For the fourth episode of "Survive and Thrive", we spoke to Laura Aguirre. She is a co-founder and the director of Alharaca, a feminist media outlet from El Salvador. 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.
Janelle Dumalaon (host): Hello everyone! This is Janelle Dumalaon coming to you again with our media viability podcast. Media around the world are facing a moment where it's getting increasingly difficult to stay operational in the face of various challenges: From conflict to financing, and – as we'll learn more about in a moment – in the face of government harassment.
As such, there is a need for media organizations to hear from each other and learn how we're all adapting to the environment we find ourselves in.
At this stage, I'd like to welcome Laura Aguirre, a co-founder of Alharaca, a feminist news website from El Salvador. Thank you for joining us, Laura!
In a moment, we'll talk about Alharaca and your experiences. But before anything else, a short questionnaire.
Dumalaon: Your business model in a catchphrase?
Laura Aguirre: Not afraid of money.
Did you ever manage a moment when everything seemed lost?
Maybe November 2021, when the government of Nayib Bukele [the president of El Salvador] almost passed a law on so-called "foreign agents".
And what would you need to thrive in the future?
Money, legal security, emotional and mental security.
All very important things, and we're so glad to have you here today. We want to talk about what it means to stay viable as a media organization in El Salvador, where harassment is a fact of life for journalists, especially when covering corruption and organized crime.
You told us a little bit there in the lightning round, but can you tell us a little bit more about what it means to operate as a media outlet in El Salvador and what the environment there looks like?
Well, right now the political context in El Salvador is very complicated.
Since 2019, which was when Nayib Bukele rose to power and the persecution of journalists and media started, it has been very, very hard and a lot of journalists are now living outside of El Salvador.
What we are trying to do is think of journalism not only as a tool of democracy, but as resistance. This is the mood right now in El Salvador: Journalists as a part of the resistance.
So maybe this is a good time to tell us what Alharaca means.
Yes, Alharaca is a word that in Spanish people use to talk about someone that is exaggerated or is very emotional about something unimportant. It is usually used to refer to women. And when we created Alharaca, we wanted to use this word like a provocation and aim for a resignification of it, trying to make a space for us: Women journalists who are trying to do at different kind of journalism.
I suppose in English we would say hysterical. It's a sort of gendered adjective that is more often applied to women and in a way that is derogatory. So, what you're in fact doing is reclaiming the hysteria, making noise about things that are in fact important. Would you say that’s right?
Yes, exactly. What's more, we are doing it in front of our male colleagues. Most of the time, male journalists in El Salvador are trying not to listen to women journalists who identify as feminists. This is because they see us as activists.
And this is a very strange discussion, not for us as women, but in the journalism ecosystem.
Why is it a strange discussion?
Because our male colleagues say that if you are a feminist, you cannot be a journalist. That is because they automatically relate feminism with activism and that for them is something similar to lying or fighting for a cause – their reasoning is that you lose your objectivity as a journalist.
This is the current discourse. But for me, it’s not a discussion anymore. At the beginning, we were seeking approval in the media ecosystem of El Salvador because, well, there are some very good journalists and media in the country.
But after some time, we understood that we as women are doing a service. And we, in fact, are already changing the ecosystem in El Salvador, mostly in the working culture – in how journalists are working internally in the news media.
For us, that’s enough. We are doing our work and we are doing what we want, even when some people think that we are not real journalists.
Now that has a lot to do with the internal media landscape in El Salvador. But what about the public? How important is it for them to have a feminist news outlet in El Salvador, especially in a country where there are problems that dominate the news, like corruption, for example?
Well, that was the big question when we created Alharaca.
But after a few months, we realized that there was a place for us and audiences were looking for something like a Alharaca. We are not doing journalism for women. People sometimes say, "oh, you are doing coverage about women things," although this is not the kind of journalism we are doing.
