Efecto Cocuyo: Venezuela's Firefly Effect, Shining Light in Informational Darkness

The media startup's indefatigable CEO explains the organization's social-focused approach to journalism.

The Firefly Effect: Journalism that illuminates.

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Luz Mely Reyes isn't just a journalist. She's a force to be reckoned with.

She grew up in Petare, an impoverished neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, without running water. She worked through college, and won a scholarship to go to grad school. She became a reporter, working her way up to be the first woman to run a Venezuelan newspaper. She's been personally targeted by two presidents. And she's one of the founders of the only Venezuelan media startup launched entirely by women — which is also the country's most successful crowdfunded project.

It's no coincidence that Reyes became a political reporter. “I started out at a small newspaper precisely on the day there was a coup in my country. That was like my breakfast,” said Reyes in an interview with Medium International.

Reyes holding a sign that says #IVote ahead of Venezuela's December 2015 election.

That was back in 1992. Since then, Reyes worked at a variety of publications, ran the investigative unit at Últimas Noticias, and later became editor-in-chief of Diario 2001.

But a lot has changed in the last two decades. The media landscape in Venezuela has shifted dramatically, a confluence of an economic crisis, government repression, and company acquisitions. Plus, independent newspapers are having trouble getting enough paper, which is controlled by the government. Some journalists are quitting, or leaving the country. Reyes herself was targeted by both late President Hugo Chávez and President Nicolás Maduro.

“Media closings, lack of paper, soft censorship, self-censorship, dozens of colleagues fired and other pressures were taking hold and made it almost impossible to be a journalist,” wrote Reyes on Medium.

So Reyes and her two colleagues, Laura Weffer and Josefina Ruggiero decided to start their own media organization. They raised $27,000 in a crowdfunding campaign to get started — not only to ensure independence but to establish a relationship with their readers. They named the publication Efecto Cocuyo, or the Firefly Effect.

“Our site is the product of millions of tiny sparks, which together can illuminate an entire nation,” says Reyes.

The site launched in early 2015, and quickly became an influential outlet. “In covering the Venezuelan crisis as we are, by telling people’s stories, we’ve become a light that illuminates different points of what’s happening,” she said.

“Our goal was to become a known brand in Venezuela, and we succeeded,” Reyes added. Currently, Alexa ranks the site number 46 in Venezuela, and not only is readership growing, but so is recognition among the country’s influencers.

Even though around 60 percent of Venezuela's population has internet access, censorship and government influence on the press means people aren't getting all the information they need from traditional media, said Reyes. So increasingly, Venezuelans have turned to social media for their informational needs.

“We’re experiencing with content distribution. We’ve always said, innovation is in our DNA. Innovation happens in the conversations we have with people,” said Reyes. Efecto Cocuyo uses a variety of social platforms, like Twitter for breaking news, Periscope for live coverage, Facebook and Medium for distributing stories, and Whatsapp for crowdsourcing and distributing stories to influencers. The organization is also looking to experiment with multimedia content on Instagram and Snapchat.

“We distribute the information where the people are. If the party is here, why would we have the party over there? We want to share your party with you,” Reyes explained.

Twitter was the first platform the group used, seeing an opportunity to verify information and prevent rumors from spreading. Whatsapp then became an especially important platform for Efecto Cocuyo. “It’s to move information so it doesn’t get stuck in regular channels. We receive tips and verify them,” said Reyes.

One of the advantages of crowdsourcing on this wildly popular mobile platform is the team receives tips from all over the country, not just big cities. This was an advantage in reporting on the murder of 17 miners in a rural part of the country, where Efecto Cocuyo made contact with journalists and family members.

Apart from reporting news, another thing Efecto Cucuyo does on social is start conversations. “In Venezuela there’s been so so much restriction and self-censorship, some people think it’s normal to stay quiet,” Reyes explains. So the team launched several hashtags that went viral, including #NoEsNormal (#ItsNotNormal) to discuss parts of everyday life in Venezuela that shouldn't be normal, like waiting hours in line to buy food or not being able to find prescription medication.

Beyond traffic, one of the site's main goals is to effect change. “What matters most is the qualitative impact we can have,” said Reyes.

It's already had success in a number of ways. Efecto Cocuyo participated in the Panama Papers investigation and aggregated coverage from other media outlets. After Panama Papers made headlines worldwide, the Venezuelan government ordered a local investigation. Venezuela is facing a massive shortage of medicine, and after Efecto Cocuyo published a story about a terminally ill child who couldn't get a drug he needed, a reader in Spain found it and sent it to him.

The more “fireflies” there are, says Reyes, the harder it will be for the government to escape accountability.

Reyes is currently a fellow at CUNY's Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York, where she's been learning about ways to improve her startup and become sustainable. She's returning to Venezuela after the program ends this month, and also plans to launch a new round of crowdfunding.

She's looking forward to getting back to her family, her staff, and the beach back home.

“The situation isn’t so good in Venezuela,” said Reyes. “You know you love your country and you want to do the best [you can], but you know that the challenge is big. But we take it on. It’s never simple.”

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