Diogo Cardoso, Divergente: How to survive and thrive by taking journalism out of the newsroom | The Media Viability Podcast Episode 06 Transcript | Media viability | DW | 30.09.2023
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Diogo Cardoso, Divergente: How to survive and thrive by taking journalism out of the newsroom | The Media Viability Podcast Episode 06 Transcript

For the sixth episode of "Survive and Thrive", our guest is Diogo Cardoso. He is a journalist and director of Divergente from Portugal, an award-winning, long-form online media outlet. Read the episode transcript here.

Welcome to "Survive and Thrive", DW Akademie’s dialogue with media managers on innovative and sustainable business models in a challenging global media landscape. We'll talk motivation, lessons learned, funding models, best practices, recipes for success and decisions – good and bad.

Watch here, or read the complete transcript below 

Janelle Dumalaon (host): Hi, I'm Janelle Dumalaon. A saturated media environment, poor job security for journalists, and financing challenges - media organizations have to keep jumping over hurdles to stay viable. As such, there's a need for media producers to learn from each other and ask how we're all adapting to the world we live in. 

Janelle Dumalaon GMF 2023

Janelle Dumalaon, DW journalist and podcast host

I would like to introduce Diogo Cardoso, director and reporter at Divergente, a digital magazine specializing in long-form multimedia storytelling. We're very excited to get into your story, Diogo. 

But first, this quick questionnaire: Your business model in a catchphrase. 

Diogo Cardoso: Right. I was thinking about this. I would say experience and fine-tuning. Be fruitful and multiply.

 

Dumalaon: Experience, fine-tuning, be fruitful, multiply. We'll return to that. Did you ever manage a moment when everything seemed lost? 

Journalist Diogo Cardoso,

Diogo Cardoso, journalist and director of Divergente

Cardoso: I hate to give you a boring answer, but actually we started from scratch, from zero. When we founded this project, we had absolutely no expectations. We just wanted to create a space where we could develop the kind of journalism we believe in. 

So, there was not a moment where we thought everything was lost because we kind of built it step-by-step. We just added layers along the way. And yeah, there was not that one moment. 

But throughout the last years, I thought there were moments where the workload just became so intense that we started to doubt if we could make it. And that kind of created a moment where sometimes we thought maybe this is not going the way we expected, maybe we should drop it and start from scratch. But I think that's just the normal way in every project, I guess. 

 

So the answer is almost?  

Almost. Yeah. 

  

Next question. What would you need to thrive in the future? 

That is more experience and more time. 

 

So now you've alluded to some of the challenges already as we've been talking for this brief period. Today we're talking about what it means to actually get a journalism project like yours off the ground that faced some very real universal problems. That doesn't necessarily involve being in a war zone or being persecuted by the government. Obviously, it's much easier to explain the need for financing, say to grant-giving bodies from within a conflict zone or a country with a particularly oppressive government. That's not your situation. So, what has your experience been like convincing funders to get behind you? 

Well, it's been a pretty interesting path to be honest because as you said – and we use it almost as a joke when we're at journalism conferences – we're not in a country that is under a dictatorship, that is enduring the hardships that a lot of other countries are in and that need urgent help. And we’re also not in the group of rich countries in the north of Europe or Central Europe. We’re kind of in a limbo where people think: "Well, you're doing good enough. You don't need money. You can take care of yourselves."

But that puts us in a very dangerous position because we're operating in the South of Europe where the outlook in terms of financing for the media landscape isn't great as the economy is not strong enough. 

It's very hard to get funding to start an independent journalism project. Also because the south of Europe isn’t really in focus. We don't get as much exposure as media from let's say Germany or France which are the centers of political decisions in Europe. We've realized that being from a kind of peripheral area of Europe makes it harder for donors to invest money. And this is the kind of place that we're at this point. 

Episode 06: How to survive and thrive by taking journalism out of the newsroom with Diogo Cardoso of Divergente, Portugal

What do you say then to be able to convince them to support you?  

