Training Latin American Journalists to be Powerful Digital Storytellers

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Across countries, work environments and job positions, the path of women working in technology seems to be a lonely one, but for Mariana Santos that turned into a key for change. “I have always been the only female,” she said of her career in digital communications, adding, “That made me adapt and understand that I actually could have a positive impact.”

In fact, Santos is leading Latin American women into the digital future of journalism, mentoring her “chicas poderosas” (powerful women) toward empowerment and groundbreaking forms of communication.

As part of her Knight International Journalism Fellowship (a program to promote experimental approaches to journalism) in 2013, the visual storyteller relocated to Costa Rica and launched the Chicas Poderosas project to create a corps of tech-savvy leaders in Latin American newsrooms.

“In Latin America, many women are involved in journalism, especially investigative journalism, but they are totally disconnected from technology. We need to convert them to digital, because then they are going to reach much further,” she explained.

Technology advances are reshaping the way the news is gathered, produced and consumed, through social media, data analysis, interactive visualizations and multimedia tools. Journalists need to keep up with these changes, Santos said. “The future and the present is technology. If we have a big corpus of women working in journalism but not engaging in technology, they are missing out on a big part, and they will not cross on to the next generation.”

Mariana Santos speaking to the group in Miami.

Photo courtesy of Chicas Poderosas

Mariana Santos speaking to the group in Miami.

Trained as a communication designer, the Portuguese-born Santos worked in France, Germany and Sweden before landing a job as part of the interactive team at The Guardian in London, where she contributed to integrating pioneering visual storytelling techniques into journalistic practice.

Working within a strictly male environment, Santos felt more women should be involved. “We need more women. In those [mostly male] environments, I would be a plus, and we need many more plus.”

In fact, Santos learned firsthand the value of a “female vision” and the importance of including diverse sources and presenting diverse news. Women bring to the table a different perspective and approach that men cannot replicate, she said, adding, “A multidisciplinary team should also be multigender.”

Insisting on the importance of working within a gender-balanced environment, Santos noted that Chicas Poderosas, despite its translation, is open to men too. “I don’t want a female-only newsroom, because I believe the magic is when we have a combination [of genders].”

Through free workshops and events, world-class journalists, designers and developers cover practical aspects of data-driven stories, interactive visualization and multimedia. Trial and error, especially error, is imperative here, as Santos believes that “failing fast is the way to succeed soon.”

No previous digital experience is required to attend the Chicas Poderosas events, although participants are welcome to come in with a specific issue in mind that they would like to address. Whether it’s a question on database management or a story to be told visually, they will be able to work on it with the help of experts. “If they come with a problem, they can find a solution,” Santos said.

Teaching visualization and animation in San Salvador.

Photo courtesy of Chicas Poderosas

Teaching visualization and animation in San Salvador.

Chicas Poderosas aims to provide specialized training and to create a supportive network of skilled professionals in journalism and technology, where connections may be turned into collaboration and mutual mentoring.

Encouraging experimentation as a way to gain a wider perspective on news development and delivery, Santos advised, “Try many roles, believe that you can play multiple roles and understand the entire project. In digital journalism you have to wear many hats.”

Although the fellowship’s support is ending soon, Santos has ambitious plans for the future of Chicas Poderosas. She dreams of going global one day and said some foundations are looking into sponsoring the project.

Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she sounds unstoppable. “As long as I’m alive, I’m going to try and keep Chicas Poderosas going.”

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