El Salvador’s El Faro: A light in the underworld

Sarah Esther Maslin has a terrific report on El Salvador’s El Faro for the Columbia Journalism Review with A light in the underworld. It’s worth checking out in its entirety.

EL FARO IS IN THE BUSINESS of making people uncomfortable. The news site was founded in 1998 by journalist Carlos Dada and businessman Jorge Simán, distant cousins with sharp tongues and unruly hair. They were sick of El Salvador’s media being controlled by a conservative oligarchy and censored by the military and the government. Dada, who is now 46, grew up in exile in Mexico during the 1980-1992 civil war between leftist guerrillas and El Salvador’s right-wing government. When he returned in 1996, he joined the first crop of college-educated Salvadoran journalists. They were eager for an independent press.

Simán and Dada envisioned deep-dive reporting presented in a format that would combine narrative and investigative journalism. “We loved the South American literary magazines, but the reality of our country didn’t lend itself to pure crónica,” says Dada, referring to the navel-gazing  style of glossy journals like Etiqueta Negra from Peru, and Argentina’s Orsai. He found a different model in the clear-headed investigations of The New Yorker—which he brought back by the suitcase-load and translated into Spanish—and also in a handful of Latin American writers who straddled the two styles: Gabriel García Márquez, Elena Poniatowska, Martín Caparrós.

El Faro shunned hierarchy. Young reporters—poached from the Jesuit University and La Prensa Gráfica, the daily paper where Dada was an editor—participated in every aspect of production, from planning coverage to writing headlines. They cobbled together the stories on weekends in Dada’s living room. No one got paid.

El Faro has shaken the traditional media landscape in El Salvador. However, they are still trying to find the right balance between long-form investigative journalism and El Salvador’s need for timely independent coverage of what is going on in the country. It doesn’t bother me as much but I am not one who needs to worry about how it pays its bills.

In some ways, El Faro has given voice to the voiceless. However, in their case the voiceless are the young men and women who belong to the MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs. Their reporting has gotten them in trouble with the police and politicians (I mentioned some of this in recent Freedom House reports) and ordinary Salvadorans. Its an effective counter-narrative to the government’s dehumanization of gang members, but one that comes with costs. See also yesterday’s post on the New York Times and El Faro‘s collaborative project.