María Augusta Calle is transforming public understanding of political, economic, and social issues by providing a diverse and credible news source for a wide variety of audiences.
The New Idea
María Augusta has designed a new way to offer Ecuadorians high quality news. She has launched an independent source of news content that provides alternative perspectives on the issues of the day, as well as news that normally would not be covered. Her initiative, called Altercom, reaches poor areas and finds creative ways to help all Ecuadorian citizens stay informed. Altercom is an important addition in Ecuador where the commercial media report news in a narrow and biased way. Deliberately "alternative" news vehicles may offer fresh perspectives but tend to reach only a small, specialized, and already sympathetic audience.
Because María knows credibility and analytical capacity are critical to providing diverse coverage to a broad audience, she has recruited experts in various fields and professional journalists from the mainstream media. Moreover, Altercom's extensive database of articles and issues is available to all segments of society through a variety of outlets. As an example, existing newspapers and community radio stations–the only news source in many rural communities–are increasingly publishing and broadcasting Altercom's articles and adopting some of its methods to reach otherwise ignored markets.
In Ecuador, as in many countries in Latin America, many issues important to citizens are either not covered in mainstream media, or they are covered from one point of view rather than comprehensively. This affects underrepresented groups, whose views are not taken into consideration. It also affects citizens in general who cannot take action on important social issues because they do not have a clear understanding of the issues.
Many significant issues are not covered by mainstream media because of the concentrated ownership of commercial media outlets. Since Ecuador's major media sources are owned by powerful companies that depend on other big companies for advertising dollars, the news outlets tend to be reluctant to take on controversial topics that could jeopardize established partnerships. Banks in Ecuador, for example, have been in large part responsible for the financial crisis that gripped Ecuador. But because many bank owners are also investors in the media channels, there have been huge gaps in honest reporting about the crisis, leaving out any responsibility traced to the banks. Newspapers are also linked to political parties, which further limits their willingness to offer multiple perspectives on key political issues. With regard to Plan Colombia, for example, although the opinions expressed in nearly all forums, meetings, seminars, and interviews on the topic demonstrate that the majority of Ecuadorians are opposed to the involvement of Ecuador in the plan (a survey conducted by an Altercom team concluded that 82 percent of Ecuadorians are opposed), the mainstream media have yet to report this lack of uniform support for Plan Colombia by the public.
The problem exists in Ecuador's nonprint media as well. Having recognized the value of radio stations for promoting their own agendas, local politicians have bought many radio frequencies in exchange for political favors and now control a large portion of the news that is reported on the radio. With respect to television, there are only five news channels in Ecuador, each of which is also owned by big business, particularly banks. All channels report the same news with little variation. Roberto Isaias Dassum, the largest shareholder in Filanbanco, the major Ecuadorian bank which had to be taken over by the state because it was on the verge of collapse, owns 29 media outlets, including several of the most important television and radio stations in the country. Other important banks that double as media owners include Banco del Progreso (currently in the process of liquidation), Banco de Pinchincha, and Banco del Austro. Moreover, many marginalized Ecuadorians–particularly those citizens in rural areas who rely primarily on community radio stations–have little or no access to any news.
Even for those looking for more comprehensive information about the major issues facing Ecuador, there are few places to turn. For example, when the government was in the process of privatizing the state-owned electric company, important information presented by the electrical workers about the unfairness of the process was not covered. When major, complicated developments in society are analyzed from only one perspective, citizens also lose, particularly as other easy-to-access information sources are not available. Ecuador's library system is highly inefficient and underutilized because the libraries are poorly operated and full of out-of-date materials. Alternative news sources do exist, but they do not reach wide audiences.
María Augusta uses a variety of resources, connections, and opportunities to run her efficient, reliable, and creative news operation.
Since beginning operations in January 2001, María Augusta has built Altercom's team of volunteer professionals, which includes some who are quite well known in Ecuador. On the team are economists, political and social scientists, journalists, university professors, feminists, human rights experts, and ecologists. A diverse group with a variety of backgrounds and political affiliations, the team chooses a weekly theme–Plan Colombia, Ecuador's bank crisis, the terrorist attack on the United States–that they approach from seven perspectives, one for each day of the week: ecology, human rights, politics, economics, sports, culture, and Ecuador. María Augusta has an agreement with the Central University to provide third-year communications students as interns, to do the fact gathering for stories. The interns then turn the information over to the team of professionals who write the stories. Simultaneously, these students are being trained in a different kind of journalism that they can use in their future careers. María Augusta edits the articles to ensure consistency with the chosen theme but consults with the entire group if a doubt arises.
The information-gathering done by the students and the analytical work done by the professionals are then leveraged to reach a variety of audiences through different means. Email has been used as a distribution method to test and get feedback on content. Articles are disseminated to a list of over 1,200, which includes individuals, national and international news sources and publications, universities, news Web sites, and radio shows. A Web site is also in the works and should be launched in two months with the help of young Web designers from the company Lapiz y Papel which has offered to design and maintain the site free of charge. Unlike other alternative newspapers, however, Altercom's news does not just stay within this small circle of readers who are already interested in receiving this type of information. Thanks to the good contacts that María Augusta and her colleagues have, newspapers, including Ecuador's major commercial newspapers, reproduce Altercom's articles. Sometimes Altercom has to offer them exclusivity or give them the credit, but, more importantly, the alternative news enjoys much wider distribution. Because of its contacts, Altercom has the power to negotiate with mainstream media. Altercom can provide a given newspaper, for example, with the "big" interviews, on the condition that it also publishes an interview with someone not so famous. In this way Altercom influences coverage in the most widely read publications in Ecuador. This strategy aims to reach the general public.