We write about everything but always with a feminist perspective. And at the same time, we’re being innovative in narratives and that's because we have a growing audience. In El Salvador, we might be the media outlet that has the most innovation in how we are telling our stories. Usually, journalism in El Salvador is basically long, long, long texts. And we are trying to experiment with other formats and trying to talk in other ways to the audience. And I think people are ready for that.
But also, Alharaca was born in 2018 and that was the time of “Me too” and the feminist movement growing and becoming very strong in Latin America. That was very positive for us because we were not talking in the middle of nothing but situated between the movement and the discourse around it.
So, in other words the outlet was born in a specific context. Now, I just want to examine some of these layers. We've established that it's quite difficult to operate as a news organization within El Salvador. And you have the added challenge of doing it from a specific perspective that is not perhaps widely known or has been made mainstream within the media landscape in El Salvador. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you operate, what your business model is like?
Well, I always say that Alharaca is a multi-situated project because the three co-founders, we are living in Germany. We are from El Salvador, but we are living in Germany. And we conceived Alharaca from here. At the same time, we have a team of ten people in El Salvador, another teammate is in Spain and another one in the United States.
So, at the beginning we always wanted to make something that we can do from anywhere or with people from El Salvador that are living in other countries. And after 2019, we realized that it really is an advantage that our team is not only in El Salvador but also outside the country.
Of course, at the beginning, it was a little complicated because trying to manage a team in different places is not the same. Not one of the co-founders, me included, have an MBA degree or a background in management or something like that.
You’re learning as you go along.
Exactly! It's a kind of journey, you know, a long but very rich one. And right now, I feel that we are prepared and, we'll continue preparing for the future. But we have more tools than other media outlets because we operate from different countries.
And I was also wondering, you have this very specific business model. You are situated in many places as you've pointed out. How do you finance your operations? How does Alharaca make money?
Right, we have two main streams of income. The big one is that we receive grants from international organizations, philanthropic organizations.
And at the same time, we have a business model which generates our own income. In 2021, we started a consultancy agency, where we do communication strategies for clients and campaigns about gender and diversity. This is our specialization.
And having specialized in this, we had a very good year. We realized that in El Salvador and Central America, there's a need for an agency that could speak about and take the lead on these topics. There was and still is a lot of misinformation about gender and diversity.
But in 2022, we decided to think more about creating an organization or a company outside of El Salvador. And that is what we are doing right now. We are trying to create another organization outside of El Salvador. We want build on this business model, although not in El Salvador because of the risk of persecution in the future, the near future.
So what you're trying to do is you're trying to diversify your income streams by creating another company within Germany, perhaps a social-entrepreneurial company within Germany. And in doing so, you hope to be able to de-risk your business at some point.
You've also mentioned earlier that you're not afraid of money. I think this is a very relatable thing that most people would also say. I think most people aren't afraid of money. But what do you mean specifically when you say that?
Well, in the ecosystem of journalism, people usually say that journalists don't think about money. That we as journalists, we shouldn’t have to think about money because it's something “dirty” or something “bad”. Like, maybe a manager or someone in administration can think about it, but journalists don’t.
The idea that journalists are supposed to be powered by idealism.
Yes, right. And well, I don’t judge. But in the real world we must think about money.
And, I don’t know, maybe as women we are thinking about it more. We always have to think about money, having to maintain our families and take care of someone. Money is always present in our lives.
From the start, I knew that if we want to build a project that sustains ourselves in the future, we have to think about money. Not just money to pay salaries but to create decent work, to build a place where the people feel good to work and can grow professionally. And so yeah, I'm not afraid. I think that journalists need money. A lot of money.
And of course, I'm learning how to find this money in grants. I actually find that I’m doing very well in that – talking to people and doing PR. But at the same time, we need our own business model. That is the big challenge right now.
I think that's quite an interesting discussion, you know, in a way it's also related to how much audiences think they should pay for journalism, whether journalism is something that should be invested in. I think a lot of people think that because it is a public good it should be divorced from the question of financing and obviously media outlets need to be able to survive.
Having said that, what have your biggest challenges been in terms of your survival?
