When journalists meet to talk about the future of the profession, the conversation often turns pessimistic: shrinking newsrooms and fewer spaces for in-depth reporting are some of the most common complaints. But there are some who see in this diagnosis of the crisis in traditional journalism a source of opportunities. This vision brought together four Brazilian reporters and a French engineer around a project: Indie Journalism.
During a recent conversation on Google Hangout -- where Indie's team members normally have their meetings since they live in different cities -- the group shared with the Knight Center their ultimate goal: to create a platform for both readers interested in long-form journalism and journalists interested in producing it. More than that, the site is betting on developing a new business model and a new kind of digital journalism product.
Breno Costa, a reporter with Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and one of the journalists behind the initiative, explained that the project emerged as a response to the old model that has led newspapers to reduce their number of pages and reporters, and that produces fewer in-depth stories every day.
Costa, along with the three other journalists behind Indie -- Andrei Netto, the Paris correspondent for Brazilian newspaper Estadão; Felipe Seligman, a Folha reporter in Brasilia; and Fernando Mello, also with Folha -- have spent most of their careers within large print media outlets in Brazil and, from the inside, the've been able to identify some areas for improvement.
“The crisis is knocking on our door and we still haven't seen the light at the end of the tunnel. It's up to us journalists to find our own way," Netto said. "I'm not saying newspapers are going to disappear, in fact I think it's not going to be that way. But the fact is that each media format has its strength, and it has become difficult for the large media outlets to invest in in-depth reporting because their structures were specifically designed to mainly deliver hard news."
According to him, in the journalism landscape there aren't enough companies focusing exclusively in producing special reports and experimenting to find new meanings and relationships between the different journalistic formats, like text, photo essays and documentaries. This will be Indie's mission, he said.
The platform will work like a digital newsroom for independent journalists to self-publish their investigations. Even though the team is not currently revealing specific details about the project, Breno said the stories will come from two sources: from journalists working at or invited by Indie, and from independent journalists who will self-publish their stories without requiring Indie's approval. "Although, of course, all the content will go through a filter of technical parameters. We're going to act like trustees to guarantee the quality of the publications," he explained.
Netto summed up the initiative as a digital publisher that will seek to fill the need for high-quality narratives, following the examples of sites like Atavist and Byliner in the U.S., and Mediapart in France.
The price of good stories
As opposed to every other proposal in the Brazilian market, Indie will offer its readers a menu of different topics for in-depth investigations for them to choose and pay for. This will be the main source of income for the project -- contrary to what common sense would suggest, since advertising revenue is usually preferred over paying for web content.
Despite being 100 percent digital and that working with a team through the web requires a smaller investment, large-sized investigations require time, research and a little bit of art. The product is hand-made and more expensive, making the use of direct sales as the main source of financing sound audacious. In response to this issue, Seligman said that what motivated them to create Indie was in part their faith that good information will always have an audience and that journalists will continue to be its mediators.
"We believe there are people who recognize the value of long investigations and are willing to pay a fair price for them, and we believe that we will attain this value. It is a bet based on what we have seen, but also on the future behavior of the users."
To guarantee its independence, in the beginning the platform will not have a space for advertising. Mark Sangarne, the only non-journalist in the group and the person responsible for the group's business plan, said that one possibility would be to add value to the stories using technology and a good digital marketing strategy. "We don't know what the ideal business model will be for the journalism of the future, but we have a good idea on how to make Indie sustainable and we're going to experiment."
Besides the direct sale of stories, Indie will have a technology branch that will produce its own apps and a laboratory to finance innovations in journalism. The group is also considering the possibility of offering consulting services to companies that are looking for new digital products and making partnerships to share content with traditional media outlets.
Fresh air for journalism
The challenge of innovating in the digital era goes beyond thinking on new ways of financing good journalism, which is still defined by traditional rules and conventions. Pushing these boundaries will be part of Indie's efforts.
To achieve this, Indie's five founders invited to the team André Liohn, an award-winning Brazilian journalist who will be in charge of editing pictures, and Tomás Silva, the art director who will design the platform.
"We have to approach the art of journalism with the goal of transmitting information with the highest degree of refinement possible," Netto said. "There are subjective ways to compliment objective content."
The journalists hope to contribute to the construction of new formats with the production of multimedia content, which, according to them, can go beyond the reproduction of radio and television on the internet. If it were up to the group, outstanding work like the New York Times' famed Snowfall package would be more produced all the time.
Even though the platform is still under construction -- the team said the site will be launched before the second half of the year -- those people interested in following the project as it develops can already visit Indie's site and subscribe to their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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.