The Power Of Popular Communication in Argentina
by Andrea A. Gálvez
Cítrica’s story shows that collaborative news outlets could present an alternative to the precarity some media organizations face and can promote change, debate, and community building.
Anagrams of Subversion
Although they experienced delays in payment previously, the employees of the Argentinian traditional newspaper Critica, did not believe that they would be out of their job from one day to the next. Critica was a for- profit newspaper staffed by about 190 workers. The editorial line was broad, although the front and back covers had a conservative line. The owner, at that time, was Antonio Mata, a Spanish businessman, who wanted to open an airline company in Argentina. It was rumored he wanted to use the newspaper to facilitate his business dealings in the country, but since this did not happen, he abandoned the organization, leaving its workers without a job.
The employees, outraged, and confronted with the lack of response from their media director, decided to fight for their jobs, occupying the newsroom for as long as it was necessary. “Whatever it takes” ended up being a six-month period. During these months, the employees organized demonstrations and strikes claiming economic compensation.
While they occupied the newsroom, they began to publish self-managed print editions with the support of other cooperative outlets. This was the final push and the beginning of the Cítrica Magazine, a brand-new media outlet, founded by its own workers. “Cítrica is an anagram of Critica, it has the same letters, but we put them in a different order. With this we intended to imply that the old newspaper would continue with the spirit of the workers, while being something totally new”, says Pablo Bruetman, one of the Cítrica founders and the news outlet’s current finance coordinator.
‘Cooperativism’ and union organization have a rooted history in Argentina. During the 2001 crisis more than 300 companies and factories were ‘recovered’ by their workers. A recovered company is an enterprise which came under the management of its former workers under common ownership, usually as a result of bankruptcy. Nowadays, it is estimated that there are at least 20,000 cooperatives engaged in different areas, because of the recovered factories movement — a tradition that immensely helped Cítrica, which was supported at the beginning by other ‘recovered media’ who first bought the magazine and distributed it. In addition, one of the most emblematic companies recovered by its own workers, the Bauen Hotel, located in the downtown area of the city, gave Cítrica a space for its newsroom.
Initially, Cítrica Magazine was distributed to other cooperative news outlets in the country, which did not have their own special magazine, as a supplement for their daily newspaper. Cítrica’s workers spent almost five years doing a bi-monthly magazine for other self-managed news outlets, but since they did not make much money with Cítrica, they held other jobs at the same time. Something that changed in 2015. The year general elections took place. The right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri won, taking the place of progressive former President Cristina Kirchner. Several newspapers funded by the previous government lost much of its financing and had to fire some of their employees.
“In 2015 many of us had been fired for the second time with similar processes. We decided that we did not want to have any bosses or to continue living in such precarity, so with the money we saved in the previous five years — selling Cítrica as a supplement to other cooperative media — we invested in the first salaries of our workers and started building Cítrica Magazine as we currently know it”, Pablo Bruetman says. Investing more time and effort meant an update of the website, keeping a monthly magazine and, for the first time, paying salaries to workers. Nowadays, six years later, Cítrica employs 20 people, organized in three teams: a journalistic, a subscription and an administration and finance team. Before the pandemic, 5000 printed magazines were being sent to all the country’s subscribers, and were distributed in cultural and social centers across main cities.
Communication and Community
“We decided to create a collaborative news outlet and a magazine that serves for people’s communication’’, Bruetman says. They set a goal and for years they have been covering issues that do not get much media attention, such as environmental issues, social and territorial conflicts, the indigenous community, the agroindustry, and the LGBTQI community rights. For them, it is important to tell the story from where it happened and to amplify the voices often ignored in traditional media. When they have a little extra cash, they are able to travel and cover stories from distant and inaccessible areas. Therefore, Cítrica became known throughout the country, and according to Bruetman, in some communities, the magazine is read more than other conventional newspapers. Cítrica´s readership is from all over the country, especially from Buenos Aires and Southern Argentina.
“Communication is not a commodity”
Bruetman believes. According to him, covering these issues was what gave them their audience. The turning point occurred during the Mauricio Macri government. “We were very critical of his government especially with incidents such as the disappearance of some activists and the responsibility of the state in their deaths, the economic crisis or state violence”. “We discovered, and we were able to prove, that there was an audience that wanted to read about these issues, so we gained many readers with these stories”, he says.
Cooperative media tends to imply a small audience and a limited impact, but that is not always the case. In Argentina, there are at least 200 self-managed media outlets. “When all the self-managed media get together, we are not less than any of the big ones. We do not believe we are in a niche, we want to dispute the hegemony, it’s difficult, but we are moving towards that goal. When cooperative media get together it has enormous potential”, Bruetman says.
