The newspaper Extra from Rio de Janeiro is known internationally as a pioneer in the use of digital messaging platforms, especially WhatsApp, in order to communicate with thousands of its readers. However, Extra said that more than 70,000 of its readers who access their WhatsApp accounts have been hampered by the sudden cancellation of the newspaper’s numbers on the messaging platform because robots have identified them as possible spam.
Two weeks ago, the account used by the newspaper was blocked for the fourth time, and on June 6, the application banned a new account released just four days ago, said Fábio Gusmão, online editor of Extra, in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.
"The saddest thing is that when you are blocked by a judge, the CEO of WhatsApp makes a libertarian speech saying there are 100 million Brazilians being punished. But what about the 70,000 that are registered and are looking for us? And people who currently are suffering from police abuse and do not have a channel to talk to us?” Gusmão said.
From now on, the editor said that readers who wish to send complaints and information to Extra by messaging service should use the Telegram application and can sign up at (21) 99644-1263.
The accounts of other Brazilian outlets were also blocked on WhatsApp and had to change numbers, as in the case of Diário Gaúcho and affiliates of Rádio Globo, according to Gusmão.
The problems with blocking started for Extra in December 2013. At the time, Gusmão contacted the CEO of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, and managed to have the service reinstated. However, he said that late last year, a second number that was created to communicate with readers also was blocked.
Because of the large amount of communication involving the same phone number, Gusmão said the system believes it is a case of spam and blocks access.
Gusmão said that, initially, representatives of the application said that the messenger’s use for journalistic purposes was not the company’s focus, and that there were plans to open a channel to the media.
After the service was blocked again at the end of last year, the discourse changed: Gusmão said he was contacted by the company and asked how the newspaper uses the application and whether there would be interest in paying for a personalized service.
Representatives from WhatsApp did not respond to an interview request sent by the Knight Center.
Extra’s work with messaging applications was pioneering. The publication’s newsroom started to use the application during the protests of June 2013 and quickly established the platform as a communication tool between the paper and its readers.
“We started to see an opportunity there. I realized that people were using it in groups, disseminating content, video, photos, everything we do in journalism. From the beginning, it was two-way road: we sent and received information,” Gusmão said. “People began to trust us and to pass on information that they normally would be fearful of disclosing.”
Over three years, the number of registered users of WhatsApp who are linked to Extra passed 338 in the first 48 hours to more than 70,000. Information received from readers has helped to disclose crimes and problems with essential services, like public transport and access to hospital care.
Extra’s model was even praised by the chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, Gene Policinski, and was a finalist in the category of “Best Reader Engagement” for the LATAM Digital Media Awards from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
“The reader is three clicks from other people: one click to open the application, another to shoot video and another to send information to Extra. You cannot despise it. It is an absurd myopia, an absurd arrogance,” Gusmão lamented.
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.