By Guillermo Franco, Julio César Guzmán and Mauricio Romero

Without mentioning the word convergence, many Latin American newspapers are thinking about following the trend toward uniting both their Internet and print edition newsrooms.

A recent survey indicates that many believe such a strategy would enable expansion of their online operation, which continues to be extremely dependent on the contents of the print edition. The online editions are also heavily reliant on those small teams of journalists dedicated to the Web site operation, and many of these teams lack a focus on original product generation or new reporting tasks.

These are some of the results of an online and telephone survey among those journalists responsible for their web publications of 43 of the most important newspapers in Latin America.

The respondents were not chosen using the traditional random methodology used to reflect statistical validity, but the respondents include online leaders at news organizations in every country in the region. We believe their responses provide a generally accurate snapshot of the state of online journalism in this part of the world. We discuss the limitations of this research in a note at the bottom of this article.

Most of the newspaper dot-coms in Latin America acknowledge the value of technology that allows for user interaction, particularly when it comes to content generation. However, they are trapped between the benefits that they consider a journalistic revolution and the potential damage posed by technology.

A high proportion of those who have blogs said that they are edited (to avoid "offensive" users' opinions). Also, a high proportion of those who do not have blogs have the technology to create them, but say they do not have sufficient human resources to control user participation.

More than half of the newspapers surveyed report that the income generated by their Web sites is already enough to finance the online operation. Nevertheless, the vast majority do not acknowledge the potential threat that the Internet represents to their classified ad business, nor do they have e-commerce functionality that would enable them to collect payment for various services.

The main need of journalists who work at Internet departments, in terms of training, continues to be creating multimedia products and writing for the Internet.

The research for this report was conducted with the support of our employer, Casa Editorial El Tiempo, owner of El Tiempo daily journal and Eltiempo.com, the most widely read newspaper and most visited Web site in Colombia, respectively. The research was also supported by Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (Fnpi) and Grupo de Diarios de América (GDA).

The following are the most relevant findings of the research, in detail:

  • Seventy-four percent of the media surveyed plan to integrate their online and print edition newsrooms in the short, medium or long term. In fact, four percent of those newsrooms have already been integrated.
  • Forty-two percent of the Web sites operate with three or fewer journalists. Twenty-four percent have between 4 and 8 journalists to perform their operation. An exceptional case is said to employ about 35 journalists.

  • Fifty percent of the newspaper Web sites in Latin America have launched blogs.

  • In 61 percent of the Web sites, most of the content comes from their print edition. In only 27 percent of the sites, most of the content is generated by the online staff.
  • Fifty-six percent of the media surveyed say the income of their Web sites is enough to finance their online operation; 37 percent say that income is not enough to finance the operation. (Some sites report that that they generate no revenue whatsoever.)
  • Sixty-eight percent consider user content generation a revolution for journalism. However, 30 percent think users should be controlled so that they do not cause more harm than good.

What follows are additional findings from the survey grouped in four categories: User Participation, Content, Structure and Training, and Business Model.

User Participation

  • Thirty-nine percent of those who have included blogs say they have the technology to do it but cannot control user participation.
  • Fifty-nine percent say they have implemented some type of readers' forum and blog comment cleaning system. In fact, 62 percent of those who have blogs say they are edited. Some 52 percent of sites with blogs report that they have removed comments from a blog or forum, with 12 percent reporting that they have, on occasion, removed an entire blog or forum from the site.
  • Among those sites that have removed comments, 53 percent cite inappropriate language and 7 percent report threats.
  • Newspaper Web sites that have blogs concentrate in entertainment (39 percent), sports (26 percent) and everyday life topics (22 percent). The lower percentage concentrates on the editorial or opinion section (13 percent).