Editorial independence is one of the differences Bruetman highlights when comparing Cítrica with traditional media. This is due to the type of financing they receive. They bet on different lines of financing to overcome precarity and uncertainty. “We seek various types of financing so that if for any reason one particular income falls off, we can count on others to sustain Cítrica”. 20% of their entire funding comes from subscribers. Their number grew a lot with the Covid-19 pandemic. Each subscriber pays at least 250 pesos per month (around 2.5 USD), but if some subscribers cannot pay the organization tries to reach and understanding where the magazine continues to be delivered to their homes. The rest of the financing comes from the support of unions, cooperatives, but it also receives municipal and national funding.
“There is no one more reliable source of funding than the readers. We understand the magazine as a service to the community; whoever needs to communicate can use Cítrica to do so. But we also need people to understand the importance of supporting cooperative and self-managed journalism”, Bruetman emphasizes.
We are Part of Society
Mariana Aquino, 38 years old, has been part of Cítrica for 9 years. She is a long-time journalist, but before Cítrica she was always in a financially precarious situation. According to a report published by Sipreba, the national press syndicate, in 2021 80% of print journalists earn below the poverty line and more than a half have more than two jobs. For Aquino, her working conditions changed when she joined the magazine. “In the cooperative, I found other ways of doing journalism. Besides improving my working conditions and salary, I also do the kind of journalism I want to do and share it with other people; it is a collective process”, says Aquino, who now is in charge of Cítrica´s journalistic coordination.
The adjective “collective” appears frequently during interviews with Cítrica workers. One of the key points they highlighted is the fact that Cítrica relates to its audience in a different way. “We are interested in doing journalism with feedback from the readers’ community. We want to eradicate the idea that journalism is above society and that it talks about certain issues that don’t relate to it”, she says. There is a great interaction through social networks, using private and public messages.
Also, Cítrica maintains a constant dialogue with its subscribers by email or WhatsApp. A concrete example of this interaction happened in the last few months when Cítrica published a series of stories of people unjustly imprisoned allegedly to solve criminal cases quickly for political interests. As a result, they have a lot of participation from low-income people who cannot afford a good lawyer and who found Cítrica as a platform to denounce injustice.
At times readers write to Cítrica to keep them up to date with what happens in their neighborhoods or their small towns and frequently these scoops end up becoming stories. “We are interested in interacting and exchanging, we believe that our readers can be an important source of information”, she adds. “We are part of the society we are talking about […]. We are the single-paid workers, the teachers who have to go to work in the middle of a pandemic, we are part of society and that is why we relate to our public in a more humane way”, Aquino says.
Facing Changes in Journalism: The Cooperative as an Alternative
Habits of information consumption changed and continue to do so with the emergence of new social networks and technologies. This, and the financial sustainability of media organizations that want to keep their content free while paying fair salaries to their staff, are the two main challenges organizations like Cítrica face. These issues are often invoked to argue that journalism is in crisis. But what exactly does this mean?
For Aquino, journalism is not in crisis, but traditional journalism is. “While journalism companies are in crisis, and workers are being paid miserable salaries, there is another way of doing journalism, which is booming and is still an important tool for society. And there is a lot to do: leave the desks and go to the field to talk to the protagonists of the story”, she highlights.
Cítrica believes in preaching by leading. For them, it is essential to overcome precarity and recognize its limits. “Something we are clear about is that we don’t put our workers in a precarious situation, and we try to respect everyone’s job. If you are a reporter, you don’t work as a photographer and vice versa. Nor do we accept collaborations if we can’t pay for them. We don’t make people work for free because we are a cooperative. It’s what we can do to match our narrative with our facts”, she says.
For Cítrica workers, the lifeline from precarity to a decent life, is to work side by side with other organizations such as unions or other cooperative media outlets similar to Cítrica. “We tend to make collaborative stories in which news outlets contribute with what they have, maybe the other media outlet provides a photographer and Cítrica sends to the field a reporter or helps with the transportation”, she says. In Aquino´s words: “’cooperativism’ is the tool to continue doing journalism. Maybe now, the dream of working in big media does not make sense anymore, maybe it’s better to create a cooperative that will allow us to ensure the citizens’ right to information.”.
Cítrica belongs to various unions. Networking is crucial to survive as a news outlet . “Cítrica wouldn’t be possible without the support of other cooperatives and union organizations, it’s very important to see ourselves as workers and to start sharing our bad conditions in order to build with others a more plural and democratic journalism”, she concludes.