How to do in-depth journalism that is both eye-catching and user friendly? Paraguay's El Surtidor bets on an interesting mix of investigation, graphic design, illustrations and social media to tell attractive and impactful stories.
In the frenetic pace with which we scroll through networks like Facebook or Instagram, the battle for the reader's attention is defined in a few seconds.
Amid the tidal wave of content offered on social media, how to get the user to stop and pay attention to your stories?
For that there is no magic formula, but El Surtidor, a Paraguayan media created in 2016, is tackling that challenge with a combination of design, technology, and, most importantly, good journalism.
This media outlet, made up of 13 people, specializes in telling illustrated stories in different formats and platforms, from and for a country with internet limitations and the inequalities of Latin America.
The team is: Alejandro Valdez, director; Jazmín Acuña, general editor, and Juan Heilborn, visual editor, are responsible for the organization. Nicolás Granada, podcast editor; Sara Campos, community editor; and Carol Thiede, impact editor. Maximiliano Manzoni, Romina Cáceres and Jazmín Acuña are reporters; and Jazmín Troche is the designer. In addition there are Robert Báez, Lorena Barrios and Sofía Amarilla in charge of the illustrations, a key element for El Surtidor.
This team defines the information they offer with three keywords: "precise, challenging and beautiful", as Juan Heilborn tells us.
The stories of El Surtidor are designed mainly for mobile phones, with the so-called scrollytelling.
Each story has a strong component of design and illustrations.
The scrollytelling is the format that El Surtidor uses for its extensive reports, which take more time to produce.
At least once a week they publish long-form features, but daily they publish shorter formats on their social media. They create posters, in the style of media such as Pictoline. They also do fact-checking and have a podcast.
Connecting with audiences
El Surtidor targets an audience between 19 and 25 years old, one of the age groups that most consume digital content, but is often left outside the reach of traditional media.
Addressing that audience is a "political decision," says Heilborn.
"It is the same generation that has demonstrated its organizational capacity to demand better education or denunciate the excesses of mining and to which the government has responded with repression," he says.
"And it is, above all, the generation that will be able to initiate the most necessary changes for the country in the future."
To connect with these audiences, El Surtidor is not limited to its content on the web and social networks.
They also carry out face-to-face activities. Their newsroom in downtown Asunción hosts workshops, exhibitions, screenings, and parties.
"For us to interact with our audiences is an act of transparency," says Heilborn.
El Surtidor declares itself as an independent media, with no ties to corporate or political groups.
Like many start-ups, its strategy is based on diversifying its sources of income.
Currently, their main sources of income are:
Impact investments: from organizations interested in having some issues put on the agenda and reaching certain audiences. In these cases, El Surtidor develops a journalistic plan to address these issues. "These themes and their approach must fully coincide with our philosophy and principles," says Heilborn.
Membership Payments and In-Store Purchases: They have a store to sell items such as T-shirts, souvenirs, and various products printed with El Surtidor artwork.
Visual communication consultancies: Editorial services, including assignment of publication rights and publications in collaboration with other teams.
For the next two years, El Surtidor has set a goal of at least 25% of its income coming from their community.
"A tremendous challenge," acknowledges Heilborn.
Stories from El Surtidor are visually compelling, but that's just part of deeper research.
Among the publications that have had the greatest impact, El Surtidor highlights "The evangelical NGO that messes with your children using State money", a piece that reveals how an NGO close to the pro-life movement used State resources to spread false information about sexuality.
According to El Surtidor, thanks to this investigation, the NGO stopped receiving the funds it hoped to have for 2019.
Recently, El Surtidor also participated in a regional project that involved nine Latin American media to verify information and detect false news about sex education on the continent.
In 2018, El Surtidor won the Gabo Award in the Innovation category for the feature 'Los desterrados del Chaco', which tells the story of the region with the most accelerated deforestation on the planet.
The impact of their stories is measured not only by numbers but by the impact their content may have on society.
It may be, for example, that one of their investigations forces the authorities to give public explanations or provide a useful service to a certain group of society.
They also aim to create content that can go viral or that can be distributed through WhatsApp groups.
In their team they have an impact editor, a very recent position that they admit is still under construction.
Among the functions of the impact editor is to get their features "in the most direct way possible" to people who can serve to increase the impact and reach of the publication, such as opinion leaders or decision-makers.
For Heilborn, El Surtidor's biggest challenge is to be "a media outlet that becomes necessary when it comes to understanding Paraguay."
To achieve this, they know they must comply with their long-term sustainability plan, which includes further diversifying their sources of income.
"It is much easier to launch a media outlet than to hold it in time," says Heilborn.
"Our biggest challenge is long-term sustainability in an unfavorable environment."
Innovation is also part of that process to stay healthy and relevant in the future.
"We cannot just trust that we have done some things well, we must rethink ourselves all the time," says Heilborn.
A mistake and learning:
"Three years ago, when we only published in poster format, the audience started asking us for depth on some topics. So we published motion graphics but we failed to reach broad audiences. And we failed because in Paraguay the internet connection is slow and expensive, so people are very careful about how they use their data plans.
Between watching the goals of a soccer match or one of our videos, they would certainly choose the goals. And this is how we get to scrollytelling, the technique that allows us to delve into topics, use the power of the illustration, and require the user fewer megabytes of data. "
What they would have wished to know before starting El Surtidor:
"I think it would have been very good if we had more experience in two areas: team administration and management. It took us a while to organize ourselves better in this respect.
3 stories to get to know El Surtidor
For those who are not yet very familiar with this Paraguayan medium, Juan Heilborn recommends three stories that capture the essence of El Surtidor:
The day a supermarket closed its doors is an example of the podcasts that they produce, in this case, one about the greatest civil tragedy in Paraguay.
El Surtidor recommends:
The Pudding, a visual essay medium from the United States. Heilborn says: "Not only does it have interesting and immersive content, but they also share their programming code and make it replicable. This seems to us of high value for a contemporary media outlet, literally opening its structure so that other people can use it. "