Creating a Journalism Community in Brazil

Jan 102011

Early in 2010, I bumped totally by chance on the streets of São Paulo into a good friend of mine, Alexandre Maron, an editor of New Projects at the Globo magazine group. I told him then that I was in Brazil as a Knight International Journalism Fellow, with the International Center for Journalists.

He listened attentively to my ideas, and days after our meeting, he kindly sent me a very insightful article which I later realized would have a decisive impact on the work I was to do.

The piece, written by Robert Niles, claimed in its title that, "Doing journalism in 2010 is an act of community organizing."

Niles’ concept of a possible path for the journalism of the future had plenty to do with my own project, which I called Mural. After training more than three groups of over 50 students and striking a partnership with the country's biggest daily newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, I have no doubt that Mural has established itself as a community. And an active one for that matter.

The participants have been feeding news stories and video reports to the Mural blog since it first began to appear daily in Folha.com, Folha de São Paulo's Web site, on the 24th of November. Everyone exchanges ideas, via the googlegroups mail we created and via Mural's own Twitter and Facebook accounts. The latter was set up by one of the participants.

One of the "muralistas" became an intern at an NGO where two other participants were already working. Trainees who lived in the same boroughs became friends and more than once teamed up for coverage after discussing ideas for stories at the monthly gatherings for bloggers in Folha's headquarters.

When the idea of setting up a course for bloggers first came up in July, I was skeptical that anybody would actually show up, given that it was the very month of the World Cup in a football-mad nation. To my surprise, more than 20 students were willing to devote their weekends to my classes.

What did we do in the classes? They were mainly built on my own understanding of the lessons of a world renowned Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, and his "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." Freire fought adult illiteracy using examples close to the communities he was teaching. His methods were definitely a source of inspiration.

If I spoke about the need to use multiple sources in journalism, I'd use examples of media coverage of the police occupation of a favela (impoverished area) in São Paulo: one by award-winning local journalist Bruno Paes Manso, another by the conservative Veja magazine and yet another by Joildo Santos, a blogger from the area.

Seeking to unleash each one's creative potential and to make people realize that journalism is present in various day-to-day topics, we turned hip-hop songs into small journalistic pieces.

We took to the streets to record videos based on several local stories. We avidly discussed topics that were (or, many times, were not) dealt with by the mainstream media concerning peripheral areas.

We heard lectures by reporters and fiction writers who came from the outskirts of the city. This blend seemed to work for many, although not for all. There were those, especially in the very first group, who vanished along the way. They had a variety of reasons. Some had demanding jobs that had little or no relation with journalism and that left little room for anything else. Others seemed to only care about a workshop being offered in the headquarters of the biggest newspaper in the country and led by a BBC guy (yours truly).

But that soon changed. The second group of students was very diverse, but shared a deep engagement, enthusiasm and understanding that Mural was about them, not about me or about Folha de São Paulo. They got the concept of forming "community correspondents" from different areas of São Paulo, a group of people who could spread contents and messages from areas that weren't always covered by the traditional media, except when either man-made or natural tragedies ocurred in those neighbourhoods.

Soon, this community added a third group of trained citizen journalists. Like their fellow “muralistas,” they were diverse and just as passionate about telling their own stories.

Having concluded the training, what was to be done? ICFJ's goal was to set up a sustainable project with a solid basis when my fellowship ended. I was lucky enough to meet Izabela Moi, the deputy editor of Folha’s cultural segment, “Ilustríssima.” Izabela also happened to have been involved with an educational project somewhat similar in principle to Mural.

Izabela said she was willing to look after the participants and the content of Mural after my departure. So we asked Folha de São Paulo to host the blog on its own website. The newspaper agreed.

I look back to the wise words of Robert Niles. I'm not sure if from now on organizing a community will become the guiding principle for future journalism. But I'm quite sure that setting up a community was the mainstay of what I realized in São Paulo, Brazil. It was all thanks to a group of over 50 passionate enthusiasts and good friends that I made along the way, friends who provided guidance, assistance and who managed, on many occasions, to right many wrongs. And, above all, it was thanks to ICFJ’s offer of a fellowship and a task that resembled nothing I'd done before, and am not likely to repeat in the future.

Being distant from Mural will no doubt leave a gap in my life. Thankfully, my absence will not pose a gap in the project. It has already matured and grown a life of its own. This thriving community will now hopefully grow even more, adding scores of readers from different walks of life who'll be able to learn plenty about the outskirts of the biggest city in South America.