To reach a different audience–that of poor, rural Ecuadorians, many of whom do not have access to newspapers or cannot read–Altercom broadcasts stories on community radio stations. To reach the urban poor, the next step will be "newspaper murals," which will employ a simple technology to reach this broader audience. Stories will be summarized and rewritten in "the language of the people" and pasted on private walls–owners of several buildings in strategic locations have already agreed–with a sugar-based glue that causes insects to eat the paper so as not to damage the paint on the walls. Articles will be placed at two levels–one for adults and one for children. In order to attract more attention, the design company Lapiz y Papel has agreed to decorate the articles with color drawings and paintings. María Augusta and her colleagues have already begun studying locations that will reach the most people, including bus stops and other high-traffic areas in marginalized parts of Quito. To test the strategy, they placed an article about the money that was frozen in banks during the banking crisis on a sandwich board at a bus stop in Villaflora, a poor neighborhood in the south of Quito. They observed that nearly everyone in line for the bus responded to the article by discussing the topic with others. Residents of neighborhoods where María Augusta plans to launch the "newspaper murals" are so excited about the idea that they have offered to make a small financial contribution (although their personal resources are limited), and to provide their own labor to paste the articles on the walls. This strategy will ensure that many poor receive the news, but María Augusta recognizes that illiteracy also afflicts urban areas and plans to have performers "sing the news" for those who cannot read. To develop the idea further, she has already made contact with Grupo Paré, an Argentine group that employs a similar tactic. Altercom also plans to take additional advantage of the information it has already gathered by organizing it into a documentation center to serve as an alternative resource to Ecuador's malnourished libraries. This data bank will also serve as a resource for other journalists interested in writing this different type of news.
Bringing new topics and voices to the forefront is bringing more power to disadvantaged groups and more comprehensive information to the public. Although Altercom is young, it has already had some success in this regard. Following a series of articles written by Altercom about the ongoing talks between the Ecuadorian government and CONAIE, the umbrella group of Ecuadorian indigenous organizations, María Augusta received an invitation to one of CONAIE's meetings to discuss the opinions presented in the articles. As a result some original positions changed. For example, an editorial had questioned the fact that the indigenous groups had established roundtables with the government on topics that affected society as a whole but did not invite representatives from other sectors of society. At the next roundtable, CONAIE invited individuals from other groups. The editorial further questioned why CONAIE would engage in discussions about poverty with the government without taking into account the Afro-Ecuadorian population, so deeply affected by poverty. As a result, Afro-Ecuadorians have since been included in the talks.
In another case, Altercom took on the proposed privatization of the state electric company, presenting the views of the workers and important information about the dark side of the process of privatization–corruption, nepotism, and intentional undervaluing of the company. In this case, the electric company was priced at one-fourth of its actual value in order to serve the interests of the president's brother. Altercom wrote articles revealing this information and organized an event called the International Moral Tribunal, which brought together important people including the former president of Costa Rica, the Argentine women of the Plaza de Mayo group, a retired military general, a bishop, and a well-known writer, to discuss the theme of privatization. The event attracted all of the major mass media, and the result was the postponement of the company's privatization. Altercom created transparency in a process where it was lacking and made the country understand that other options do exist.
As the Media Law does not recognize press agencies and therefore does not designate a ministry to afford them legal status, María Augusta is in the process of legalizing Altercom as a Communications Foundation. Being legalized will ease fundraising, as Maria intends to support Altercom first with international funding. Eventually she plans to position Altercom as a well-respected press agency so that it can also sell its services to universities, the United Nations, and other institutions in order to sustain its work.
María Augusta was born into a landowning family from Cuenca. Her father educated her in the values of justice, truth, and solidarity. He eventually made the decision to give his land to the indigenous people who had been living and working on it, saying he was "returning" it to them. He also established a school and a health center there for them. The family then moved to Quito where her father insisted that his children work so that they would not be spoiled. María Augusta became interested in communications at the age of 10 when she began to create pamphlets with children's stories that were published in the newspaper that her grandparents operated.
María Augusta worked for a time for Ecuador's most important newspaper. Although she always maintained a focus writing on the people behind the news–whether she was writing about sensationalist news, sports, or the war in Central America–she became frustrated with the commercial leanings of the newspaper and began to work for UNICEF, an agency with which she thought she could achieve greater social impact. She spent 20 years working for various United Nations agencies, primarily developing communications strategies. At 43, María Augusta decided to turn down a political post offered by the UN and, instead, use her accumulated knowledge, experience, and contacts to work on something that would last rather than continuing to work on a variety of isolated projects. Completely confident in her decision, María Augusta sold her car, emptied her savings account, and began to build Altercom.