HOW A NIEMAN FELLOW IS USING FLASH DRIVES—YES, FLASH DRIVES—TO CHANGE
ONLY ABOUT 5% OF PEOPLE IN CUBA HAVE ACCESS TO THE INTERNET. ELAINE DIAZ
HAS A CREATIVE NEWS DISTRIBUTION STRATEGY: "DIRECT TO PACKET."
BY SARAH KESSLER
In Cuba, the constitution says that "the press, radio, television,
movies, and other mass media . . . can never be private property."
But it doesn't say anything about the Internet.
This has helped a a Cuban blogosphere to flourish outside of official
national media, even while basically challenging the constitution. The
problem, however, is that Cuba's bloggers still can't easily reach most
Only about 5% of the country has access to the Internet. Internet cafes
sell access for about $5 per hour, which is about as much as an average
Cuban worker makes in a week. All of which means an online-only
publication is likely to be read mostly by a foreign audience.
According to Ted Henken, who studies Cuban entrepreneurship at Baruch
College, one blog portal, La Joven Cuba, published statistics on its
site that showed 95% of the 107,000 people who visited the site within
the first 18 months of its launch were foreign. Most were logging in
from the United States.
A professor at the University of Havana wants to create an independent
media outlet that reaches Cubans—in Cuba.
Elaine Diaz has spent the last several months studying at Harvard as a
Nieman Fellow. She is the first of 1,400 winners in the 77-year-old
program who is from Cuba, and she plans to launch a publication called
Periodismo de Barrio when she returns to the country in June. The
publication will focus on natural disasters, a topic that impacts many
people in Cuba, which is about the size of Tennessee but has, by NOAA's
count, been hit by one-third as many tropical cyclones as the entire
United States and, by GDP, many fewer resources to support citizens in
What is most unusual about her project, however, is its distribution
strategy. Periodismo de Barrio will publish online, but it will also
attempt to reach Cubans in a way they more commonly consume media: an
offline version of the Internet called the "weekly packet." Loaded with
content like recent television shows, magazines, and games, enterprising
small businesses distribute these "packets" on external hard drives that
drop in price as the week goes on. If all goes as planned, Cubans will
soon plug their drives into computers and televisions and discover
Periodismo de Barrio.
Diaz calls this a "direct to packet" strategy. Other Cuban blogs appear
in packets, but don't necessarily create content specifically for them.
"There is no working paper from Columbia to say, This is how you develop
content for the package of the week," she says. "Anywhere else, there is
no package of the week."
At first, she plans to pay packet distributors to include Periodismo de
Barrio in their packets, but she hopes eventually they'll include it for
free, because customers will want it. Meanwhile, she will experiment
with different formats to see what works best for the medium. Many
people use the drives with televisions, rather than computers, so that
might mean a publication that mostly publishes video and audio.
Cuba ranks sixth from the bottom on Freedom House's list of countries in
terms of press freedom. Henken says that when it comes to independent
media, the line between what the Cuban government will and will not
allow is still developing. Bloggers' collectives that he has studied,
including Bloggers Cuba, which included Diaz's blog, La Polemica Digital
(it has since stopped publishing), have tried to establish themselves as
independent sources of news. Some media outlets, like a publication
started by Cuba's best known (and often politically critical) blogger,
Yoani Sánchez, have been blocked or temporarily blocked in Cuba. "[Diaz]
is not entering a virgin field," Henken says, "but certainly an emerging
one where the line between what is permissible and punishable is
unclear, changing, and often arbitrary."
So how will the government react to a "direct-to-packet" publication
about natural disasters? Nobody knows, but Diaz is hopeful. Natural
disasters are not a pointedly political topic, and packets of the week,
she says, have so far been tolerated. "The only way [the packet]
disappears is if Internet access improves," she says. "Still, my media
outlet will survive, because it will be on the Internet, too."
Diaz is already a media pioneer. She has been teaching digital
journalism at the University of Havana since 2008, and helped global
news agency Inter Press Service set up its website in Cuba. Meanwhile,
she publishes journalism on her own blog. Though as a professor, she
works for the government, she also has written critically of the
government. "She occupies a unique space in the Cuban intellectual and
media landscape between official apologists and outright dissidents,"
Henken says. "This makes her unique in terms of reputation and
positioning vis-à-vis both the government and the opposition, as she
claims to be independent of both."
Using funding from the Nieman Fellowship, Diaz plans to hire three
journalists, a part-time designer, and a developer to build the site
when she returns to Cuba. She hopes to start publishing in mid-June.
When Diaz explained the project to a journalism class at Baruch College
last week, she said she saw her options following the Nieman Fellowship
like this: "I can have a kid, or I can change Cuban journalism."
She chose journalism because she wanted her child to be proud to live in
"In three years," she says, "I think I will be able to have a kid who
says, 'I'm happy to have been born here because my mom changed
journalism in Cuba.'"
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