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June 4, 2012, 12:30 p.m.
Reporting & Production

In Brazil, the nonprofit model for journalism is just being born

Publica is the first nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in the world’s fifth-largest country. It’s had to chart its own course.

In the United States, the nonprofit model for journalism has been around for decades, but in Brazil, it’s a novelty. For three award-winning journalists, it’s a novelty seen as the the only way to reporting on issues and in areas neglected by traditional media organizations. That’s why, in March 2011, Tatiana Merlin, Marina Amaral, and Natalia Viana founded Publica.

Publica (“everything that belongs to the public” in Portuguese) is the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in the world’s fifth largest country. But as it enters its second year of existence, its leaders are more sure than ever than nonprofit models can’t simply be copy-pasted from one continent to another. The team has been inspired by models overseas — particularly the U.K.’s Bureau of Investigative Reporting, which Viana followed closely while she was living in London — but Publica demands invention.

“It works very differently for every country,” Viana said. “You have to be very creative in all aspects.”

Brazil doesn’t have as long a history with a free and aggressive press as some countries; it was governed by a military dictatorship as recently as 1985. Viana said there is investigative reporting that focuses on corruption in the federal government, but that other areas don’t get as much attention. “There’s not a thriving culture of investigating corporations, human rights violations, or social issues,” she told me.

And that’s meant that Publica has chosen to focus on a few key investigative areas where it sees a need for digging that isn’t being done enough elsewhere, areas they consider “essential” for Brazil’s future and the “quality of its democracy,” especially now that the country is on its way of becoming an economic superpower.

  • The World Cup: The concern here isn’t soccer — Brazil’s pretty good at that — but about the enormous infrastructure that is being built to host the event in 2014. “We are interested in reporting on how infrastructure works are affecting people and how people is organizing,” Viana explained.
  • The Amazon rainforest: There’s a controversial series of projects (roads, airports, highways, and 144 dams) in the works for development over the next decade. “Those projects are going to change entirely the landscape of the Amazon, the way it connects to Brazil and the way the country connects to foreing markets,” Viana said.
  • The military dictatorship: Brazil has established a “truth commission” to investigate what really happened between 1964 and 1985, but Viana says it’s a matter Publica’s interested in because, she said, it was never investigated appropriately.

Publica operates with a small team — six people, their roles often interchangeable. Other outlets can republish (and buy) Publica’s stories only, but only if they don’t edit them. “Our focus is always on the public interest,” Viana told me.

Not surprisingly, the most challenging task in these 14 months of operations has been creating a network of funders and partners. Publica didn’t have revenue until early this year, when the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations made a seed investment. Both groups are giving money for a one-year project Publica pitched to them, hoping that the site will find sustainable revenue streams. Along with that investment and donations, the center is working on a few other ideas:

  • Crowdfunding: Suggesting story ideas to Publica’s audience to see which ones users would be willing to pay to have done.
  • Partnering with non-journalistic NGOs: Working on specific journalistic projects of interest to other groups without reporting capacity (funders won’t get a saying in the outcome of the project).
  • Collaborating with media outlets: Traditional news organizations can help with human resources (reporters for a particular project, for example) or by buying stories produced by Publica.

Publica’s dealt with some doubt from their peers in the news business. “Media executives don’t believe this model of not-for-profit is possible,” Viana said. But Publica’s worked to build a set of partners around the country, starting off with independent bloggers, and now working with a number of larger, traditional outlets like Agora (one of Sao Paulo’s major dailies) and three newspapers from the Amazon region. They’ve also built content partnerships with a number of U.S. and South American news outlets.

Viana doesn’t rule out future collaboration with the largest big media corporations in Brazil: “We want our stories to be spread.”

POSTED     June 4, 2012, 12:30 p.m.
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