Five years ago today I bought a domain called “colombiareports.co” and did my first-ever publication. Today, that blog is the biggest English-language news website in Latin America and I am proud as hell.
I would like to tell you how the website came to be the one you’re looking at now because it’s a rather funny story.
Just before I came to Colombia I got the domain name and asked a friend to install WordPress. I did this because I didn’t feel informed enough on a country I had already known for three years and was eager to learn more about.
In my perception, the newswires and mainstream American media focused on a very limited number of subjects. At the same time, human rights NGOs did a good job on reporting on Colombia, but only in regards to human rights. The only place for a non-Spanish speaker to get information other than the FARC or human rights violations was the legendary Poor But Happy forum.
My idea was to create a website that would provide verified information I thought was necessary for me and others to properly understand Colombia and form an opinion on what was going on. It wasn’t meant to become a full-time job. I was just looking to keep myself occupied while looking for employment.
So, armed with a laptop, a video camera, Google Translator and a decade of journalism experience I began. I teamed up with a local friend, Giovanni Lopera, and together we started building on what I had founded in the Netherlands.
The beginning in hindsight was hilarious. I barely spoke Spanish and we only had one laptop, so my friend and I were forced to take turns; he would make a selection of news reports and I would subsequently translate them and turn them into English-language reports.
We also made insane hours. While I was still asleep, my friend would break into my bedroom and begin scanning the news. He would then wake me up, make space and I started translating, finding out background information and published the articles.
Within months and despite embarrassing errors, Google News allowed us entry and our reports would appear in the Google Alerts of those interested in Colombia. At the same time I published the headlines on Poor But Happy to further promote our existence. This proved successful; within months we were receiving hundreds of views a day and emails started coming in telling me how embarrassingly bad my English was.
Despite the relative success, we were making no money at all and for months we were forced to live off a three-arepas-a-day diet. I have not been able to eat arepa since.
In spite of my horrible English and lack of knowledge of the country, visits grew rapidly and soon we had 1000 visitors a day. More importantly, less than half a year after we kicked off, we got our first intern; an American guy named Michael Kay who didn’t just speak Spanish and English, but also had a degree in journalism.
I borrowed money from my parents to buy a second laptop so we’d be able to work faster, and we started building a website that is more similar to the one we have now.
Since then, more and more people showed interest in taking part in the project and I ended up having to borrow more money to buy desks and office chairs. My parents are still waiting for me to repay these loans by the way.
A Dutch economic newspaper thought what we were doing had potential and gave us a small grant that could sustain some of our activities while I got a long-distance nerd job in the Netherlands to sustain myself. The horrible arepa days were over.
Meanwhile, Colombian media began competing: National television network RCN began their colombianews.tv, weekly Semana created an English section as well as Medellin “newspaper” El Colombiano. Ironically, while Colombian media failed to attract a foreign readership despite their budgets, the broke Colombia Reports grew and grew.
As far as I can see, three things proved crucial in the growth of Colombia Reports: We developed a content production method that was faster than light, allowing us to produce a lot of information in very little time.
Additionally, instead of focusing on an ex-pat crowd we aimed at an audience abroad which proved a much larger readership.
Most importantly, we broke down the barriers between writers and readers, and maintained intense communication and debate with readers who would regularly become interns, columnists, advisers, and even friends.
This last part proved crucial in correcting errors and achieving educated know-how crucial to correct reporting. In almost all cases, an individual reader with a specialized interest knows much more about a specific topic than the journalist arbitrarily appointed to write a story. By breaking down the barriers between those who read and those who write, we were able increase the quality of what we were doing tremendously.
The rise of Facebook and Twitter made that even easier. The interaction between the newsroom and those in other parts of the world became even more intimate. This further improved the massive amount of knowledge available to those in the newsroom.
As the organization grew — there’s now eight people volunteering full time in the newsroom — we were able to dedicate more time to the basics of journalism; the assembling, verifying and publishing of facts and claims. Additionally, we have much more time to research and publish stories that are ignored in Colombian media.
However, as with almost all publishers, the problem remains money, or the lack thereof.
As the organization grew, costs grew while income is scarce. This needs to change, because the organization’s lack of budget is not only limiting the possibilities to report (when we run out of coffee or Skype credit, or when a computer dies), but is a grave liability when it comes to its continuity.
The money entering through Google Ads is enough to pay for the server, but that’s about it. As you may have noticed we have been suffering blackouts which means we need a stronger server which needs to be paid with money we don’t have.
The coming year we hope to develop a business plan, register ourselves as an actual business and try to generate the income needed to run the website we want to be running, further increasing the quality and reliability of our reporting.
To do this, we’ll be actively seeking advertisers, but will also call on your financial support. When we do, I hope you’ll be able and willing to support us.
If we take this step successfully, we’ll be able to guarantee the continuity of Colombia Reports and we’ll be able to improve our reporting to what I consider an acceptable level. If not, well, “paila.”
Either way, I think we have come a long way and I am proud of what has been accomplished, not just by those in the newsroom, but also those who have assisted, advised, criticized, contributed and sent us encouraging emails.
Thank you so much for everything. Viva Colombia.