Well, the work we've developed in the last years speaks for itself, but we don't have the kind of exposure other bigger projects from bigger countries have, tapping into bigger markets or audiences like media from France and Germany. Portugal doesn't have that many people, that much audience we can expand to. 

So what we have to do is create an extremely high level of quality in our work and try to do things differently from what other projects are doing throughout Europe. And that's what we try to do with our narrative and investigative multimedia long-forms. We try to go beyond the obvious and we try to go deeper into issues that yes, have a local approach but that are transversal to all societies. 

We're talking about climate change. We're talking about LGBT rights. We're talking about land grabbing by big corporations. 

We tell local stories that transcend the local and can be reflective of what is happening in other places throughout the world. 

 

Now, if you look back at the stories you've covered, is there one that stands out as one that you're particularly proud of? 

Yes. One of the latest features that we've published, it's called "For You, Portugal, I swear!". It is a story about the troops, the African troops, who fought alongside Portugal in Africa during the colonial wars. It's a story about abandonment and I think it kind of relates to how the US got out of Afghanistan a few years back, it was kind of the same thing.

Portugal pulled back from Guinea Bissau, one of the ex-colonies and all the troops that fought alongside Portugal during that war, local troops, and African troops, were left behind and their citizenship and their rights were taken away. This isn’t a story from the past, but from the present because the survivors up until today fight to get their rights recognized. 

And the way I see it and why I think it's important is that this story has more impact. We finally managed to break that boundary that we see in journalism to take the journalism out of the newsroom. We did a series of public presentations with these stories that involved civil society, that involved interest groups that fought for the rights of these men and it started a strong social debate. 

It stirred mentalities towards this hidden part of Portuguese history. Using more stories to leverage change in society and to stir debate – that’s exactly the goal that we have with our work. 

 

This story in particular, it's a fascinating story because obviously in a way it's the story of the world. It's a story of conflict, it's a story of colonization, it's the past and present together. 

Did you find that this particular story resonated with the audiences that you were trying to reach, especially on the public presentation side? 

We were amazed at the reaction. We did expect a little bit of reaction from the public because this is a very sensitive story in Portugal to talk about colonialism and colonial war. It's a very sensitive topic. 

We, like a lot of European countries, are still very unprepared to look back at the past and reckon with our history. We see these movements around the world discussing for example slavery or colonialism and historical reckoning and reparations. And in Portugal, when we started publishing this story, we were still discussing as a society if we were a racist country or not. We were still unaware or unprepared to discuss our past.   

So having this story out there and presenting it to a live audience – that was really strong because you could see that at the end of the presentation, people were uncomfortable. 

And in the audience, there were people from the whole political spectrum, right to left. You could see on their faces that they didn't really know where to position themselves towards the story we were telling. And this is exactly what we expect and want with our features, with our work.  

We don’t want... We're not the bearers of truth when we present this. We want to create a real debate so that we can move forward and discuss things below the surface. 

 

When you say that you are not the bearer of truth for your audiences, what are your audiences meant to understand? 

I think journalism as a whole has developed this kind of image of itself that whatever we say is true. And throughout the years, with the access that we have and with the critical eye that we developed not only as citizens but as journalists, we started to doubt that kind of approach. 

I think we have to put ourselves in a position where we must question the story. And for that, we need to go beyond. What we try to do with our work is to show exactly those stories that go beyond the official narrative. 

Especially with this work, "For you, Portugal, I swear!", we tried to tell the story from the other perspective, the perspective of the ones who were abandoned. And, going back to the public presentations, the most common reaction that we had from the audience was “Well, I studied Portuguese history at school. I studied Portuguese colonialism. How come I never heard about this story?”  

So in digging out these stories that are part of our national history and putting them forward, we’re not denying that the official narrative happened. We’re adding other narratives to it that are interesting for people to have access to to have a better and more critical understanding and view of events and issues.

 

You seem to have discovered quite a mission there in terms of closing educational gaps that your audience might have had in terms of the history of Portugal. 

