Brazilian editor trades newsroom for university in pursuit of answers to the challenges of digital transformation of media

Earlier this year, Brazilian journalist Ricardo Gandour traded the newsroom’s frenetic environment for a somewhat more serene atmosphere of the university. The executive side of Gandour, director of content for media company Grupo Estado, gave space to his academic side as he became a visiting scholar at Columbia Journalism School in New York City. After a six-month stint, the editor will return to Brazil next week where he intends to continue uniting theory and practice.

During his stay at the American university, Gandour analyzed the transformations of journalism in the digital environment. Preliminary results of his study were presented at the World Editors Forum, organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) on June 14 in Cartagena, Colombia. The full study will be published this month in the Columbia Journalism Review.

In an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Gandour talked about his experience as a visiting researcher at Columbia University, the challenges faced by journalism in the current environment of digital fragmentation and his plans after returning to Brazil.

Knight Center: How did your interest in analyzing journalism in the digital environment emerge?

Ricardo Gandour: This transformation that the information environment is living, which directly affects journalism, in its practice as a paid activity, as a professional activity, as an activity of high public interest, caught my attention. The risks and aspects of this transformation always intrigued me a lot. Especially when I notice, and I still notice, that this discussion is somewhat tainted by a labeling that says 'ah, this is editor’s nostalgia', 'it’s a resistance to change.’ But things are not mutually exclusive. You can celebrate and use the wonderful possibilities that technology and digital environments have produced, and at the same time, to reflect and discuss important issues of journalism. Starting an important discussion does not mean that you are denying the advances. Especially in Brazil, a debate of 'old media, new media' was created and still survives. I think this debate is false. The media history shows that new media that have emerged were superimposing and complementing the environment, and the others stayed, adapted, changed a lot, and all are coexisting in an environment with multiple possibilities.

KC: You say that journalism is not a format, but a method. In what sense?

RG: Much in this new environment seems to be news, but it is not news. Many pieces look like a journalistic piece, but they do not contain journalism. It can be advocacy, or even advertising. This is a difference, a very sophisticated concept. And there are companies, entities, organizations that have sites with the name of 'something news,’ but that material is not journalism - it is informative. It is information, but is not journalistic information. The information there did not pass through the journalistic method. So, because journalism attracts, since it is credible, in many circumstances it is used as a format, to look like journalism. And it's not. In fact, journalism is a method. I raise this because I defend that in this new environment it is necessary to preserve the method, otherwise it will weaken and it will disappear, even as a discipline. Even for the new generations. Hence, I emphasize the role of the schools.

KC: What are the effects that this has on the news consumer?

RG: The first thing is that logically, as has always been the case with print media, the positioning of editing genres is very clear: what is a story, what is an editorial, what is a feature article, what is analysis. Especially because the analog media gives you this visibility, you can see who is who, what is what. In the digital environment, everything is very equal, and mixed. Then it is possible, for example, that many young readers consider that journalism is opinion, and it’s not. And they grow without training to read it. There is a training to read. You have an education to read, to interpret the nature of the information you are absorbing.

KC: What could newsrooms do to help reverse this situation, to make the digital media consumer develop this ability?

RG: I think that newspapers have to improve their internal training programs. Professional journalism needs to explain more to the public what journalism is about. Explain more what we do.

KC: What led you to take this sabbatical from the newspaper and to focus on research now?

RG: It was an opportunity. I did not choose the moment. Of course I was already wanting it; I have been interested in this transformation for four years and I have been studying it by myself, participating in many lectures, debates, classes. I’ve always had a newsroom career and a newsroom executive career. Always practicing, on a daily basis. I never had a formal academic career, but I always cultivated an academic eye. I always had a sense of trying to combine theory with practice, to understand how one justifies the other. So I always had this approach, this academic curiosity, but always with the front-line executive. Three years ago, I met some professors from Columbia, the dean at the time, Nicholas Lemann, and the president of the university, Lee Bollinger, and we started talking about it. And these conversations culminated in an invitation to spend a semester here as a visiting scholar in the School of Journalism and to further develop this discussion.

KC: How was your academic experience during this semester at Columbia?

RG: It was interesting, at a stage in my career I thought it was cool to take a break, with nearly 30 years in the newsroom, to stop and study. It was very pleasant in every way, personally and intellectually. As a visiting scholar, I could set up the work plan I wanted. I audited two courses, Sociology of News, a seminar for graduate students, and Journalism and Public Life, for undergraduates, both with Michael Schudson, who is a star, and I ended up benefiting from it and helping him in the course. And, I also attended Managing the 21st Century News, with Ava Seave and William Grueskin, which was another field, more practical, focusing on the business model. Here at the system of integrated libraries of Columbia, which connects with other libraries, I researched all scientific articles published from January 2015 onwards. So there were these courses, research in books and articles, and I interviewed many professors and researchers at Columbia, NYU (New York University), CUNY (City University of New York), SUNY (The State University of New York) and also in Washington. I interviewed sixty researchers. And I also visited many newsrooms, both the traditional media and the new media such as BuzzFeed, ProPublica. So this was the method: courses, literature review, interviews and visits. All in one semester.

KC: Do you see many differences in the way of doing journalism in Brazil and in the United States?

RG: My contact here was through the school and talking to people who work in big U.S. newsrooms, such as The Washington PostThe New York Times, so it was a very elite sample. But, I was also very much in touch with the media here, reading news every day. I think we are still a few steps behind in number of sources per news article, the structure of the narrative. I think we have to go much farther. U.S. journalism is more detailed, more structured, more careful.

KC: What will you take from this experience?

RG: As I am collaborating with ESPM (Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing), which is building and consolidating a new journalism course, I will collaborate with conferences, lectures, and keep being persistent and move forward with this research. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism invited me to be a visiting researcher, so I will return to Brazil, but stay as a Tow Center fellow, and from Brazil, to continue this work, coming to the United States for one week every two months. I will take this as additional motivation for journalism fundamentals to be preserved.

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.