How Paraguay's El Surti Became a Regional Model of Visual Journalism

By: Sebastián Ortega | 11/22/2021

Velocidad is a pioneering business media accelerator program designed to help independent digital media in Latin America build more financially sustainable organizations. The program is run by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and SembraMedia with support from Luminate Group.

Before joining the Velocidad media business accelerator program, El Surti had a staff of five people. “We were a small team that worked horizontally. Our whole team could work together at one table,” remembers El Surti Director Alejandro Valdez Sanabria. All team members would meet in the newsroom, around a long table where they discussed their news agenda and the possibilities for creating certain stories. They also edited the content and design of their articles together. In that small, common space, in a pre-pandemic world, communication flowed naturally.

While the team experimented with stories and research published as brief, mobile-friendly illustrated texts, the organization’s primary focus was on publishing graphics on social media. One of the organization's main strengths was a loyal audience in WhatsApp groups.

With this experience in mind, the El Surti team began the Velocidad accelerator program with a clear initial goal: to develop a membership program that would harness the potential of El Surti’s loyal audience on WhatsApp. They wanted to convert 3,000 of their 6,000 audience members into subscribers. The team’s second goal for the Velocidad program was to create a content agency focused on illustration, working with freelance designers to supplement the El Surti team’s efforts and meet customer demand. Working with the Velocidad accelerator’s team of strategic consultants, the El Surti team decided to reorder priorities. 

Reorganization as a starting point for growth

In one sentence, Valdez Sanabria summarized the organization’s recent transformation: “We went from a Facebook page that published one [image] per day, to an organization that offers journalism and visual communication services for the entire [Latin American] region.” In just 18 months, the El Surti team increased the organization’s impact and income, created a community of illustrators and graphic designers from different countries, and applied their work methodology across Latin America.

At the beginning of the Velocidad program, El Surti realized they had to work on certain priorities before starting a membership program. This realization came from working with Sebastián Auyanet, a strategic consultant for the El Surti team during the first phase of Velocidad. They also took stock of the organization working with other tactical consultants who are experts in audience, organizational management, regionalization, technology and design, among others. 

Like other media outlets in the program, reorganizing and developing systems for El Surti’s internal processes were fundamental steps taken to enable organizational growth. 

When El Surti started the Velocidad program, it was a media outlet dedicated almost exclusively to visual journalism. As such, the team’s work methodology and creative processes were different from those of other media organizations. During initial meetings with the Velocidad team, El Surti team carried out a self-assessment, reconsidering their internal processes, difficulties and opportunities for the future. “We took a look at ourselves in the mirror,” explained Valdez Sanabria.

After this transformation, the El Surti team began the process of expanding the organization’s work to a regional audience. Scaling up in this way prompted considerable growth for El Surti in terms of work volume, exposure, impact and revenue.

Betting on a regional approach

When El Surti first joined the accelerator, the Velocidad team recognized a valuable opportunity to expand the organization’s work beyond Paraguay. “As the El Surti team started working with their new focus, we realized that they should also think about working across Latin America, because they had all the right ingredients to make it happen,” said Auyanet.

The expansion process was not easy. Although the El Surti team was planning on looking for funding within the region, they were only considering expansion as a long-term goal — something they could achieve in a few years. The Velocidad team insisted on El Surti expanding to a regional market and convinced the El Surti team to use some of the organization’s resources to set the process in motion. 

As a jumping off point, during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, El Surti was invited to participate in Latam Chequea, a collaborative fact-checking project composed of 28 fact-checking organizations across 16 Latin American countries and Spain. The participating media outlets help journalists and fact-checkers covering the COVID-19 pandemic. El Surti was uniquely positioned to offer a valuable resource in the fight against the COVID-19 infodemic: experience in creating high-impact visual journalism. The Latam Chequea project forced the El Surti team to modify their production in a way that would help a network of organizations around Latin America. For the first time, the team identified, systematized and wrote out their methodology, step by step. The “memetics methodology” promotes audience collaboration and mobilization through an iterative process to create visual journalism that is agile, sustainable, adaptable and shareable.

Joining the Latam Chequea initiative increased the organization’s international exposure and financial resources. The project was also valuable symbolically: it was definitive proof that there were other media professionals, outlets and organizations interested in learning and implementing El Surti’s methodology.

The challenge of working in new formats

When El Surti started participating in Latam Chequea, the team also received requests to work and collaborate with various Latin American media organizations. “We thought that getting clients around Latin America would take us two or three years, but we ended up having regional clients first and local clients later,” said Valdez Sanabria. 

The pandemic accelerated the organization’s growth. “Quarantine made the world smaller. In the first two weeks, we received a wave of collaboration requests from media outlets and organizations of all kinds and forms,” added Valdez Sanabria. “La Fábrica Memética” (“The Memetics Factory,” in English), the organization’s agency operated independently from the media outlet portion of El Surti, grew rapidly.

As the demand to work with El Surti increased, it became more and more evident to the team that El Surti’s true potential did not rely solely on what they do — visual storytelling — but on how they do it. “Unlike illustrations, which are difficult to scale because we have to make them one by one, our methodology can be scaled,” explained Valdez Sanabria.

The El Surti team also realized there was a great need among digital native media outlets to improve the quality of their visual journalism, especially on social media. After speaking with the Velocidad strategic consultants, the idea of creating Latinográficas was born. The initiative is a visual journalism training program developed by El Surti for journalists, graphic designers and illustrators around Latin America. The goal is for the El Surti team to expand their reach and share their visual journalism experience with the rest of Latin America. Latinográficas is also designed as a new, valuable income source for the organization. 