Financial survival. Finding the money is indeed the biggest challenge.
As you say, journalism is a public good, but not all people understand that. And [in El Salvador], it's very different from how we understand journalism here in Europe. Here, we have DW and the BBC in England that have public funds and that is very different than in Latin America. We never think about whether the government could finance journalism or how we could get access to public funds. That's just not possible in Latin America, we never think about it. If you want to be an independent media outlet, you have to find your own money. That's the rule.
So, taxpayer-funded models like Deutsche Welle and the BBC are not something common in Latin America?
Not at all, not at all. Because well, the tax system is very different here. Thinking about something like that is not possible in Latin America. Now, I'm not saying that it's bad here and good there. It’s just very different.
And the biggest challenge is, of course, finding money in other places. The favorite way is looking for grants. And that’s very good, there’s lot of money right now in Central America because, well, there are a lot of problems right now. So, international cooperation organizations comes and try to help, but that’s just not sustainable. There might be a lot of international cooperation now, but I don't know how long it’ll be there.
And the challenge is to find another way to make money in a country while political situation is very complicated and might even become more complicated next year when the president reelects himself.
And because of that we are trying to create an organization outside of El Salvador, because I think it's very important to make money elsewhere. One of the government's favorite weapons right now is trying to persecute media outlets with taxes and things like that.
So, you're saying that in El Salvador media outlets often experience financial persecution from the government in the sense that they're taxed unfairly. Is that what's happening?
Not only that. The government is also [using the pretext of] trying to find out if media outlets are doing money laundering. That is the more usual form of persecution. And even if you pay taxes, even if you pay all that you have to, you run the risk that the government finds something. They are trying to find something and in the end, you might end up in jail or your media will have to close. I’m thinking of the worst-case scenarios.
We have Nicaragua beside us as a neighboring country and there, it’s an even more complicated.
So you've pointed to some of the steps that you're taking. You're trying to base some of your businesses abroad. You're trying to make sure your income streams are diversified as you said earlier. Where are your audiences? Where are your users?
Well, our main audience is in El Salvador and they are women between 25 and 40. But we don't have audiences only in El Salvador. The second biggest is in Mexico and the rest of Central American countries. And then there are some people in the United States and a small audience in Europe because we have some networks here. But yes, Central America and Mexico is the strongest audience of Alharaca.
You're clearly in the phase where you're trying different things. As you said earlier, [Alharaca] was born within the "Me Too" movement. You've had to adapt your organization according to what's happened politically in El Salvador. How would you describe how Alharaca has changed over the years?
Well, in 2018 we created Alharaca out of necessity. We needed our own space, and we were very tired of working in traditional media, even in digital media where we had to almost daily explain why it's important to have a feminist perspective or a gendered perspective in our coverage. So we decided to create our own space.
Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, during his State of the Nation address in June, 2023. Bukele's government ended its fourth year in office. To secure his re-election, the Salvadoran president announced a new "fight against corruption" and a new territorial division of the country.
That was the beginning and we worked under this objective in 2018 and 2019. But when the new government came into power, we had to adapt a little. Of course, we continue to make journalism with a feminist perspective, but we now pay a lot of attention to the human rights violations that are occurring right now in El Salvador because of the "regime of exception" that’s been in place for over a year now.
That's the big difference right now. We had to adapt our coverage to this kind of topic and it was a very big change for our team.
At the beginning, of course, we were covering inequity, social inequalities and trying to denounce but at the same time, we had a lot of hope connected to what we were doing.
And after 2019, and mostly since last year, the team is struggling in maintaining hope in the future – with believing that we can change something in El Salvador very soon.
This is a big change too. At the beginning, I never thought about the mental health of my team. We thought that we could motivate ourselves, that this was enough. But since last year, every journalist in the team has psychological support and we are very aware that some of them are suffering from depression or anxiety. This is something that most of the newsrooms never thought about, or never think about.
