Journalism is a collective job, but Brazilian journalists have subverted this rule by launching one-man outlets, developed by the need to publish in-depth stories and analysis of public policies and other subjects that do not find space in traditional outlets.
Two decades after the emergence and proliferation of blogs, individual initiatives continue today as a way for journalists to pursue their passions and develop their personal brands, with rights to publish scoops and develop new products and business models
The Knight Center spoke to three Brazilian journalists who have created their own news media outlets and have been acting independently and solitarily, with different levels of impact and success, but with similar challenges and objectives in making them relevant to the public, consolidating their personal brands and creating sustainable sources of revenue.
In Brasil Real Oficial, Breno Costa writes a daily newsletter about the main publications of the Official Gazette, with insights and context for an audience willing to pay for the content. Lúcio de Castro has won awards with Agência Sportlight with investigative reports about the sometimes murky business of Brazilian sport. And on Blog do Berta, Ruben Berta has collected scoops regarding the behind-the-scenes affairs of local power in Rio de Janeiro.
Translating the fine print of the Official Gazette
Since the beginning of the year, Breno Costa has dedicated himself to detailing the official acts of the government of President Jair Bolsonaro that are published in the Official Gazette, the journal used by the government to notify citizens of legislation and official business. Every day the journalist takes five hours to read all the new rules, regulations and decisions of the government and edit a newsletter with the most relevant subject matter.
In Brasil Real Oficial, he translates the bureaucratic text of the state regulations to the essentials necessary for those who need that information, with additional highlights that he deems relevant. In a few months, 22,000 people have registered for the free version, sent every Friday with the highlights of the week. And there is an undisclosed number of subscribers who pay R $29 (about US $8) per month to access daily content with the main changes in the country's operating rules that are made official that same day.
"This is not a clipping of the Official Gazette. There is journalistic work behind it, of contextualization and of showing the interests benefited and countered with each measure," Costa told the Knight Center. "The public is interested in seeing the development of public policies. Consultants, public servants, researchers. I have federal deputies, multinational companies, mining companies, consulting offices as subscribers," the journalist explained.
Costa has a professional career associated with independent journalism. In 2014, he was one of the founders of Brio, a platform that aimed to become a reference for readers looking for great stories and journalists interested in producing them. The initiative did not work and Brio became a training vehicle for journalists, through mentoring and online courses.
Before that, the journalist worked in the traditional press. He was a political reporter for Jornal do Brasil, then went to Folha de S.Paulo, where he covered politics in Brasilia. He stood out precisely for his willingness to read the Official Gazette daily and his ability to find stories in the midst of the bureaucratic jargon from government agencies. "I gained confidence that there would be stories there, not every day, but with good frequency. It is not normative regulation, but the fine print between them. The fact that you follow, you understand the context better and can make correlations," Costa said.
At the end of last year, faced with the opportunity generated by the change of government and the need to create a profitable work alternative, the journalist developed his project Brasil Real Oficial. Initially, the objective was to consolidate his personal brand, through a return to his origins as a journalist specializing in deciphering normative government acts. But the monetization opportunity came much sooner than he'd expected.
"I hosted Brasil Real at Substack, a newsletters management startup that has the option of monetization. Early on, my subscriber base grew exponentially, and the Substack team contacted me to suggest starting monetization. They offered me an advance that allowed me to stay without much pressure to see immediate results for six months," Costa said.
The journalist says that Brasil Real Oficial has already reached 60 percent of the goal of paying subscribers that he considers ideal to guarantee his exclusive dedication to the project. "I have not done paid advertising yet, it's been all organic. The growth is word of mouth. I am confident that when I start investing in advertising, it will grow a lot," the journalist predicted.
At a time when the movement of startups, including those of journalism, is fueling the culture of rapid growth, investment rounds, and a concentrated business effort, Costa draws inspiration from the book "Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business" by Paul Jarvis. "He writes that being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you have the obligation to grow. It was a relief to me. I can keep my business small. Work does not become a managerial burden. My goal is to keep things more small-scale," said Costa, who lives in the coastal state of Florianópolis.
Even though he decided to keep a slower pace, he plans to launch a website by the end of the year, which will host the newsletter, but will also be a platform to publish his own reports based on information he has been gleaning from the Official Gazette since the beginning of the year. "The new times of journalism indicate that, just as you have digital influencers, journalism can also triumph from an individual effort," Costa said.
Investigations into the business of sports
The relative good financial performance of Brasil Oficial Oficial, with a group of subscribers willing to pay for information, is rare in the journalism market, however important the content produced may be.
Even so, there are initiatives by journalists who persistently or stubbornly insist on offering the public what they have been trained to do, even if there is no remuneration, at least for now.
Journalist Lúcio de Casto is one such case. With a career marked by the coverage of what happens behind the scenes in sports, in addition to the normal focus on the field, he launched the Agência Sportlight de Jornalismo Investigativo in December 2016 to give space to the reports he wanted to produce, but did not find space for in the main news outlets.
"The name is pompous (inspired by the famous Spotlight of The Boston Globe) because I found it necessary to have a name that gave more weight so that I could be taken seriously when I needed to contact, for example, people with the Presidency, from governments, from companies. A lot of people think there is a crowd with me, but it's just me," Lucio de Castro told the Knight Center.
With more than two decades of journalism behind him, the reporter passed through the country's main newsrooms and collected national and international awards. But the kind of investigation he does goes against, in his evaluation, the economic interests of the media themselves in terms of broadcast rights and sports coverage.
