Century-old newspapers in Brazil try to unite heritage with digital transformation and getting close to readers

“Legacy media” is used to refer to media established before the internet revolutionized the global circulation of information. The phrase seems particularly suited to newspapers that span a century of existence and that seek to adapt to the digital age by building new avenues in journalism on the basis of the accumulated heritage of more than 100 years of history.

In Brazil, today, there are 26 century-old newspapers in circulation, according to what the Knight Center found, based on a survey by the National Newspaper Association (ANJ) of Brazil. To stay relevant, they strive to stay true to their history and connected with readers who’ve been with them for decades, emphasizing their belonging to the community, while also striving to consolidate their online operations and gain young readers who feel little loyalty to print.

Just over two years ago, ANJ’s list contained 31 of them. In the time since, several succumbed to the transformations of journalism after the digital disruption. And the difficulties affect everyone, regardless of the size of the newspaper or whether the coverage  area is local or national, according to what told journalist and researcher Hérica Lene, professor at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB), told the Knight Center.

Lene coordinated the research “Jornais centenários do Brasil, como e por que sobrevivem em tempos de convergência midiática?” (100-year-old newspapers from Brazil, how and why do they survive in times of media convergence?) and from 2015 to 2018 interviewed managers of 19 newspapers that have been circulating for over 100 years in the country.

“Everybody is the same: no one knows exactly where to go with the changing journalism industry,” she said. “It's a new model being looked for, because it's a common statement from them that print advertising, as it were, sustained the business. Online alone does not sustain it in terms of advertising, and print is in crisis precisely because of competition from online content. They go to the internet, but the internet alone does not support the business.”

Beyond symbolic capital

About to reach its 111-year anniversary, in May, Comércio do Jahu became one of the latest papers with 100+ years under its belt to close doors in the country.

Founded on July 31, 1908, the newspaper covered events in the region of Jaú, a city of 120,000 inhabitants in the interior of the state of São Paulo, and closed its print and online operations on May 5, 2019. The special final issue focused on highlighting the heritage built by Comércio do Jahu in a little over a century and its ties to the community, which expressed regret at the newspaper's demise in testimonials from readers, advertisers, columnists and reporters.

“Comércio has always accompanied, throughout the years, the political, cultural, social and sports life of the city. And it became Jaú's heritage, a reference in information, for the municipality and the region. As a local newspaper, circulating in the surrounding cities, this was the main coverage, with analysis. The population has been orphaned by the work done by Comércio,” Ana Karina Victor, the newspaper's editorial director for the past 13 years, told the Knight Center.

The decision to close Comércio came after the newspaper spent about four years struggling to maintain itself, she said. Several solutions were discussed between the newsroom and the newspaper's owners, such as keeping print editions, but less frequently, and even ending print, but keeping the newspaper online. However, the owners eventually decided to terminate Comércio’s activities altogether, Victor said. (The Knight Center attempted to contact the newspaper owners, but did not receive a reply.)

“The situation is no different from other media: fewer people are willing to buy the newspaper at the newsstand, subscribe to print or digital. In addition to the shrunken advertising market,” especially in the countryside, she said.

Marcelo Rech (Photo: Pedro França/Agência Senado)

“It opens a vacuum whenever a newspaper closes, opens another space in the desert of news. In the case of centennial newspapers it is a much bigger shake-up,” Marcelo Rech, ANJ president, told the Knight Center.

For him, the great asset of any company, journalistic or otherwise, is trust, and this relationship is something that centennial newspapers have had a long time to build with their readers. “When we talk about information, having 100 years or more of history is an asset, it's a heritage that establishes a very rare trust,” Rech said.

Lene, the researcher, noted in her study that, in fact, this heritage of 100-year-old newspapers helps keep them working and sets them apart from other publications. “This symbolic capital is very important in terms of valuing journalism as a place for checking, for information; people trust these brands, which carry this credibility” cultivated over decades, she said.

However, this is not a guarantee of survival, as the case of Comércio do Jahu demonstrates, as what these newspapers face is “a crisis of the journalistic industry model,” the researcher said. According to her, a common feature of 100-year-old newspapers she has analyzed is the difficulty of maintaining the print edition, “for the costs and competition with internet content,” as well as reduced teams in newsrooms that were once more populated than they are today.

Lene's study also pointed out that most of these newspapers focus on local coverage and focus on proximity to the community in which they operate. “They try to get a very regional focus [on coverage], because online journalism gives national and international, and the appreciation of regional is what helps sustain these newspapers,” she said.

