As part of our mission to foster and connect press freedom initiatives globally, we recently began our collaboration with El Surtidor, a nine-person start-up based in Paraguay’s capital Asuncion. They utilise innovative outreach tools to engage with youth audiences on vital socio-economic issues.
In May, among stiff global competition, El Surtidor won the inaugural “Planet Award” at the Eurasia Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for their story on the deforestation of The Chaco region of Paraguay.
I recently sat down with El Surtidor’s co-founder and director Alejandro Valdez Sanabria along with editors Jazmín Acuña and Juan Heilborto to learn more about the impact their team is having in Paraguay and the innovative ways they reach audiences to support their society-driven mission.
You’ve been awarded the first-ever “Planet Award” that recognises excellence in climate change reporting. How would you describe the role this kind of coverage plays at El Surtidor?
El Surtidor is part of an emerging panorama of independent media in the region, which cover not only climate change, but also its causes and the consequences for our communities.
El Surtidor’s unique innovation is in providing an illustrated visual narrative that is capable of generating empathy and reaching new audiences, especially youth. In the current atmosphere in which the denial of science has advanced into the halls of power, reclaiming science and its rigour to make political decisions is a necessity for our journalism.
Your team of reporters tackle some pretty controversial issues. What challenges do they encounter?
The biggest challenge is to connect issues that are global with the daily life of our audience. When the issues are too big, individuals feel powerless about them. In reporting controversial issues, the obstacle is that public discussion is not a debate, but a polarised battle, in which a media outlet such as El Surtidor is already deemed as partisan by one side. Overcoming that wall and building bridges is perhaps the most difficult challenge for any independent media.
And how do you overcome this challenge?
We try to create an emotional link with rational information, it is a daily task in our work. The strategy is to ensure that our audiences can connect their problems and specific concerns with issues that require long-term political decisions.
In terms of polarisation, we try to give our audiences tools that they can use in their communications, be it in public discussion or in spaces for debate or training. In short, we create pieces that people want to use appropriately in their spaces or forums or that serve as a gateway to complex issues.
Continuous innovation seems to be a core strategy at El Surtidor. What tools do you use to involve new audiences in important social issues?
Our use of illustrations and text in “scrolly-telling” is our greatest innovation, by focusing on immersing the reader in the story through the movement of the thumb we have come up with a contemporary interaction, although it mixes many disciplines: web design, children’s books or narrative journalism.
In terms of technological tools, our WhatsApp broadcast list has allowed us to create a very close link with our core audience, which we use to communicate back and forth with them every day.
What are some examples of pieces that you are most proud of and that reflect the impact of your journalistic work?
In 2016 there was a large demonstration of agricultural workers in the capital and all the initial media coverage influenced public opinion in an extremely negative way about their demands. Over the course of two weeks, our content and that of other organisations managed to contextualise and explain the causes of the situation. Eventually, the public discussion shifted to debate and analysis where before there were only attacks.
Our coverage of deforestation in The Chaco also helped to inform public opinion about the magnitude of the tragedy that is happening. Finally, our continuous work on the environment and tax inequality have helped to position us as knowledgeable on these issues, as demonstrated by the attacks and parodies in social media networks that we have received from a conservative party closely linked to the rural oligarchy.
Back to the “Planet Award”: How could the visibility of winning this international prize impact your work locally?
Being a small and a new medium, international validation helps a lot with local validation, at least among colleagues. International visibility of the issues we cover also prevents these issues from being ignored by authorities or corporate media. In this sense, the award is important to help us continue covering these issues as a news outlet that is seen as an expert on certain topics.
Finally, what advice would you give to other small organisations that report on important social issues?
What we have learned from our experiences is that talent or hard work cannot be sustained without good management and financial projections. Not only is it important to do the job well, but also finance it for as long as possible. It is the only way to grow and become sustainable.
The other important lesson we learned is the value of interdisciplinarity, thinking outside of the box. Teams composed of people with complementary skills are more likely to produce solid, creative and impactful pieces.
Answers translated from Spanish by Melissa Rendler-Garcia.