Beyond the news: Brazilian site innovates by investing in contextual and multidisciplinary journalism

This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)

Founded by a social scientist, an engineer and a journalist, Brazilian news site Nexo was born as a multidisciplinary venture, with the aim of innovating in the form and approach of information. The proposal: leave aside breaking coverage and bet on journalism of context, made by professionals from different areas, that explains the news through multimedia, interactive and data reports.

"We have another view of what is news, precisely because there are not just journalists. Our data scientist, for example, who collects and researches, is a biologist and a programmer. We are concerned with having people from various areas, thinking in different ways," executive editor Marina Menezes told the Knight Center.

According to her, of the three founders (Paula Miraglia, Renata Rizzi and Conrado Corsalette), two had never worked with journalism until they created Nexo in 2015. Likewise, Menezes was a law graduate and worked as a researcher when she was called to the site. The current staff of about 30 people reflects this multidisciplinary profile, with professionals who, in many cases, are trained in journalism and in another career.

Additionally, another characteristic that distinguishes Nexo is their treatment of news. "We are not worried about the first fruits, we are not a newspaper with hard news. We want to qualify the public debate," Menezes explained. According to her, the subject need not be new or have a hook to be published by the online newspaper.

Menezes cited an interactive special report that allows the reader to test his knowledge about the reality of his municipality. In the report, it is possible to find out how many households in the city have access to sewage, lights or running water, for example, and compare the data with the national average.

"One advantage of Nexo is that, for us, it does not have an old agenda. What newspaper is going to take a 2010 census to do a story? Nexo will. And you do not have to have a hook. We try to marry some events, of course. But learning whether or not you understand the Brazilian reality does not need a hook," Menezes said.

Another example of the innovative use of "old information" is a special about street names. With a Post Office database that had all the streets in Brazil, Nexo did a report with text, graphs and tests, revealing what the names of roads, avenues and alleys tell about the country.

The material includes a quiz about which historical personalities, presidents and even religions are most honored. There are, for example, more places with the name of the Greek god Zeus (18) than the queen of the sea for candomblé and national icon Iemanjá (12). The test highlights curiosities, such as the existence of a street "Donald Duck", 16 roads called "Chaves" and five, "Dona Florinda," probably in reference to the Mexican series. The report also addresses more serious issues such as gender inequality – male characters far outnumber women, and points to hundreds of streets with references to military dictatorship and even torturers.

Just as in the special about street names, Menezes explains that being innovative in Nexo’s case is often linked to "taking two steps back."

"The Lava Jato operation has existed for years and has news every week. And when you read in the newspaper, you do not know what you missed anymore, what stage it's in, if that person had already been arrested ... Nexo always takes two steps back and thinks: what is at stake here? We do not assume that the reader already knows what we are talking about. Going beyond the factual is already a difference in treatment," the executive editor said.

This editorial position is reflected even in the titles of the stories - many are questions with elements of the journalistic lede: who, how, why.

The best format

But Nexo's concern is not just to innovate in how to approach the news, there is also an effort to choose the best format to tell a story. During the impeachment process of former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the site published a series of interactive stories and specials. Nexo even made a crossword puzzle with the main names and events of the political crisis.

"When we had the impeachment, the president of the Chamber defined a voting order for politicians according to States. All the newspapers explained it with a lot of text. Our developer thought: let's make a map in a gif. And that’s it. You do not need to write 30,000 words to tell something that the gif explains best. That's why we use a lot of video, gifs and graphics, not as support for the text, but because we think it might be the best way to tell a story," Menezes said.

In March 2017, with the inauguration of a new minister of the Federal Supreme Court, Nexo created a special that analyzed some 9,000 Court decisions between August 2007 and February 2017. Through interactive graphics, the report explains how the judges approach or distance themselves from each other in their decisions. The reader can visualize the data according to the specific branch of Law (criminal, administrative, civil, tax) and know in which area the ministers disagree or agree more.

"For this special, our data scientist worked with R-language and developed a bot to read all the PDFs of the Supreme Court’s decisions. Then the core technology created a way to return that data, and the infographics defined the best way of presenting it all," the executive editor said.

In addition to the political coverage, Menezes highlights two more Nexo interactive and innovative projects. One of them, called "The Noises of Cities" discusses the health risks of urban noise pollution. Throughout the special, the reader watches videos of noisy areas of the city (a region of bars, work with jackhammers, the main avenue of São Paulo) and discovers if the noise is above the level recommended by the
World Health Organization (WHO).

The special "Songs of the 100 years of samba" takes the reader through the chronology of a century of the musical style. The narrative, punctuated by songs and videos, is finished with a playlist on Spotify with the top 100 Brazilian sambas, recommended by the experts and sources that appear in the report. The colloquial text connects to the sambas and is inviting: "Are you listening to this song? ... Come and see, the samba is about to begin."

Small and innovative

According to Menezes, it’s easier for Nexo to innovate by having a small and integrated team. The research, art and technology cores work together with the editorial section, gathering information and developing the best formats for the stories.

"There are 30 people in a single room, at the headquarters in São Paulo, and the staff comes back from lunch together, thinking and talking about work. We are small and we are willing to experiment, through trial and error," Menezes said.

Another advantage is that Nexo was born on the internet. "We are natives of digital media, mobile first. We have had a podcast from day one, we always think of new narratives," she said.

Business model

The site was created with personal investments from the founders and is just available to subscribers at the moment. "We do not have advertising, so we have a super clean site," she said.

Menezes also pointed out that the company has never advertised the brand. "To this point, we are totally organic, the only thing we do is sponsor Facebook posts."

In addition to the site, Nexo offers a free newsletter, which curates Brazilian media posts and makes a summary of the news of the day. With this, they attract readers and subscribers to the site and to other outlets in the country.

“Nexo has a subscription-only model. It doesn’t yet pay for itself, but we're on the route that we’ve planned and we continue to make investments,” she said.

(*) This story is part of a special project by the Knight Center that is made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations. The "Innovative Journalism" series covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Other stories in the series include:

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.