Tradition and loyalty

Newspaper Correio do Povo, which is headquartered in Porto Alegre and has been one of the main newspapers in Rio Grande do Sul and in the country for 124 years, is an example of this regional strength identified by Lene in her research. In this case, the newspaper pays special attention to the coverage of what happens in the state and produces national coverage from the gaucho point of view.

Telmo Flor has worked at Correio since 1986, the year the newspaper returned to circulation after two years out of print, and is now its editorial director. He told the Knight Center that Correio “is a very traditional newspaper, especially in the interior of the state, with a deep connection with readers. The loyalty here is huge.”

Correio do Povo (Courtesy)

According to him, this is a characteristic of the readers of Correio, and something “also very typical of Rio Grande do Sul.” “Gauchos (people from the region) like to honor their cultural traits, and I think Correio is a little part of that.”

It’s not just readers who are reminded daily of Correio’s tradition, through a section that publishes what appeared in the newspaper 100 years ago, but also employees who work in the newsroom.

“We often say that Correio has a 'constitution.’In the newsroom we have a facsimile of the front page of the first edition of the newspaper, from 1895, and it has a fairly modern editorial. It is a lot of history, but for us it is true, it says: we are non-partisan, we are modern ... It is a tradition along with modernity that is good for our business too,” Flor said.

The newspaper, which has been part of the Record Communication Group since 2007, had an average daily circulation of 66,950 printed copies (9th place nationally) and 41,326 digital copies (8th place) in the first half of 2019, according to data from the Circulation Verification Institute (IVC) made available to the Knight Center.

Correio’s revenue is “increasingly tied directly to the reader,” Flor said, with subscriptions and sales at newstands matching advertising as a source of revenue for the publication. And here, too, the history of the newspaper plays a role.

“We are increasingly aware that what we can offer in the market is credibility, and it is not a credibility gained yesterday or the day before yesterday with some subject. It's a 124-year-old credibility, and yes, it sounds kind of anachronistic, but we like it. We know that people pay for the newspaper for taste, after all, they have millions of lines of information out there for free every day on the internet. Why do they pay here? Because they believe in the newspaper, because we offer quality journalism. We try honestly every day to do that, and the reader realizes it. So we give the reader this idea that we are at their service and always trying to do the best,” he said.

Telmo Flor, editorial director of Correio do Povo (Courtesy)

Being at the service of the reader, for Correio, means being present not only in Porto Alegre, but in nine other cities in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul. The newspaper has correspondents in Uruguaiana, Pelotas, Santa Cruz do Sul, Caxias do Sul, Santa Rosa, Frederico Westphalen, Novo Hamburgo, Canoas and Santa Maria, “which represent our bond with the interior communities as well,” Flor said. For him, this is also part of the newspaper's legacy of more than a century.

Correio also bets on tradition in its online operation. According to its director, the newspaper seeks to preserve its way of doing journalism that it consolidated in print in the digital environment, as well.

“Among newspapers, who survives digitally with any success? The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Zero Hora, Correio do Povo, O Globo. It is whoever has a story to tell, that is, has credibility. And not only because they are famous, they also preserve their community ties. In our case, we believe that we have to preserve our connection with the subject at the other end, which is the reader, and we try every day to do so, I imagine with some success. We strive,” he said.

In search of the “incoming generation”

In these newspapers that also seek to consolidate online, the bet is on the proximity of the relationship with the reader, through social networks, for example, and producing content for the internet in different languages, Lene, the researcher, found. And for a publication that was born and consolidated in an era when newspapers were synonymous with print, this transition is no small feat.

“The challenge is to talk to younger audiences because younger people don't read print newspapers,” said Lene. “Their big challenge is to try to attract this audience, who reads over the Internet and has no emotional connection with the newspaper brand or print. The audience of those newspapers who like print newspapers are aging; how do they attract young people?”

The Pernambuco newspaper Jornal do Commercio (JC), based in Recife, has been trying to answer this question and to continue to renew itself after 100 years of history, reached in April of this year.

Maria Luiza Borges, director of digital content at Jornal do Commercio System (Photo: Brenda Alcântara/Jornal do Commercio)

The Jornal do Commercio Communication System, the newspaper's proprietary media conglomerate, also has a radio station, Rádio Jornal, which operates in Recife and in five other municipalities in Pernambuco; two local TV channels, TV Jornal Recife and TV Jornal Caruaru; and the online portal NE10, where the content of all company media is hosted.

“Jornal do Commercio is the main thing, it is the origin of everything,” Maria Luiza Borges, director of digital content at the conglomerate, told the Knight Center. “This brand references us, but every day we are looking to work in a totally integrated way.”