The resources and tactical consultants the Velocidad program provided were key to helping the El Surti team create a proposal for Latinográficas, look for funding and launch the program during the second phase of the accelerator. “If we were going to teach other media professionals how we worked, first we had to know how we did it ourselves,” said Valdez Sanabria. The El Surti team learned how to do just that by working with Velocidad tactical consultant Mariel Graupen. Simultaneously, the El Surti team worked with financial and business consultants who helped them find new clients and obtain funding for various projects from organizations including the Facebook Journalism Project, ICFJ, the Open Society Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC).

One project that received funding and other support during this time was Latinográficas. More than 500 people from 250 cities across Latin America, the U.S. and Spain participated in the first set of activities organized as part of Latinográficas during the second half of 2020. Not only did the program provide training to journalists, illustrators and designers, it also allowed them to work on visual media projects that they then published with their organizations. As a result of using this model, the impacts of the Latinográficas initiative multiplied across Latin America, the U.S. and Spain. About 20 media outlets and organizations published the work they created, including outlets such as Salud con LupaEfecto CocuyoMalditaChequeado and CONNECTAS.

Latinográficas quickly turned into El Surti’s most important project. The success of the first edition of the program made it possible for the team to launch a second version in 2021. This year, in addition to looking for external funding for the program, the team also hopes to generate income from within the El Surti community. El Surti has made agreements with organizations and brands to launch several projects geared toward a variety of audiences. The team has also started conducting testing related to a membership program and events.

Consolidating processes

For El Surti, the first phase of the Velocidad accelerator program was one of experimentation, trial and error, as well as launching projects. The second phase of the accelerator focused on developing and consolidating processes to execute El Surti’s projects.

“There was continuity [with El Surti’s work]. We maintained several key focus areas, like the agency’s regionalization and internal restructuring,” said Nicolás Piccoli, a Velocidad strategic consultant who worked with El Surti during the accelerator’s second phase. Now, 40% of El Surti’s clients and funding come from other countries or organizations that have a regional presence, including UNICEF, Oxfam, Fundación Capital, Dromómanos, El País, and others. During the accelerator's second phase, they also had the chance to refine administrative processes within the organization, a key aspect to increasing the volume of work they produced.

Throughout the accelerator, the members of the El Surti team redefined the way they look at themselves, striving to balance their creative efforts with institutional growth. As part of this, their team grew from five to 19 members, with additional external collaborators working on different projects. El Surti, which used to be a media outlet specifically dedicated to visual journalism content is now, as Valdez Sanabria says, “an organization that offers journalism and information services to the entire region.” This process involved redefining how the organization is known, and building new brands. 

Now, under the umbrella of Memetic.Media, El Surti as a media organization is divided into three areas: First, El Surti the media outlet, which includes publications and special investigations, podcasts, the magazine Futuros 2020 and a fact-checking column called La Precisa; second, La Fábrica Memética, which offers services to different organizations around Latin America and is estimated to represent 35% of the organization's income in 2021; and third, the training area of the organization, which is primarily the Latinográficas program. The process of reorganizing El Surti as an organization, which required planning and execution during phases one and two of the accelerator, included assigning Juan Heillborn as director of training in charge of designing and executing Latinográficas. Jazmín Acuña was named editorial director, in charge of the El Surti news team. Carol Thiede also joined the team, to be responsible for the services area of the organization, which includes planning and executing El Surti’s expansion to the rest of Latin America. These three team members, with Vázquez Sanabria, make up El Surti’s management team. 

This reorganization of El Surti allowed the team to diversify their funding sources, improve their internal processes, coordinate projects with their network of external collaborators and further develop their journalism production. 

The future: Community support in a variety of ways

Although El Surti team members have been working on a variety of initiatives, they never stopped thinking about or working on developing the technical resources and knowledge needed to design a membership program. However, during the Velocidad accelerator, they decided to prioritize a focus on the organization’s most urgent needs and time-sensitive funding opportunities. Now, since the team has accomplished their goals regarding institutional restructuring and reorganization, they are ready to tackle membership.

After working with Velocidad consultant Celeste Brand, they understood that El Surti’s potential did not solely rely on WhatsApp groups. In reality, El Surti’s strength lies in the Latinográficas community. “We were obsessed with the idea of membership and Celeste helped us realize that there are other ways to generate income,” said Valdez Sanabria.

The El Surti team understood that their community and audience can support them through different avenues, from attending events and giving donations to purchasing their editorial products, like Futuros magazine.

Currently, one of the main challenges for the organization lies in developing two different membership programs based on those findings. The first membership program would be one for loyal El Surti followers who consume the organization’s journalistic content and want to contribute financially. The other membership program would be for the smaller, more niche community of designers, illustrators and journalists who see El Surti as a space for belonging, training and professional exchange and development. 

El Surti’s growth, made evident by hiring new staff, promoting and training existing staff and diversifying the organization’s funding sources, would not have been possible without the work the team did in two fundamental areas: internal organizational change and regional expansion. The Velocidad accelerator not only forced the members of the El Surti team to look at themselves in the mirror, it also made them review their work practices, then plan and start their organizational transformation, according to Valdez Sanabria. “The accelerator program also supported us through organizational growing pains,” he said.

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