Brazilian agency looks to finance investigative journalism through crowdfunding

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  • February 18, 2013

By Isabela Fraga

In the midst of a supposed crisis in investigative journalism and the advertising-based business model that still prevails in the press around the world, successful initiatives that combine financing alternatives for quality journalism promise a future for investigative journalism.  In Brazil, one example is A Pública (The Public), an independent, non-profit investigative journalism agency that allows its content to be freely reproduced online.  The agency was founded in March 2011 by the journalists Marina Amaral and Natália Viana, who were unsatisfied with the paths chosen by the Brazilian media.

Inspired by similar organizations in other countries like ProPublica, A Pública’s mission is “to produce long-form stories of public interest.”  In practice, these ideas have given rise to a series of reports of international impact, such as the coverage of murders of environmental protest leaders in the Brazilian Amazon and a story about the sale of carbon credits by indigenous reserves to international corporations operating in the same region.  It’s not surprising that the stories have been republished at least 60 times, as permitted by the Creative Commons license the site operates under.

But how does A Pública survive, if producing quality investigative reports is so costly and time consuming?  Until now, the solution has been financing though international foundations, like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, as well as sponsorship for specific projects, as was the case with the series Amazônia Pública (Public Amazon), funded by the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA).

But this is not ideal, said Marina Amaral, in a phone interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.  The agency plans to implement a crowdfunding project towards the end of this year.

“We’re looking towards the future and thinking: we want public funding, not state funding, but rather from the people, from the citizens.  The ideal would be if we could sustain ourselves with crowdfunding.”

Read the rest of the interview after the jump:

What has A Pública’s funding been like until now?  Has it worked?

Our principal support is the Ford Foundation.  But at the beginning, Natália and I worked for ourselves.  After Ford, we got the sponsorship of the Open Society Foundation, and today we rely on help for specific projects.  One of those projects was about the Amazon, where we wanted to produce stories that would show a more understandable reality, different from the fragmented version you get in the press.  The project was sponsored by the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA).  CLUA didn’t interfere in what we published.  And we don’t take orders, either.  We only work for our own agency.  We’ve chosen three subjects as priorities: the Amazon, the World Cup, and torture (human rights).

Do you think this funding model is sustainable?  What do you think A Pública will be like in the next few years?

Our most stable partners have been the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation.  Ford offers funding for a year and a half, and we just renewed for a year and a half more.  But we’re not going to depend on them for much longer.  We’re looking towards the future and thinking: we want public funding, not state funding, but rather from the people, from the citizens.  The ideal would be if we could sustain ourselves with crowdfunding.  We want to launch a crowdfunding project this year – for now we’re letting it mature.

How did you get the idea to create A Pública?  Did you feel that there was something missing in the national media?

At the start of my working life, I worked as a reporter for important newspapers.  And there was criticism against the big media companies.  When I worked for Caros Amigos [an alternative magazine critical of traditional media], I lived the experience from the other side.  There I met Natália.  The experience both of us had was: in the first place, you can’t create print media today, our project has to be online; in the second place, our press isn’t very international – including in terms of production, not just consumption; and in the third place, journalism itself, as much as in the traditional press as in the alternative, was too ideological.

What examples inspired you to create the agency?

We were inspired by models that existed outside of Brazil.  The name A Pública is inspired by ProPublica, an organization we would like to be identified with.  The idea of creating a center for independent journalism was new in Brazil.

International media companies have suffered during the crisis of sustainability of the current business model based on income through advertising.  Especially on the internet, this hasn’t been effective.  Do you think the business model adopted by A Pública could be seen as a promising option for the future or will it always be something alternative?

We don’t know.  All we do is experiment.  From the very beginning, we had no intention of being funded by private businesses.  That was a criticism we had made of Brazilian journalism: they don’t fully investigate private businesses.

The business model based on ads doesn’t have to end.  We think many models must coexist at the same time.  But public interest journalism cannot have state funding, that’s complicated.  Our relationship with the Ford Foundation is very clear.  They’ve never commented on what we’ve published – in a good way or a bad way.

What’s the editor’s room of A Pública like?

It’s small and young.  The most experienced journalists are Natália, Andreia Dip, and I.  A Pública is made up of people who are enthusiastic about the project and don’t expect high salaris.  We divide up what we get from the Ford Foundation.  Natália and I, as directors, have a salary much lower than what the market offers.

How have you been received by readers?

We’ve gotten a very enthusiastic response.  Many colleagues have sent emails praising us, and we were invited to speak at the 2012 Abraji Congress and at journalism seminars, etc.  Many journalists have asked, so we’re creating a network of collaborating journalists.  For the moment, the two strongest supporters we’ve had have been reporters who don’t work for A Pública.  We’re also growing on Facebook, we’ve already got 12,000 likes.  We’re growing enough, our info is circulating.  We also have partners who republish our content.

It also turns out that we have some weight with news organizations in general.  We’ve become a reference for some subjects – for example, Al Jazeera called us to ask for a contact.  And a murder victim in Pará, Dinhana Nink, had her photo, taken by us, published in Jornal Nacional, with the citation.

What’s your experience with multimedia content been like?

On the internet, video is very important.  We have a group here at the agency focused on that.  We’re based in the Casa da Cultura Digital (House of Digital Culture) en São Paulo, where there are many cyberculture businesses.  Filmes para Bailar, for example, made an edition of their videos about the Amazon for us.  And a university professor also formed a team of students to help us produce and edit videos.

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.