This integration, which began in 2016, meant sharing content across all System platforms, as Borges explained. Newsroom professionals produce content for all media in the conglomerate. “Although the newspaper is the big reference, because that's where our brand comes from, today we can't talk anymore, for example, about a Jornal do Commercio reporter, because nothing a reporter does will be restricted to the newspaper,” she said.

This process has led to staff downsizing, with at least two periods of layoffs in the newsroom over the past two years, Borges said. And, according to her, the operation of Jornal do Commercio, separate from other media of the System, is still in a deficit. The newspaper's revenue, which is split almost equally between advertising and subscriptions, does not cover the costs of producing "journalism with a standard" and sustaining the structure needed to print the newspaper on paper, she said.

“If we were not living as a system, the situation today would be much more complicated. The ability to view the Jornal do Commercio System as a unique content-generating body has given us a breath to get to where we are now. We're not making a profit, but at least those years of massive losses are behind us,” she said.

According to data from the IVC, Jornal do Commercio had an average daily print circulation of 15,792 copies in the first half of 2019 (21st place in the national ranking of print papers measured by the IVC). Daily digital circulation averaged 8,491 (16th place). The newspaper is the only one from Pernambuco to appear on the IVC lists.

Borges commented that there are people who have been subscribed to Jornal do Commercio for “20, 30 years,” and that the newspaper is concerned with valuing these loyal readers. But one of the main efforts right now is to "take care of the new generations."

“There is a phenomenon, which is unique to our time, of an incoming generation that has little loyalty to quality journalism. She will read what happens on the timeline or what the friend sends, either by messenger, the friend's timeline, or on her cousin's Instagram and so on. So it's a mega challenge for us to talk to these newcomers, because ten years from now they should theoretically be consuming quality journalism. And if we do not raise awareness and do not show them that it is hard to do, to produce and bring this quality information, we will most likely see our audience stripped away,” she said.

Newsroom of Jornal do Commercio in Brazil (Photo: Leo Motta/Jornal do Commercio)

In this effort, Jornal do Commercio prepares its digital renewal and sought to hear representatives of this generation in focus groups bringing together both young readers of the newspaper and “people who accidentally read us because a link happened to come up on their timeline,” Borges said. The goal was to hear from these young people "what would bring value to their lives, what we can deliver that makes sense to them."

In addition, Jornal do Commercio has sought to strengthen its online operation by participating in projects funded by the Google News Initiative (GNI) and Facebook Journalism Project, initiatives by digital platform giants to foster journalism. Jornal do Commercio is part of Comprova, a project that brings together 24 vehicles to combat misinformation; participated in Facebook's local news and video production accelerators; and was just selected as part of the GNI Innovation Challenge with a fact-checking project.

“We have been trying to go beyond traditional forms of funding, we have been looking for very specific projects because they help in this journey,” Borges said, referring to the simultaneous challenges of revenue generation and online content production. “As one friend of mine says, there are a lot of dishes in the air and we try to handle them all. Either that or everything drops, right,” she laughed.

The asset of the 100-year-old brand

For ANJ's Rech, newspapers are “community amalgams” and, over decades, create a “league of belonging” to the community that eventually transcends the commercial product offered. In the case of the 100-year-old newspapers focused on regional journalism, this aspect is shown by the length of time and the concentration of coverage space.

The great differential of these papers, he stressed, is the “gradual, solid, permanent construction of credibility and trust.” "From an information standpoint today, this is the greatest need, the greatest demand and the most recognized attribute," he said.

Highlighting the story itself in an attempt to make readers aware of the importance of the newspaper and its legacy “doesn't always move,” believes Rech, who is also the RBS Group's editorial and institutional vice president.

“Already selling the notion of trust, of reciprocity, that 'we have been here for a long time living up to the community's trust and we will be here for a longer time living up to the community,' is a unique, relevant, unparalleled asset. It cannot be bought off the shelf, it’s not for sale. One technology, the ability to spread information faster, is on the shelf, I'd say. Not trust, credibility. This is not bought, it is built,” he said.

And while transformations in journalism and the imperative of digital haunt print media of all ages, papers with 100+ years even have a significant advantage in this scenario, the ANJ president believes.

“We are not in the business of printing paper. We are in the business of producing reliable information, the diffusion of which occurs on different platforms, including print. For us, what is fundamental is the established brand, and centenarians have an advantage because they are very established, very rooted brands. And brand awareness is the great asset of relevance.”

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