If you want to see an example of the media working together with its audience to create valuable journalism, you need look no further than the Quién es Quién section of the digital Colombian publication La Silla Vacía.
Quién es Quién is a digital database of “who is who” in Colombia. Many of the country’s powerful and influential figures are listed here, from politicians to journalists, to members of the private sector. Quién es Quién contains profiles of these figures, featuring detailed biographical information and links to stories about them. Users are invited to send in information to add to the database, and they do so in significant numbers. La Silla’s editor in chief, Juanita León, says that the paper receives between three and five pieces of material from readers who wish to contribute to Quién es Quién every day. But this is more than a simple Wikipedia of the great and the good of Colombia. Quién es Quién can be filtered so that you can see important connections between these figures. Who went to the same university? Who used to work with whom? Which individuals are related to one another? Results aren’t always complete, but the way that the database has been constructed helps users to get to grips with where power really lies in Colombia and contribute their own knowledge at the same time. Imagine if Britain had something similar for all the participants of the Leveson inquiry.
Quién es Quién is typical of La Silla Vacía for the way that it promotes transparency about those who are in power, shakes up traditional story forms, and invites user participation. La Silla was founded in 2009 with a grant from Open Society Foundations (formerly Open Society Institute) by León, a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard and an ex-journalist for Wall Street Journal Americas, El Tiempo and Semana. Its stated aim is to publish stories that “really describe how power is exercised in Colombia”. Yet to achieve this ambitious goal, the paper does not rely on a large team of journalists. In fact, it has just nine employees. Instead, as Quien es Quien demonstrates, La Silla’s journalism benefits from amplifying the voices of others.
User participation is built into the whole structure of the site on a subtle level: next to the headline of articles, users can see straight away how many times a story has been viewed and commented on. The layout of the site encourages comments, by displaying them in a similar size and font to the articles themselves. León stresses that users “participate in the whole process” of writing stories at La Silla Vacía. “Around a third of our stories are suggested by readers,” she says, “as soon as we publish a story, they “edit” it for us by commenting if we have made a mistake, have chosen the wrong angle or have used an inappropriate title. They distribute the stories they like on Twitter and Facebook.” In the end, says León “they are our focal point and our axis.”
Participation doesn’t always work. One example is the “user” section of La Silla’s site, which was recently overhauled to incorporate a new “circles” feature. Essentially, this functions as a series of chat rooms based around certain key topics affecting Colombia, where users can voice their opinions and propose further subjects for discussion. Despite the fact that they are heavily advertised on La Silla’s own site, participation in the “circles” has been very low, and León admits that they still haven’t achieve what she wanted. “It’s a good idea, but we’re still adjusting it,” she says.
None the less, where participation campaigns do work, the results can be encouraging. On the February 9, La Silla launched its “Super Amigos” fundraising push. The proposal was this: users were asked to donate money to the website within 23 days and, in return, they would become La Silla’s “Super Friends”. Super Amigos would benefit by knowing they were supporting La Silla’s journalism, but also from other special offers that would make them more involved in the paper’s community, such as being given preferential access to La Silla’s public events, being offered discounts on products sold by La Silla and being publically marked out as a “Super Amigo” on La Silla’s website. “The campaign was a complete success,” says León, particularly given that Colombia is a country where many people are suspicious of digital money transfers. Through the campaign, La Silla raised $21,102,000 Pesos (US$11,456) in less than a month.
La Silla also does high-profile work: during Colombia’s 2010 presidential elections it collaborated with NTN24 and MSN to organise “the first great digital presidential debate”. Following the example of YouTube and CNN in the run up to the US 2008 presidential elections, the feature allowed users to contribute with questions via YouTube and other social media platforms, which were then put to two presidential candidates in a debate that was streamed live by both La Silla and MSN.
Accomplishments like this aren’t bad for the work of just nine people. But, of course, this is precisely the point: there are not just nine of them, there’s a whole network of super amigos to help out.
A longer version of this article will be published in SFN’s report on Open Journalism, to be published shortly.
Juanita León has published her full responses to WAN-IFRA’s questions on the “Preguntas frecuentes” section of La Silla’s site.