I think this is quite significant to highlight. Of course, when we talk about viability, we're very often talking about the financial operations of a media outlet. But of course, the most important resource for any media outlet is its journalists, its staff, the people who make it happen.
Now since you started providing psychological support for your staff, have they felt more hope?
I don't know if they feel more hope, but at least they feel better. I'm trying to make sure that our newsroom feels like a safe place. And if they have a problem – for example if they don't want to cover a certain story because it's so hard to report on human rights violations – they can say, "no, I don't want to do that. Right now, I cannot do that."
So at least they feel that they can trust that we can hear them, that we consider these feelings and the emotional conditions that they are in.
Now for hope, that’s another topic I think.
We are trying to maintain hope with specific tools. For example, we are trying to do not only journalism that denounces human rights violations, but we are trying to do constructive journalism – or solutions journalism as some people call it, but I prefer constructive journalism. And this is about trying to tell stories – different stories – not only about when people suffer, even though that’s of course still very important to tell. But we’re also trying to tell what people do even in the worst situations, even in situations where it seems like everything is lost.
So, we are telling stories about social organizations, about civil organizations and civil participation and what it means. We’ve been telling stories on how people organize, how they try to solve problems and demonstrate in the street together. How they are trying to build something in their communities. How they are trying to make money for themselves, like community banks, and about the women that are leading these banks. That shift was very useful for the team because they see that not all people are suffering but there are people resisting and trying to make a future even in the current context.
And well, another way to have hope is by changing how we understand ourselves. Usually, we see journalists as heroes – and there certainly are heroes. There are a lot of people who are risking their lives for journalism. But we decided not to see ourselves as heroes, but I always say that we are witnesses. We are the documentarians of our time.
And that is very important because maybe we cannot change things right now. I don't have that hope, no. But I think that we will be very important for the future because we will be the source of information for the next generation.
And we are building the counter-narrative to the official language that the government is trying to establish. And because of that, our work is very important. Because we are the witnesses of our time.
There is a reason why they call news of the first draft of history, of course, and you've just explained it there beautifully. I'd like to thank you for that. I also wanted to ask you also find it important you also find it useful to have partnerships, for example, with other media organizations.
I understand DW has also been in a partnership with Alharaca, DW Akademie in particular. Is that something where you would encourage others to do the same?
Of course, and well, I think that it's part of our feminist perspective.
As a feminist, it's very important for us to work in alliances with other media outlets and social organizations. So, Alharaca has an operative director and this colleague sees to all the alliances and agreements that we have with other media. We do a lot of collaborative investigations, but at the same time, we are doing collective investigations. We differentiate this kind of work because collaborative investigations are more like putting together our respective investigations and creating a publication from them.
But in the collective work that we are trying to develop or the collective method we’re trying to develop, we are working interconnectedly from the start with other people producing journalism, with the protagonists of our stories, and with social civil organizations, for example.
And that is something that for us is very important, trying to think of ourselves in a collective way. It’s something not all newsrooms do right now but I think it's very important because when we are together we are stronger. We’ll see if in the future that’s something other media will want to do.
But right now, we have agreements with almost ten media outlets Latin America, both feminist media and not explicitly feminist media. These are agreements for publications and re-publications, and we have two projects where we create content in a collective way.
You've pointed out that there's strength in numbers, that there is strength in cooperation. Now our time together is drawing to a close, but before we let you go, I wanted to ask whether you can name three best practice tips that you've learned from your time as the founder of Alharaca.
First: Don't do it alone. Don't do it by yourself. Do it as a collective, do it with other people, with other media.
The second one is: Think about money from the beginning. And if you are in a complicated context, please think about making money outside of your country.
And the third one is: Think about your team, how they are affected and how their mental health is.
Don't do it alone, think of the money. And remember your team. Laura Aguirre from Alharaca, A feminist news website in El Salvador. Thank you very much for your time and your insights today.
Thank you very much for having me here.
This transcript of episode four of "Survive and Thrive: The Media Viability Podcast" has been lightly edited for clarity.
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This podcast is produced by DW Akademie and is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).