Brazilian site Ponte celebrates five years with focus on public safety and confronts challenge of financial sustainability

In March 2014, a group of journalists met in São Paulo to start a digital media outlet dedicated exclusively to the coverage of public safety and human rights in Brazil. And so Ponte Jornalismo was born, which has since become a reference on the topic in the country. Five years later, the site now seeks to consolidate its operation in a more sustainable way so it can continue to produce journalism with impact.

In the country with the third-largest prison population in the world (40 percent of it consisting of temporary prisoners, without a conviction) and where police killed an average 16 people a day in 2018, Ponte devotes special attention to state violence. This is "the great story of Brazil," according to Fausto Salvadori, co-founder and editor of the site.

"You can not talk about Brazil in the 21st century without talking about state violence, which is absurd. It's as if we were in South Africa in the 1980s and not talking about apartheid, or in Germany in the 1940s and not talking about the concentration camps," he told the Knight Center. "Ponte came out of this idea that there is an absurd reality and people are not talking about it, they ignore these facts, and this needs to be brought to the center of the debate."

Ponte then proposed to do journalism about public safety in a different way from what was then called "police journalism."

"It was not by accident that it was called police journalism, because a lot of this journalism was hand-in-hand with the police," he commented. "A significant part of this coverage is traditionally done by journalists who run very close to the police and who get mixed up in a relationship of journalist and public relations for the police.”

The Ponte team is made of 10 people. Most work remotely. (Courtesy)

Ponte, on the other hand, focuses on reporting abuses carried out by the police and other arms of the State, such as the justice system, with special attention to inequalities of race, class and gender in public safety and human rights issues.

"In the news about crimes, the social class of those involved is highly privileged," Salvadori said of traditional coverage on the topic. "If the crime happens in the Jardins [a wealthy neighborhood of São Paulo], it has a repercussion. If it occurs in the periphery of São Paulo, the repercussion is ten times smaller. The social class of the victim directly implies the type of approach that is going to be done. This is something that has always really bothered people who worked in these media outlets."

Another co-founder of Ponte, journalist André Caramante, was already one of the main references for covering public safety in the country in 2014. In 2012, he and his family had to leave Brazil temporarily due to death threats they received after the publication of one of Caramante’s stories in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, where he worked. The story said that a former chief of Rota, an elite unit of the Military Police of São Paulo, and then-candidate for councilman "preached violence" on his Facebook page against those suspected of crime. The publication of the text was followed by a wave of online harassment and threats against the journalist. (The then-candidate for councilman now is in his second term as a state deputy in São Paulo.)

Some time after returning to Brazil and after 15 years of working for the Folha group, in February 2014, Caramante was fired. "After that dismissal, I realized that we had to do something [on the subject of public safety], because with the possibility of new technologies, doing journalism today is much more possible than it once was," Caramante, who today serves as editorial counsel for Ponte, told the Knight Center.

In March, less than a month after leaving Folha, Caramante, Salvadori and other journalists began to put Ponte on its feet. Among them were Natalia Viana and Marina Amaral, co-directors of investigative journalism platform Agência Pública. Pública served as an incubator of the new site, providing editorial support and giving computers and space in its newsroom for Ponte in its first six months of existence, Salvadori said.

"Agência Pública is very pleased to have helped launch the initiative," Viana told the Knight Center. For her, Ponte "is one of the most important projects of independent journalism that has appeared in Brazil in recent years." "It does quality journalism and covers topics that no one covers, in a way that is newsy and investigative at the same time, and more importantly, tireless. They follow stories that newspapers fail to follow, because of a lack of staff or interest.”

“Baptism of fire”

In May 2014, Ponte's website did not yet exist, but the first report from the outlet was published in a blog on the website of newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, signed by Caramante and journalist Bruno Paes Manso, then a reporter for Estadão and also a co-founder of Ponte. The story was about a black teenager from the lower class who was detained for robbery despite evidence pointing to his innocence. Hours after the report was published, the teenager was released.

"This was Ponte’s baptism of fire: before the site even existed, we removed someone from jail,” Salvadori said.

This pattern has been repeated a few times since then, as the members of Ponte explained to the Knight Center: two other men – black and poor – were released after Ponte's reports pointed to inconsistencies in the investigations and proceedings that led to their arrest. And, in a case that gained national prominence, Ponte's work helped to give visibility to the arrest of Rafael Braga, a former can collector – also black, also poor – who was the only person convicted in the context of the June 2013 demonstrations.