Now, I was reading about this a little and I also saw that like everywhere else, Portugal suffers from declining trust in media organizations. It has one of the lowest rates of paying for digital news: Only 11% of consumers do so according to the Reuters Digital News Report for Portugal.  

Why do you think that's the case? And what case do you make for your audiences to trust and invest in you, although you're not a subscription model from what I understand? 

No, we're not and what you mentioned right here is one of the reasons we’re not.  

To address your first question, I think that Portugal worked a lot on their literacy levels in the past three or four decades. Until four years ago, literacy levels were low, and this affects many generations. We're closing that gap: There are more and more people who get educated and get a degree. We keep saying that my generation is the best-prepared and best-informed to date in Portugal.  

But there's also still a lot to do, not only in terms of getting an education but also to get an education towards citizenship and civil participation. I think this gap is being narrowed. 

But there's another question which is the economic one. The salaries in Portugal are quite low – a medium salary in Portugal would be around €1000 per month – so people, even if they’re interested in culture and information, books, and theaters, sometimes just cannot afford it because culture and information have a cost. And there’s still not a big chunk of the population who can allow themselves to invest in that. 

Regarding our project, that was one of the reasons that we don't have a paywall. Another is that we believe that journalism has a role in society to inform people and if we create a paywall, this is just another obstacle for the people I've mentioned before. 

So we believe that journalism should be openly accessible, and we should find ways of supporting these projects and financing journalism that go beyond subscription models or community support, especially in countries like Portugal where we are only 10 million people. 

 

Now my next question was going to go deeper into the business model. You've alluded to it already somewhat and earlier you said that it was about fine-tuning and experiencing. Also making sure that you capture your audience with the quality of your work and without putting extra obstacles like paywalls in their way. 

What did that process of coming to this model look like? 

Well, we started as a two-people project and Divergente wasn’t even the main thing, it started as a side project. We (Sofia da Palma Rodrigues and Cardoso) were both doing other stuff and we wanted to create this space where we could create the kind of journalism we believed in.   

So it grew quite organically, step-by-step. What we realized during the process was that it was not possible to sustain Divergente through a membership model because of the issues we talked about before, the small audience and people not having enough money to support it. 

Additionally, we realized that what we do is for a very niche audience. People who read long forms, multimedia, and narrative journalism are not that many, especially in the Portuguese market.  

We knew we needed to diversify sources of revenue. 

Also, we've always wanted what I was explaining before that our work wouldn’t stay within the newsroom walls but go beyond. So, the public presentations became both a tool to expand our work and reach new audiences and also a question of financial viability because through these presentations we gather our support. We gather people around the project.   

What we are doing as well a lot is looking for partnerships with academia. 

 

What does this mean? 

We try to partner up with universities not only to help us to have a scientific approach to journalistic investigation and to rely on the methodology, for example of collating data and the data itself. And also to tap into a big asset that academia has, which is a lot of Ph.D. investigations about social issues with a lot of big sets of data already collected and with stories in the data that otherwise we wouldn't have access to. That kind of partnership also gives us access to revenue because the universities are also interested in promoting their stories, in promoting their investigations in a more journalistic way that can interest audiences. 

You see, we're trying different things. As I said, a lot of experience, a lot of fine-tuning. 

Last year, we organized a party. It was a big success for people who followed the project and so we tried to go both the institutional way and try different solutions that can give us enough viability in the future.  

 

You mentioned the importance of having multiple revenue sources, whether it's grants, whether it's partnerships with universities, or whether it's events as you said there. 

What have been some of the biggest learnings that you have had in terms of trying to find enough sources to be able to finance your operations? 

One thing that we realized – the biggest learning we had so far – is that especially in the Portuguese context, it's very hard to be a viable independent journalism project by only relying on the community. Once you realize that, of course, you continue to communicate with the community because they are the ones reading your work.  

But you need to tap into other revenue sources that do make it possible to continue to work. And here we're talking about grants. And when we talk about grants, there's an ongoing discussion in that organizations understand that we need to move from a kind of project funding to structural and core grants. Otherwise, the time we spend writing applications for story grants just takes all the focus away from the journalistic work, which of course is what we're supposed to do. 