  • Eighty-five percent of those who have blogs say journalists are allowed to write their own. The value of blogs are, in order of importance, publishing topics that would otherwise not be covered as a result of news hole limitations (48 percent), real-time publication (24 percent), increase of the credibility (14 percent), and serving as a source of content for the print edition (14 percent).
  • Sixty-four percent of the staffers in charge of newspapers' Web sites in Latin America say they have incorporated users'f comments in articles.
  • Among the reasons cited by organizations that do not enable user comments: lack of technology, inadequate staffing to review the comments, insufficient interest in such reader interaction on the part of news organization owners.
  • Forty-eight percent of newspapers' Web sites systematically or almost always incorporate e-mail addresses of the articles authors; 51 percent do not do it or occasionally do it.
  • Fifty-nine percent say they publish users' articles or photos on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, 62 percent consider content generated by users significant in terms of traffic and volume.
  • Sixty percent of the sites have used content from blogs or forums in their print editions.
  • Sixty-seven percent of the Web sites have some kind of user registration system.
  • Sixty-one percent of the journalism organizations see reader interaction as a way of increasing their credibility. Additionally, 28 percent consider it a means for measuring their audience. On the other hand, 4 percent do not consider this interaction a major benefit.

Content

  • Fifty-seven percent of the Web sites do not rewrite texts from their print edition.
  • When rating themselves, respondents rate their sites high in the are of updating (an average of 4.19 out of 5); low in multimedia content (an average of 2.28 out of 5) and low in maintaining independence from the print edition (2.98 out of 5).
  • Forty-one percent of the organizations polled have used their Web sites to define topic priority in their print edition. Thirty-seven percent have used their sites as a way of collecting reports of abuse, criminal activity and other offenses.
  • Fifty-two percent say they have columnists who only publish their features online.
  • Forty-nine percent of the Web sites generate content for cellphones (SMS), 38 percent for WAP (Wireless devices) and 32 percent for PDA (Palm and other mobile devices).
  • Sixty-three percent of the Web sites offer headlines via e-mail, 57 percent generate content for mobile devices, 52 percent have RSS and 54 percent offer PDF pages.
  • Forty-two percent of the print edition newsrooms generate content in real time, many times a day, for their online edition.

Only seven percent of the organizations consider their focus to be reporting. In the earlier, 2004 survey, no single medium thought so. In the present survey, 52 percent consider that editing and writing define the focus of their activity.

  • Paradoxically (taking into consideration the scarcity of human resources), 29 percent of the media say there is 24-hour news coverage in their sites. Just 10 percent provided that response in the previous survey.
  • Sixty-six percent of media sites consider themselves to be autonomous when compared to their print counterpart in terms of defining angles and headlines, article hierarchy and text re-purposing. Twenty-eight percent do not consider themselves autonomous.

  • Fifty-two percent of the Web sites say they frequently and regularly use Flash animations. Thirty-nine percent use audio and 24 percent use video. Thirty percent used none of these multimedia formats.
  • Eighty percent of content generated by Web sites is breaking news, followed by entertainment (48 percent) and sports (39 percent).
  • In 37 percent of the Web sites, the most read section is Sports. In 26 percent of the Web sites the most widely read section is Politics.

Structure and Training

  • The greatest need in terms of training is creating multimedia products, according to 26 percent those polled, followed by how to write for the Internet (22 percent) and running online communities (11 percent).
  • Sixty-three percent of the Web sites say they are considering expanding their online operation by hiring more journalists.
  • Among the Web sites that generate content for mobile devices, 74 percent do it through their online staffs.
  • In 71 percent of the Web sites, the average age of their journalists is between 20 and 30 years old (down from 87 percent in the previous survey). Online operations have also seen an increase in participation of journalists older than 35.

  • Among the media that use multimedia formats, 45 percent use different staff from the main newsroom.
  • In 55 percent of the media surveyed, none of the journalists from their Web site have degrees in digital journalism.

