Facebook Project calls together ten outlets from five Brazilian regions to foster local journalism and reach ‘news deserts’

A program from the Facebook Journalism Project that has passed through the United States, Germany, Canada and Australia arrived in Brazil on July 29 to strengthen local journalism in five regions of the country.

The Local News Accelerator selected ten Brazilian media outlets to participate in the 12-week training and mentorship program with experts, Facebook said on July 24. The program also provides financial support for each media outlet to develop a project focused on local journalism.

BrazilAccording to the release from Facebook, the selected outlets were Correio (Bahia), Correio do Estado (Mato Grosso do Sul), A Crítica (Amazonas), Estado de Minas (Minas Gerais), A Gazeta (Espírito Santo), Gazeta do Povo (Paraná), Jornal do Commercio (Pernambuco), NSC Total (Santa Catarina), O Popular (Goiás) and O Povo (Ceará) – all outside the Rio-São Paulo axis, which usually dominates the national journalistic narrative.

“For this first accelerator, our goal was to find newsrooms with similar business models, with digital initiatives and that reach a larger area,” Sabrina Cimenti, strategic partnership manager on Facebook Brazil, told the Knight Center. According to her, the Local News Accelerator is part of a global Facebook program announced in January of this year and that promises to invest US $300 million in various initiatives to foster local journalism.

It was a massive investment from a social media company that many have blamed for its role in spreading misinformation, its change in algorithm that narrowed the reach of journalistic content on the social network, and its digital advertising model, which captured a significant portion of a traditional source of journalistic revenue.

“People consistently tell us they want to see more local news on Facebook. We know that local news is the starting place for great journalism — it brings communities together around issues that are closest to home. Local news also helps us understand the issues that matter in our communities and affect our lives,” she said,

The program is developed in partnership between the social networking giant and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).

“Audiences everywhere rely on local news to stay informed on critical issues affecting their daily lives. It is absolutely essential,” Johanna Carrillo, deputy vice president of programs at ICFJ, told the Knight Center. “A key part of ICFJ’s mission is to help local media around the world innovate, learn, and thrive.”

Topics that will be addressed in the Local News Accelerator include “pay model strategies, digital subscription acquisition and best practices to engage audiences,” Carrillo explained.

Local journalism against “news deserts”

Facebook was one of the supporters of the News Atlas, which between 2017 and 2018 mapped the presence of local news media across Brazil and concluded that one in five Brazilians live in municipalities that do not have local newspapers and news sites or TV and radio stations.

One of the objectives of the Local News Accelerator is “to reach so-called news deserts, regions where there is scarcity of local press,” the release from Facebook said.

According to the News Atlas, 70 percent of municipalities in the Northern region can be considered news deserts, as no outlets have been mapped in these locations. It is the largest proportion of municipalities without local media in the country.

Headquartered in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, the daily newspaper A Crítica is the only northern participant in the Local News Accelerator. Dante Graça, the newspaper's executive editor, told the Knight Center that coverage on regional issues accounted for more than 80 percent of hits to the A Critica online portal, while 40 percent of all hits came from the State itself.

"So [local coverage] is our flagship, where we want to intensify all our efforts," he said.

According to him, local journalism from A Crítica encompasses "all the news that covers our State, as well as national news that have a direct impact on our region, especially economic and political measures."

In the state with the largest territorial extension and the second lowest demographic density in the country, whose name refers to the imposing forest that forms it, local coverage poses many challenges, Graça commented.

“When it comes to Amazonas, the main difficulty is the logistical/structural issue of our State as a whole. Many municipalities are very distant, difficult to reach, very expensive to reach and have a poor internet structure. So many times Amazonas ends up being even distant from Manaus. We are looking for alternatives to supply our great and literal news desert,” he said.

Founded in 1949, the newspaper is in the midst of a transition, which consists of “focusing most of the team's efforts on digital,” Graça said. “We are from a newspaper that has 70 years of history and this process is complicated, so having the opportunity to make this update, not only with professors, but also with colleagues from Brazil, came at a great time.”

National and international cooperation

Among the colleagues is a team from A Gazeta newspaper, with coverage focused on Espírito Santo and headquartered in Vitoria, capital of the State in the southeastern region.

"We are a regional newspaper with traditionally local news coverage," Aglisson Lopes, editor of the Gazeta Online portal, told the Knight Center. “Our mission is to listen to the communities, to look inland, to map demands, the discussions in the cities, the neighborhoods. We have no intention of becoming 'national,' but we know that in these times of growth of social networks, we need to improve our way of listening to society, communicating our stories, broadening debates.”

Bruna Borjaille, product manager of Gazeta Online, also highlighted the possibility of cooperation with other Local News Accelerator participants.

"This partnership with Facebook will enable us to learn about practices that news content companies around the world are developing and applying in their strategies for content distribution and production," she told the Knight Center. “In addition to the opportunity to interact and exchange experiences to learn about the media business model with other companies in Brazil that are also in the program.”

Cimenti from Facebook said that this exchange could even be international, as the experience of Local News Accelerators in other countries pointed out that publishers around the world face the same challenge: “they need to build a stronger direct relationship with their audience,” she said.

“We've seen that publishers in any market are incredibly curious about success from publishers in other markets. One of the things we are planning is to connect the publishers that participated in previous editions of the Accelerator with the ones in training in Brazil,” she said.

Also, according to Cimenti, the idea is to take the Local News Accelerator to more countries, as well as the other Facebook-promoted Accelerator models, such as Subscriptions and Digital Video. The latter is also developed in partnership with the ICFJ and has already passed through Argentina and Chile and is under development in Brazil, and is also expected to take place in 2019 in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Singapore, Carrillo said.