So three years ago, we got this three-year grant from Civitates, a philanthropic institution that supports public interest journalism in Europe and that helped us to... Do you know how a snowball gets bigger rolling down the hill? The grant gave us that push. We managed to finally hire people and professionalize our newsroom, hiring people for communication, for hiring, and for grant seeking. 

Finally, the ball started rolling. And so that side of looking for grants, nowadays is one of our main sources of revenue. But we're trying to also tap into campaigns to kind of change laws and public support for not only for us of course, but for public interest journalism in general. 

Just yesterday night, there was this debate on Portuguese TV, on the main channel in prime time, about whether it’s worth saving journalism or not. And it was funny to see that the discussion changed a lot from a perspective of "How do we make this business model work?" to "How do we gather support and create grants that can support journalism?". 

I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that publicity-based models are dead. Pay-per-click models are killing journalism. We need an intervention. Either from philanthropy or from the state.  

And the distinction is important to me: the state and not the government. I mean it's one of the favorite lines of politicians: "Journalism is the pillar of democracy." If it's the pillar of democracy and especially in the last years, if democracy is at stake, we need the state to step in and to help these independent projects.  

 

Operationally speaking, what is the difference to you between receiving help from the state and receiving help from the government? 

Well, the government changes, doesn't it? And the government can make laws. The state is a continuous political entity on time.   

We do discuss this a lot: By having state grants would we be more or less pressured politically? And I agree with all the perspectives. I just think that when we discuss this, we are forgetting a fundamental little detail and that is that journalists are already pressed by another power, which is the economic power. 

When you have newsrooms that get reduced to three or four journalists when we have newsrooms that have more marketers than journalists – that are signs of the pressure. 

It's invisible to the public, but it's quite visible when you look at the quality of the outputs, you know.  

I mean, we have grants for arts, for theaters, for cinema. The same thing would work in my perspective, just as another independent institution that exists long-term, independently of governments and supports serious journalism.  

But that’s another discussion. What is serious journalism? (laughs)   

 

Looking back at all the challenges you've faced, at all the ways that you have made your organization into what it is today, is there anything that you would do differently? 

Oh, that's always a tricky question, isn't it? I mean you need to go down the road to get the learnings from the path, you know. 

But if I have to select one or two, I would say we need to spend more time when we hire someone to really understand if it's a fit or not. It’s easy to pick a person that looks like a good fit and that goes in both directions, from the outside as well. If you read about Divergente, you probably think "God, this is a great project, I want to be part of it." But that person doesn't necessarily see the workflows and the work that goes into it and the specificities of the project. 

So it sometimes happens that the person realizes they’re maybe not a good match for this team. So I would say we need to be more careful in selecting people and try to integrate them more. That’s probably the biggest thing that I would change.  

Another learning is to focus more on what we really want. There was a moment when we were growing as a team after having won the three-year grant when we wanted too much. We started trying to find more and more funding and then we found ourselves in a position where we got the money, but we had applied for things that we didn't really want to do. And then felt stuck in a loop for several months doing projects that, OK, they were nice issues, it was nice to work on them, but we didn't really want to do them. 

So one really big learning is to invert the pyramid. Define exactly what you want to do. Define what gives you pleasure doing, and what your passion is about. And then you try to find money to do that and not the other way around. 

Because if you have money but you're doing something you don't want that can suffocate the passion for the job you're doing. 

 

Now, I'm not going to ask you which of those projects were the ones that you did not feel any particular love for or which of the projects you didn't particularly want to do. It's probably not the best platform for that. 

But I also wanted to ask you in terms of in terms of media viability, in terms of surviving and thriving, which is obviously the topic of our podcast. You also had quite a bit of external input as well from partners including DW Akademie. What is the most important thing that you have learned from the partners that you have had? 

I think DW Akademie stepped in at a time when we were really thinking about what to do with the project. We had just received the Civitates grant, we had just added people to the team and we needed to kind of look around and see where we want to go from here. 

