When the North American missionary Dorothy Mae Stang was killed in 2005, the Amazon region, its people and its conflicts, briefly dominated the front pages of newspapers across the country. Before the crime, the project Dorothy had been developing since the 1970s to defend the forest and communities of Anapu in the southwestern region of the Pará state, had never made it into mainstream media.
It was the lack of visibility of issues related to the largest tropical forest in the world that led journalists Kátia Brasil, Elaíze Farias, and Liège Albuquerque to take a route that did not include mainstream media outlets, where they began their careers. Together, in October of last year, they founded the independent news agency Amazônia Real with the goal of portraying the reality of the region. Liège left the project after it began, and it came under the sole control of Kátia and Elaíze. Both spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about the motivations behind and the challenges associated with providing quality information from the complex and unknown region of Brazil.
“In the mainstream media, the Amazon region only gets space – and this continues to be the case – when there is a death of a leader that defends the forest, a major environmental disaster, a shipwreck, or the embezzlement of public funds. The editors snub the area, giving priority to issues in other regions of the country while these issues are archived and they stay “on the backburner” until they are forgotten,” said Kátia.
New journalism in the Amazon
The inspiration for the creation of the agency, according to the journalists, came from initiatives that relied on new forms of journalism and from the protests that brought millions into the streets in 2013. “We are inspired by that democratic movement, and we also took to the streets,” said Elaíze. “What makes us different is the freedom to choose within the limits of the axes that we have proposed and editorial options. Despite our intention of breaking the hegemony of big economic interests, Amazônia Real is, above all else, a journalism agency. This is not activism,” she added.
Previously, Kátia and Elaíze worked in some of the biggest media outlets in the country, based out of Manaus. The crisis that generated mass layoffs in a number of these outlets between April and June 2013 – in Brazilian journalism jargon, called “passaralhos” – contributed to their decision to experiment with in-depth, independent journalism focused on issues in the Amazon.
“In the papers where I worked I was already developing, despite some difficulties, a line of work that sought to give voices to those who went practically unheard in the news: the river, indigenous, extractionist, and immigrant population, as well as human rights and environmental defenders, and invisible and stigmatized social groups. What I wanted to bring to Amazônia Real, above all, was the freedom, space, and sufficient time to produce reports on these people and their stories,” said Elaíze.
A little over a year ago, the agency’s website had been accessed by 700,000 users and it had become a reference for those looking for information on the Amazon. A report published just a month after the launch of the project was a finalist in the 2014 Tim Lopes Competition for Investigative Journalism, one of the most prestigious in Brazil. Coverage is divided between six editors – Environment, Indigenous Peoples, Agriculture, Economy and Business, Politics, and Culture – and the site also receives support from volunteer collaborators and columnists that stand behind the project.
Despite the fact that they no longer carry credentials for well-known media outlets, such as Folha or O Globo, Kátia and Elaíze say that there has been no difference in terms of accessing sources they have cultivated throughout the years. The working routine at the agency is similar to those they had grown accustomed to in other papers, except in terms of time and investigation resources.
“We work from Monday to Friday, rushing articles, editing texts, talking to sources, and investigating issues. It is a normal office. We talk to all kinds of sources, from the President of the Republic, to the landless workers that are camping on a ranch in the southern part of the Pará state, to a person that is threatened with death by a human trafficking network. In Amazônia Real, our investigation has no limits. A report can take weeks or months to be ready, and it is published only when it includes all sides of the story. In a big office, those turnaround times are shorter. Some times we want to rush more and we can’t, because they reporter has had too little time to look at another angle or investigate the issue further,” the reporter said.
All in all, long and in-depth reports require not only more time and dedication from the reporter, but also more investment. According to Elaíze, in a region like the Amazon, with its continental dimensions and with few options in the way of mobility, the costs of production of any report are high. “A trip to an indigenous village in the northern state of Amazonas, for example, will cost no less than 5,000 reals (US $2,000),” the reporter said.
In order to financially maintain the agency, the journalists originally thought to use a traditional content sales model. But in the end, they changed their minds after consulting with the director of the Knight Center, Rosental Alves. “In the month of July 2013, I was in Rio de Janeiro and I spoke personally with professor Rosental. He told us that we should avoid using a conservative content selling model for our agency. He suggested that we create a site with free content for reproduction. And it worked,” Kátia remembered. She and her partners went in search of advertising money and corporate sponsorship, without taking any public funds. Despite their efforts, during the first year of the project, the editors did absorb some operational, service, and tax expenses.
In the first semester of this year, the agency’s work received support from the Ford Foundation through the “Advancing Media Rights and Access” program. Approved in August, the financing will help cover the administrative costs that accompany large reporting projects throughout the year.
With these funds, the journalists hope to consolidate and expand the work that they have been doing. “Despite the difficulties, this is the type of journalism that we want and choose to do. It is initiatives like ours that help to break down journalistic paradigms. We want to show that it is possible to do journalism outside of the traditional framework, taking on challenges within our capacity and resource limitations and, often times, trampling a bit of logic,” Elaíze concluded.
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.