Business Model

  • Seventy percent of the media do not see the Internet as a threat to their classified ad business. Seventeen percent have identified local competitors as threats, whereas 9 percent see international competitors as threats.
  • Sixty-eight percent of the sites see little or no risk to their classified franchises in such international competitors as Google or Craigslist.
  • Fifty-nine percent of the Web sites do not have e-commerce operations. In those that do have e-commerce, in 20 percent of the cases, income derived from this does not exceed $20,000 each year. Only one of the companies surveyed, Clarin from Argentina, generates an annual income of more than one million dollars derived from electronic commerce.
  • Fifty eight percent publish the same classified ads on their Web site as they do in the print edition.
  • In 61 percent of the sites, users may choose to order the publication of classified ads for that medium or for the print edition. However, 48 percent of the companies surveyed do not have a joint classified ad sale model for both print and web editions.
  • Only 11 percent say that income derived from online classified ads make up a significant part of total revenue. Fifty-four percent envision such income becoming significant in the next five years.
  • Products most widely sold on newspaper Web sites are CDs, DVDs and books (20 percent), followed by electronic products (15 percent).
  • Among the sites that have e-commerce operations, 78 percent find their buyers mainly in their own region or country.
  • Fifty-four percent of the media consider that in their country the online advertising market is not large but that it is growly rapidly. Twenty-two percent do not consider online advertising a great market -- and see it growing slowly. And 22 percent already consider it a significant market that affects other media.
  • Some 69 percent of the Web sites describe most of their audience as domestic. Only 24 percent of the sites say most of their audience is international.

Methodology limitations in our research

It is important to note that the methodology used in this survey has a limitation in terms of evaluating what respondents claim they do. There may be a huge difference between what they say and what they actually do. This is confirmed in some of the answers where respondents seem to have stated their desires rather than their reality. For example, when asked about Flash-generated content, 52 percent say that they do it systematically and frequently. By surfing their Web sites, it is revealed that this is not so true.

In another question, when asked about grading certain topics on a scale of one to five, multimedia production gets the lowest marks. However, in a different question, they say that multimedia training is what they need the most.

Another topic that elicited wishes as opposed to accurate assessments is the issue of autonomy from the print edition: 66 percent of the Web media consider themselves as autonomous from print-side editors in terms of defining news angles and writing headlines, as well as in article hierarchy and text rewriting.

Autonomy is the second lowest graded item. Organizations find challenges in developing a model and editorial guidelines that work for both a 24/7 media and one that publishes ever 24 hours.

User comments is another area where aspiration may be confused with reality. Sixty-four percent of the people responsible for newspaper Web sites in Latin America claim to have incorporated user comments in articles. Surfing their Web sites shows that this is not the case. Very few really offer the option to leave comments on articles in the Web site.

- The Internet continues to be a marginal operation "in most" of newspapers in Latin America. Evidence for this is the small number of journalists who work in Web departments (42 percent of the newpapers operate with three or fewer journalists, whereas 66 percent employ eight or fewer people). This represents 10 percent of the total newsroom payroll. Most sites also exhibit high dependency on the print edition content, which is delivered once every 24 hours. In 61 percent of all newspaper dotcoms in Latin America, most of their content comes from the print edition. Also, just 7 percent consider newsgathering as the focus of their activity.

-57 percent of the websites do not rewrite texts from their print edition. It appears that much of their updating is accomplished by watching and listening to other media, such as TV and radio.

REWRITE
- 59 percent of all surveyed media that stated they had no e-commerce operation whatsoever, but the proportion changes when looking only at South American media. Sixty-three percent of these countries do indeed have electronic commerce operations.

- Online and print newsrooms integration is the only means for Latin American newspapers to expand their online operation. And when we say expanding the online operation, it means generating content --text, audio, video, multimedia -- in 24 per 7 cycles.

— Guillermo Franco is the New Media Content Manager for Casa Editorial El Tiempo (CEET) and the Editor of eltiempo.com, the leading website in Colombia, South America. He was a 2005-2006 Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

— Julio César Guzmán is the Editor of Entertainment for Casa Editorial El Tiempo (including El Tiempo daily journal, the Internet portals and the local TV Channel, Citytv) and for 10 years was Editor of eltiempo.com, the leading website in Colombia, South America.

— Mauricio Romero is in charge of the Car section of El Tiempo and he has a degree on English Linguistics in England.

— Karen Sánchez cooperated with the reporting for this research. Sofía Gómez and Carlos Solano collaborated with the implementation of the survey through the Internet. Johan Romero produced the graphics.