It helped us to assess our strong points, and our weak points and especially to understand what kind of audience we were communicating with. 

We (journalists) often use this analogy that we know how to do journalism, but we're not very good at looking for money to pay for it. This process with DW Akademie helped us to go through that learning curve and to understand how we could monetize the things that we're doing, what our audience is, and how we achieve the social impact that we want. For us, that was a game-changer experience because we were like "this looks very obvious after you do it". 

It obliged us to look in the mirror and to understand what we want to do, what our goals are and how we can get there. Those are definitely the very hard questions to ask. 

 

One thing that I think bears repeating in this conversation that we had, especially when it comes to operations, especially when it comes to financing, is once again the diversity of sources that you need to be able to do and reminding our listeners that we talked about the importance of getting grants, the importance of alternative partnerships, in your case with universities, in terms of, in terms of perhaps putting on events in order to fundraise. 

You are still learning as you said, what are your next challenges? 

I think the most immediate challenge to be honest is to ensure funding for next year. This is a very direct and tangible goal because our three-year grant with Civitates will be over by the end of this year. The main goal right now is to ensure funding so the team keeps running as is and keeps producing the high-level kind of journalism that we've been doing. 

I mean, when we look back at 2022 and 2023 – I don’t have the exact numbers but I’ll risk it to say – we were one of the most awarded independent media projects in Europe, especially with the feature we talked about, “For you, Portugal, I swear!”. We won ten media prizes – most of the big ones in Portugal and two really important ones internationally, the Prix Europa which is one of the most renowned media prizes in in Europe, and the Online Journalism Award in the US (for excellence and innovation for visual digital storytelling) which was one of the most rewarding prizes because we saw our names side-to-side with the Washington Post and New York Times and for us as a small independent project that was like whoa, mind blown. 

But prizes are nice, and recognition is nice, but they need to lead somewhere. So we try to leverage this recognition and the quality work that we do because we know we can use it to get more support for our projects so we can continue. 

 

Congratulations on the prizes. Those are very big achievements, and you and your team should all be very proud of yourselves! As you pointed out, you are a multi-awarded institution, this is a podcast about media institutions learning from one another, so can you give us three best practice tips? 

Yeah, of course. One thing and this is from experience of managing teams for the past two to three years, I would say very clearly communicate with your team. That's very, very important. I mean we all talk different languages. We work a lot with multidisciplinary teams – designers, developers, journalists, media managers, accountants – and we need to create a flux or shared language.  

So clear communication with your team is really important to have everyone on the same page and there is nothing and no one lost in translation. 

The second tip is to set your goals and write them on the wall. It’s easy to get lost in the routine, to get lost in the form of the days, as we say, and lose track of what your goals and your values are that help you reach your goals. So write them on a Post-it and put it on the wall so you can look at it every now and then. 

And I would say the last one, that I've mentioned already, is inverting the pyramid. Don’t just look for money for your project. Think about what you want to do with your project and then target your efforts to look for money. Go where there's money for the things you want to do. Don't go only where there's money for doing things. 

 

All right, so let's see if I've got this. Communicate clearly, set your goals, write them on a Post-it if you have to, and invert the pyramid, which means putting the idea before the financing. 

Thank you so much. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much to our guest today, Diogo Cardoso of Divergente.  

Thank you for inviting me. 

 

Do check it out. It is available in English and Portuguese. Please tell us the URL so that everybody can find it.  

It’s www.divergente.pt and www.divergente.pt/en if you want to read it in English

 

There you have it. And thank you of course to you, dear listeners. 

 

This transcript of episode six of "Survive and Thrive: The Media Viability Podcast" has been lightly edited for clarity. 

  

Get in touch 

For questions and suggestions write to dw-akademie.surviveandthrive@dw.com 

Or find us on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Youtube. 

  

This podcast is produced by DW Akademie and is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). 

  

As part of the Civitates grant program for public service journalism, Diogo Cardoso and his team have participated in a V-Sprint by DW Akademie, a facilitated assessment for media outlets wishing to explore and validate their viability. 

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