A reporter for Ponte is out in the field. (Courtesy)

"We were the first outlet to interview him and the first to report his second arrest. And the coverage we did, along with other outlets, weighed on the decision of the judiciary, absolutely rare, to permit him to go home to treat his health,” Salvadori said.

Another significant piece of reporting from Ponte covered the arrest of 18 youths who were on their way to a demonstration in São Paulo in September 2016. The site got the scoop that a Brazilian Army spy had infiltrated the group of demonstrators and that he allegedly spent two years monitoring social movements in São Paulo. The information had national repercussions and was republished by other media outlets.

"When we do a report that helps to release a person who was unfairly arrested, it is more important than to have an impact at the other end [on news coverage]," Caramante said. "But it is also very good when a report from Ponte is reproduced nationally, when Ponte is mentioned by some scoop, when the traditional outlets follow up on Ponte’s reports. That's very good, it's a sign that what we've done has echoed."

The challenge of survival

A majority of the 10 people working for the site have other jobs besides Ponte. That's because the site's revenue still does not allow full pay for the entire team and occasional collaborators.

In the first three years of Ponte, reporters and editors worked voluntarily, producing content for the site in their spare time, Salvadori explained.

"We considered that we would not be able to get funding for this work if we ran to investors just with the idea of creating an outlet that denounces State violence and speaks of crimes committed by police officers involving black residents, women and poor people in the periphery. We thought it would be better to do something, to have something ready, and then run after funding," he explained.

Then, in 2017, Ponte launched its first collective financing campaign, which raised R $74,000 in 60 days (about US $19,100), according to the site. The campaign involved well-known names in Brazilian culture and social movements, such as singer-songwriter Chico Buarque, social scientist Silvia Ramos and Orlando Zaccone, chief of the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police.

From that campaign,”one thing led to another,” Antonio Junião, illustrator and editor of the site, told the Knight Center. "We got funding from Open Society and other foundations started looking for us because they heard about our work."

These foundations fund specific projects, such as two currently being coordinated by Junião: a series of video reports on former inmates of the Brazilian prison system, scheduled for launch in 2020, and a monitoring platform for homicides perpetrated by police in the State of São Paulo, which should be launched at the beginning of the second part of this year.

In addition to funding from foundations, since February 2018, Ponte has had a recurring collective financing campaign called "Construa Ponte" (Build Ponte). The campaign currently has 299 fixed supporters, whose total contributions are at R $ 5.526 (about US $1,400) per month.

"Ponte's main challenge today is to be able to stay alive and have the structure to continue working," Junião said. "Making journalism is not cheap. We get specific incentives to move forward, but our biggest challenge is getting people to understand that our outlet is important and so it needs to survive."

For this, Ponte needs to broaden its audience beyond who supports the site’s editorial line Caramante said. "Ponte needs to attract people who may be totally against the journalism that we practice. We need to try different languages, talk to the youth, talk to ladies and gentlemen who love conventional police journalism shows,” he said.

A journalist for Ponte conducts an interview. (Courtesy)

In this sense, making use of a paywall, restricting access to Ponte’s content only for supporters, is out of the question, Salvadori said.

"We want our material to be seen by as many people as possible. Our material is uncomfortable. Ponte was born to expose a reality that people do not want to see. So [a challenge is] to get people to see what they do not want to see," he said.

Journalism activists

Because of its connection with social movements, its commitment to the defense of human rights and its denunciations of State abuses, is Ponte an activist journalistic media outlet?

Maria Teresa Cruz, editor and reporter for Ponte, considers that it is a journalistic media outlet, but not an activist one. "However, Ponte has a side: the side of the person violated by the State," she said.

"Activism is super important, we even have activist groups as partners, but I do not like to put Ponte there because I think it harms the journalistic part. For example, if I have to report an error committed by the side that theoretically, by my worldview, is more like mine, will I not report it? Activism does this, we do not," she said.

Caramante, on the other hand, has a vision that reconciles the two spheres. "Our banner is journalism. So yes, we are activists, but of journalism. We practice what we understand as good journalism: we have a journalistic practice, we value not exposing people in a way that we consider unjust. Yes, we are activists of journalism."