How product thinking helped this Costa Rican newspaper go digital during the pandemic

The transition from print to online was rocky for La Voz de Guanacaste at first, but the frameworks introduced in the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program helped guide the news outlet.


Gabriela Brenes (bottom, second from left) was recently part of the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Her friend Mariano Blejman (top, second from right) became her coach in the program. Marie Gilot (top, second from left) is the director of J+ at Newmark.

By Elise Czajkowski

When Gabriela Brenes started as executive director of Costa Rican newspaper La Voz de Guanacaste in the spring of 2020, one of her very first decisions was whether to keep the newspaper printing at all.

At the time, the nine-year-old news outlet was still very print-oriented. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck Guanacaste, an area that is heavily tourism-dependent, the whole region took a hit. “It was what they called zero season in Guanacaste — zero incomes, zero tourists, nothing,” Brenes said.

And La Voz was not immune. Though the organization was fortunate to have philanthropic funding, it still suffered; Brenes estimates they lost 80% of their advertisers in less than 48 hours.

Brenes decided they should shut down the print edition and prioritize sustainability. She was able to keep the staff of nine on, with full salary and benefits. But that team was now faced with learning about online distribution on the fly. “That learning curve was very, very, very steep,” said Brenes.

La Voz is a “rare breed” in Costa Rica, says Brenes. The hyperlocal outlet aims to bring top-quality investigative and data-driven journalism to the coastal province of Guanacaste. Other coastal areas are effectively news deserts, she says, with content mostly related to tourism.

Gabriela Brenes

Brenes’ background was in storytelling, innovation and audience engagement, but she was newer to the business-side of newsroom management. The courses and certifications she sought out were often aimed at corporate environments like technology, which she found had limited applications in journalism.

She learned of the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY from her friend Mariano Blejman, an instructor on the course who ended up being her coach.

The program, a joint endeavor from the Newmark School, News Catalyst and the Google News Initiative, teaches journalists digital transformation through product thinking. Brenes participated in the first cohort of the program, which focused on newsrooms in The Americas and began in January of 2021; subsequent cohorts have taken place for journalists from Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific.

“It felt like the answer to so many questions we were asking ourselves at the moment at La Voz,” Brenes said. “I had an idea where we wanted to go and where we should go, in terms of the different news products, new business models that we had to design. But you can have a clear goal, but the strategy is so different. And there was so much going on covering a pandemic — not a small feat in itself — that I wasn’t really sure how to get from point A to B with the entire team.”

She says one of the first sessions, with Maria Ressa of Rappler in the Philippines, was particularly inspiring. Ressa spoke of how she and her team used products to develop and grow their small newsroom, taking advantage of their expertise in the region to sell advice to brands on how best to reach the audience.

Brenes said that alongside the formal lessons, which helped her identify new business needs and opportunities, and find clear frameworks to design these strategies, a huge benefit of the program was learning from other members of her cohort.

“I could finally find other media professionals in my region who face the same issues and are pursuing similar goals,” she said. “So it felt like I finally found my tribe. It’s such a relief to find a safe space to talk about this with people who are so knowledgeable and so generous with their experiences as well.”

She says that members of the cohort from Latin America have kept in touch via monthly meet-ups and an ongoing group chat. They have continued to share resources and offer support, and are seeking grant money for a cross-border group project.

And the lessons that Brenes was learning at the program, which was entirely virtual, were influencing her whole newsroom. She took lessons and ideas from the program, such as design tools and frameworks for building capacity, and translated them into Spanish for her team.

“I had to force myself to really break it down into smaller chunks, and think about it like baby food,” Brenes said. “When you try to feed a baby, you try to pick the highest quality food possible, but in very, very small portions. So that was kind of the approach. Pick whatever is going to have the most value right now. And just go little by little.”

As La Voz has pivoted its offerings to digital, the newsroom has focused on developing and improving products. They launched their first premium, monetized newsletter focused on the neighborhood of Nosara, a diverse community which has “coexisted but not necessarily coalesced,” she said. The newsletter seeks to bridge these gaps and open dialogue between different communities within the neighborhood. With 300 paid subscribers, it is already sustainable.

The team is also looking to improve GuanaData, its first data analysis tool, which combines investigative data work with community engagement. The product looks into government data to uncover corruption and misuse of funds, but also trains citizens to do their own research and use that information to tell stories in their own communities.

The tool has been successful but expensive to maintain, with a significant amount of work done manually. When her team analyzed the data, they determined that one-third of the costs of GuanaData could be automated, and they are currently seeking a grant to help them build the automations.

For Brenes, the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program came at just the right time to help her newsroom with the shift to digital. And she continues to see the benefits of it in the work that they do.

“I can’t stress enough just how important this course was, because it helped me not only build my skills, but share a lot of those with a team on a constant basis,” Brenes said. “It was not only myself as a news manager learning, but it was the entire team, in a way, learning with me.”

Elise Czajkowski is a writer/editor who regularly writes about the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s executive and professional education programs. Based in New York, she was previously a Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Newmark J-School. She launched a non-profit called Sidewalk News, which uses outdoor advertising to distribute local news.