La Silla Vacía (“The Empty Seat”) is changing the political beat in Colombia.
I am convinced that the Internet is changing journalism in ways we never could have imagined only a few years ago. The idea of the reported story as being the basic unit of journalism is being shaken by the Web’s way of sharing information, and along with this change comes a rethinking about the concept of the beat itself.
A year and a half ago I set up an investigative political blog called La Silla Vacía (“The Empty Seat”). It is a website dedicated to covering how power is exercised in Colombia and, as such, it serves as a discussion platform about public issues in my country. With a staff of seven—and about 60 unpaid contributors—La Silla Vacía publishes stories that before we existed were not being told. They are the stories that lie behind the news media’s typical daily political reporting.
In the United States, political blogs are too numerous to count. But in Colombia, La Silla Vacía is the first such experiment with sustainable independent journalism. Here, news organizations are concentrated among a few business conglomerates and families with political backgrounds so a news reporting outlet set up by journalists is truly innovative.
Although blogs are usually considered alternative media, I wanted La Silla Vacía to be regarded as a mainstream publication—to reside in the center of the political debate in Colombia, not on the fringes. It was not an easy task. Fewer than 40 percent of the people who live in Colombia have Internet access. And although the Internet enables a multitude of voices to be heard, it doesn’t guarantee that everyone will be heard.
The Digital Political Beat
As happens with any new enterprise—digital or otherwise—it takes time to truly know what the audience has made of it. It also takes time for those directing it to understand what it is really about. Since launching the website in March 2009, one thing I have observed is that La Silla Vacía has been converted into a new—and influential—political beat. What we publish gets quoted each week by mainstream media like the newspaper El Espectador, Caracol radio, or Semana magazine.
I increasingly believe that the role of specialized blogs is to create beats for journalists. Typically, newspaper and TV reporters rely on tips from sources for their stories. Now blogs and journalistic websites like La Silla Vacía are starting to be significant forces in our media ecosystem. With an investigative blog like ours, we have four or five reporters covering one topic in-depth while the traditional beat reporter is expected to cover many issues at once. This means that the reporting we do often becomes a first stop for many newspaper and broadcast political reporters. By gathering expert opinion, inside information, and high-level analysis, we’ve created a hub from which can emerge new angles on news stories.
It’s in this way that the Internet changes the concept of the beat: A blog such as ours becomes a valued partner of political reporters offering them additional sources and fresh angles for stories. And we in turn increase their capacity to broaden and improve their coverage.
This emerging role for specialized blogs as beats became evident to me when I was the editor of flypmedia.com in New York, a multimedia general interest magazine that unfortunately folded recently. The Iraq war was not going well and I was discussing with my boss whether we should send a reporter to cover it. The intern overheard us talking and she suggested another approach: Follow the soldiers’ and Iraq victims’ blogs instead of going there. We did just that; soon, several blogs were selected and we made them our Iraq beat.
I understand that is controversial in the minds of some journalists—and that there is nothing like being there, reporting with the five senses as the legendary Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski would say. But many bloggers reveal details that they could hardly begin to tell a journalist in a brief interview. Even if they did, it is unlikely that the complexity of their circumstance would be told with any sense of completeness in the correspondent’s story. Unless you stay in a place for a long time, as Kapuscinski did, it is not possible to aggregate as many voices as you can when, as an editor, you curate what is being produced on the Web.
That experience in New York changed my understanding of the concept of the “beat” in two ways that became apparent as I went about creating La Silla Vacía. We did not set out to cover traditional political beats. Instead we cover issues that emerge as political events occur, and we feed our site with content from social networks at the same time that we feed social networks with what we produce. Given the hypertextual nature of the Web, it is more important to offer context than it is to follow stories.
As Internet guru Jean-François Fogel has observed, news is no longer what a powerful person wants people to be prevented from knowing but what can be salvaged from the sea of information.
We have only four staff reporters so we know we can’t possibly cover all of the political news, especially in a country such as Colombia where big stories break every day—and sometimes twice a day. So we’ve compiled a list of Colombia’s most pressing political matters—a transitional justice process, the legal issues involving politicians with links to the paramilitary, the mining boom, land reform, and our nation’s wiretapping scandal. Each of our reporters is assigned to cover two of these macro issues and writes about them in a contextualized way. As our reporting is proceeding, we supply our audience with information about where the story is going. This is something they’ve told us that they appreciate a lot.
To give thorough coverage and provide context to these issues, we increasingly rely on social networks to supply information—at the same time we depend on our reporters. For example, until four years ago abortion was illegal in Colombia in all circumstances. After an intense fight by women’s organizations, the Constitutional Court ruled that abortion is permitted when the woman’s life or health, including mental health, is in danger, when the fetus has severe malformations, or when the woman had been raped.
Although the ruling was a huge victory for women, its implementation in a country that is still Catholic has not been easy. But women’s groups are following the process closely, and this means that they have a lot of information about it. At La Silla Vacía, we watch closely what these women’s groups report; they give us tips and information that we investigate further, and once we publish the story we post it in their Facebook groups to feed them with information. We follow the same process with advocacy networks involved with other topics we cover.
So while the topic becomes our beat, our stories are as much about what our reporters find as what we curate from the Web. It’s our job to select the best information produced by the audience and make it more easily available for other users. This means that part of a reporter’s time spent covering a beat is devoted to scanning the Web; we have set up a schedule for our reporters to navigate the Web all day long and to tweet about what we see happening in the Colombian political blogosphere in real time.
This strategy for beat reporting pays off. Despite our tiny staff and small budget, La Silla Vacía has become a mandatory stop for political junkies in this country. We are the beat reporters they turn to when they are looking for news.
Juanita León, a 2007 Nieman Fellow, is the founder and editor of La Silla Vacía, a political news website in Colombia.