time salaries of three editors – will be provided by the university. They will also provide us with offices, the website, and bear the administrative costs. To ensure a small but decent operational budget we will seek funds from international donors and also domestic sponsorship from private companies.
Websites like Modern Journalist and Sala de Prensa are great resources that show how journalists can take advantage of new technologies to improve the quality and inclusiveness of their reporting. What are some of the new tools and platforms that you might use at Plaza Pública?
Plaza Pública wants to be very dynamic, and to reach not just the political, economic and social elites, but also all young citizens. We will use all types of media imaginable: social media, articles from other media, debates with readers, an online complaint system … and for that we will target youth that live online as our reporters.
Organized crime, the activities of gangs, and the violent history of the military are all topics of concern in Guatemala. How do you plan on covering such topics while ensuring the safety of your journalists, especially those who are students?
The four founding journalists that will direct Plaza Pública have between five and 20 years of journalistic experience in Guatemala, where we have made investigations into military, political, and corporate corruption. So we have learned the necessary techniques in order to investigate without crossing the invisible lines that may endanger our lives. We will apply those same techniques to the work of Plaza Pública.
As journalists we have dreamed of training the next generation – the students. We realize that none of us learned journalism from the front line, but rather we were mentored by experienced journalists. We also believe that being a part of an international network (that includes La Silla Vacía, IDL-Reporteros, and El Faro) and acquiring a reputation will make us stronger and more protected.