Brazilian journalist, lawyer and writer Otavio Frias Filho died Aug. 21 in São Paulo at the age of 61. Newsroom director for Folha de S. Paulo since 1984, Frias Filho was responsible for the modernization project that made the newspaper a reference around the world for journalism made in Brazil.
The son of Octavio Frias de Oliveira, who acquired Folha in 1962, a 17-year-old Frias Filho participated in the 1974 decision to open the pages of the newspaper to different currents of opinion, including opponents of the then-military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985.
In 1975, Frias Filho began to contribute to the production of editorials at the newspaper under the supervision of then-editor Cláudio Abramo, according to O Estado de S. Paulo. In 1981 and 1982, he organized the preparation of the documents that launched the editorial guidelines that would become the core of the so-called Folha Project. Launched in 1984, the year Frias Filho became newsroom director, the project established the newspaper's writing and conduct standards with "correct information, competent interpretation and plurality of opinions" as its pillars, according to Folha.
The project became a landmark in the Brazilian press for promoting the modernization not only of Folha, but of journalism made in the country. The following year, in 1985, Folha's circulation surpassed that of Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Globo for the first time, and it became the best selling newspaper in the country. Although it is no longer the best-selling in print, in December 2017 Folha was still the newspaper with the largest circulation in Brazil, including print and digital, with 285,000 subscribers.
In 1991, Frias Filho received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University in the U.S. in recognition of Folha's contribution to press freedom.
In the 1990s, he began to write a weekly column in Folha, and starting in 2016 he had a fortnightly column in Ilustríssima, a cultural supplement of the newspaper. In a column last February titled "Journalism, a necessary evil," Frias Filho reflected on the social role of journalism and the reform he implemented in Folha when he became newsroom director.
"I belong to a generation that did not conform to the weaknesses of journalistic reporting. (...) The purpose of that generation, which was only partly realized, was to establish that journalism, despite its severe limitations, is a legitimate form of knowledge about the most immediate level of reality. To assert its autonomy, it must cultivate its own values, methods and rules," Frias Filho wrote.
"The reform of Folha that Otavio led starting in 1984 had a strong impact not only on his newspaper, but on the entire Brazilian journalistic industry and on the political life of the country, since it was perfectly attuned to the reconstruction of democracy after two decades of dictatorship. Intelligent and bold, he was also a radical of democratic transparency in turning Folha into one of the most vibrant and diverse forums of opinion and information that Brazilian journalism had ever seen," said Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
"The ethical and professional values that Otavio preached throughout his career were never as important as in these times when the digital revolution is transforming the media ecosystem. Otavio will be missed a lot, but his legacy based on those ethical and professional values will be important in this transition of journalism to the digital age," Alves said.
"He created in Folha a new journalism, innovative and courageous, which served as an example for several companies in the sector. A great loss for all," said Francisco Mesquita Neto, CEO of O Estado de S. Paulo.
The National Association of Newspapers (ANJ, for its initials in Portuguese) lamented the journalist's death. "The fundamental role of journalism in democracy, especially in a country such as ours, where the temptation to authoritarianism is always present, marked the thinking and action of Otávio Frias Filho. He dreamed of a modern, just and civilized country, and saw in serious and responsible journalism an indispensable tool for the construction of this dream," the entity said, according to O Estado de S. Paulo.