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How A Nieman Fellow Is Using Flash Drives–Yes, Flash Drives–To Change Cuban Media

Only about 5% of people in Cuba have access to the Internet. Elaine Diaz has a creative news distribution strategy: “direct to packet.”

How A Nieman Fellow Is Using Flash Drives–Yes, Flash Drives–To Change Cuban Media
[Photo: Flickr user Bud Ellison]

In Cuba, the constitution says that “the press, radio, television, movies, and other mass media . . . can never be private property.”

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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 Cubans.

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 their aftermath.

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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.”

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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 Cuba.

“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.’”

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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