"Agência Sportlight is born of a banishment that I suffered, which reveals much of the lack of will of Brazilian journalism to do a certain type of journalism. It is obvious that many media have excellent professionals. My career is marked, in sports, by investigation of the use of public money, the behind-the-scenes of the realization of great events. And the media do not want this, because there is a confusion of interests between broadcasting rights, events. At some point, the market was closed to me and my solution was to create this here to continue working," the reporter said.
In two and a half years, Agência Sportlight has published 113 stories, with an average of 30,000 views for each and peaks of 100,000 clicks. Among the works is the "Nuzman Dossier," a series of 32 reports that showed the B side of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Carlos Arthur Nuzman was president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee (BOC) and the main person responsible for organizing the event.
Based on public data and documents, the series revealed that, behind the scenes, Rio 2016 became an immense business among friends. The shadowy business of the former president of the BOC led him to be arrested in 2017, for allegedly buying votes for the election of Rio as host of the Games. Former Rio de Janeiro Governor Sérgio Cabral, arrested since 2016, recently admitted paying a bribe for the triumph of Rio, in a plea deal to reduce punishment.
"The Nuzman Dossier has confirmed that it is possible for journalism to get ahead of investigative bodies. People involved in the investigation leading to Nuzman's arrest told me that they used the reports as a starting point for other discoveries. We do not just have to do journalism of declaration or from leaks. This is the path I believe in,” Castro said.
The series of reports received the prestigious Petrobras Journalism Award in 2018 and was given honorable mention in the Latin American Prize for Investigative Journalism, from the Press and Society Institute (IPYS).
Despite recognition, the journalist is still far from securing exclusive dedication to his Agência Sportlight, because he himself admits that he has never made the quest for financial sustainability a priority. For the time being, he maintains parallel jobs to pay the bills while pursuing his investigative reports.
Lack of money, however, is a limitation to producing even more in-depth stories: "I did not look for ads or collaborators. We are so focused that we end up forgetting about the money, but at some point, the situation tightens. I can not afford to invest two or three months in an investigation. I try to find a middle ground between maintaining the frequency of publications and the depth of the subjects. Having a Petrobras and an IPYS, with my little business so small, gives me great pleasure," Castro said.
Coverage of the public administration in Rio
Ruben Berta worked for 17 years at the newspaper O Globo, the largest in Rio de Janeiro, mainly covering the state government and the capital’s city hall. In early 2017, he left the paper amid the cuts that have become commonplace in the routines of large newsrooms. Without ever having worked elsewhere and in a shrinking market, he launched a blog to continue to systematically monitor local power.
"I opened in a very homemade way, super simple blog, I started posting news that I was digging into during my day to day. It lasted about three months. It served as a great portfolio. Showing the market that I'm alive, producing news. In that sense, it worked, quickly I began to receive proposals for work," Ruben Berta told the Knight Center.
From reporting as a freelancer, he was hired briefly by The Intercept Brasil. He also earned political marketing experience during last year's election campaign. And, in 2019, he decided to resume work on the site in a more structured way, relaunching the Blog do Berta.
"I basically programmed myself financially to spend a year in a quiet way, without having to bring in money. My expiration date is February next year," said Berta, who, like Breno Costa of Brasil Real Oficial, understands that working on your brand is a necessity for the journalist in these times. "I want to consolidate my name as a reference in Rio investigative journalism, focusing on public administration. As a reporter for an outlet, it turns out that the general public does not know you, you are just one more."
One of Berta's competitive advantages in the local journalism market is that with the reduction of newspaper teams and the financial problems of outlets, there is less competition, which balances the game when you enter with few resources. Even so, the costs are high for those who do not have a financial structure behind them. Registry offices charge for access to many of the documents that support his reports.
"My costs to maintain the site are low but grow depending on the topic. Any certificate in a register office costs around R $100. Investigating documents of two companies, three people, for a more in-depth investigation can end up being more than R $1,000. Maybe later on I will think of doing crowdfunding in specific cases, but I want my content to be more consolidated,” the journalist said.
And to consolidate the site, he needs exclusive reporting and scoops that are able to expand his audience. With an average audience of 1,000 hits a day, he has already peaked at 45,000 thanks to reports that went viral. One of them was about state representative Rodrigo Amorim.
In the report, he showed that the deputy, elected from the same party as President Jair Bolsonaro and very close to his son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, held simultaneous positions in different public bodies, among other details of the politician's previous career. The subject appeared in other outlets, such as Folha de S. Paulo, with due credit to the journalist.
In the report most quoted by other outlets, he discovered that an employee of the office of a deputy of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), the political party of President Bolsonaro, wrote a defamatory text against a journalist from newspaper Estadão. The president gave visibility to the false text by sharing it on Twitter, generating a wave of attacks against the press professional. Berta's discovery was mentioned with credit in Jornal Nacional, the most important television news program in the country.
While mining his stories from documents and official records, Ruben Berta also works to make the site viable as a source of income. He recently started selling products, such as T-shirts with political phrases and that are linked to journalism. And over the next six months, he wants to start other forms of fundraising.
"I’ve succeeded at doing this for a year. It is very difficult to do this consistently, but it is not impossible either. Regardless of what happens, each day I'm a better professional than I was yesterday. This is really cool. This period of the blog now, in the last two years, was much more enriching than the last ten years. I feel a lot more professional now," the reporter said.