Gender Smart | July 22, 2017

Women-led digital media startups: Checking corruption and changing the narrative in Latin America

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Increasing numbers of women in Latin America are starting digital media businesses. And they’re producing some of the region’s best journalism.

Authors of a new study of the impact of digital media startups in Latin America were shocked by their own finding: women are involved in starting 62% of the 100 sites surveyed in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico (though only 38% of total founders were women). The study was backed by Omidyar Network.

The researchers from SembraMedia, a Los Angeles-based media resource non-profit, went back to their full database of 600 digital-native media companies across the Spanish-speaking world: 40% of all founders were women.

“The significance of this is hard to overstate,” they write, given the dismal numbers of women owners in traditional media. In Mexico, for example, only 1% of TV station owners and zero newspaper owners are women, according to a 2014 study.

Women are taking advantage of the low barriers to entry for digital media startups (more than 70% were founded with $10,000 or less) “to go around the glass ceilings of traditional media,” says SembraMedia. Their publications are more collaborative and “producing some of the more important coverage of underserved communities.”

Changing the narrative

Media Development Investment Fund, which invests in independent media in regions with little press freedom, has backed eight media startups in Latin America, three of them women-led or co-led. “More women are feeling empowered and ready to take on launching journalistic projects,” Maria Catalina Colmenares, the fund’s Latin America director and a board member of SembraMedia, told ImpactAlpha.

The Women Effect in Independent Media: Tough Entrepreneurs in Tough Environments

“Some of the most well-known and well-respected independent digital media in the region are led by women,” says Colmenares, including La Silla Vacia in Colombia (Juanita Leon), Aristegui in Mexico (Carmen Aristegui), Convoca in Peru (Milagros Salazar) and Agencia Pública in Brazil (Natalia Viana and Marina Amaral).

Many firms, especially in traditional media, adds Colmenares, still have no women on the executive team.

Chicas Poderosas, a four-year-old media organization founded by ICFJ Knight Fellow Mariana Santos, is launching a new accelerator to provide support and funding to independent, women-led digital media across Latin America. The first cohort will start in January in Brazil.

“We are hoping to change the narrative in Latin America, where most media organizations are led by men,” Santos told NiemanLab. “Hopefully new independent news sites emerge from this, led by women.”

Digital media entrepreneurs in Latin America, with high participation from women, are also developing sustainable and even profitable business models, says SembraMedia. They “are not just producing news — they are generators of change, promoting better laws, defending human rights, exposing corruption, and fighting abuses of power.”

They do this at great risk. “Nearly half the journalists interviewed for this study reported threats and physical attacks in response to their coverage,” say the authors.