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Jan. 22, 2018, 9:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Volt Data Lab grew from a personal blog for coding experiments to a full-fledged data storytelling agency

Volt started as a passion project, rode a wave of interest in Brazil for better online data stories, and today builds data-based stories and reports for a wide array of Brazilian organizations from legacy newsrooms to ad agencies.

It’s been a tumultuous few years of Brazilian news. A year after the World Cup frenzy and the presidential election that ended in an impeachment a few months later, newsrooms turned inward: Which would be the next to downsize? As company after company laid off employees, some journalists in São Paulo began to wonder just how many reporters and editors had become unemployed in the shrinking of the news industry in Brazil in the past couple of years.

Sérgio Spagnuolo was among those wondering. Spagnuolo, at the time a freelance business reporter who had also worked at the UN, Reuters, and Yahoo, recently started dabbling in data journalism, and decided the question of layoffs in newsrooms nationwide was the perfect space to explore new data skills.

Arriving at an actual number turned out to be an arduous task. There was no semblance of a centralized database that tallied job losses. “Brazil’s Labor Department counts all accredited journalists, no matter if they work in newsrooms, PR agencies, or corporate communications, but only if they are full-time employees,” Spagnuolo said. “Unions and associations also didn’t count them. Many companies hire journalists as contracted labor, which is against the law, so they were not eager to help, either.” So he sourced the numbers through news reports and tips from friends, and after a full month, published his self-funded project to Medium, under the Volt Data Lab banner. He titled it “A Conta dos Passaralhos” (passaralho is Brazilian newsroom slang for layoffs that combines the Portuguese words for bird and the male genitals).

Spagnuolo found that more than a thousand journalists had been laid off by 50 newsrooms around the country since 2012. The project made a splash in the Brazilian news industry and made a name of Volt Data Lab, then still a side project.

Volt has evolved from a blog hosting Spagnuolo’s own data-driven explorations to an agency specializing in data journalism. It now provides data-based stories and reports to Brazilian legacy newsrooms, digital news startups, and nonprofits, as well as to PR and advertising agencies. The outfit is currently made up of Spagnuolo and one other full time reporter, with freelancers on contract for specific assignments.

Volt started as not much more than a personal workspace for Spagnuolo to experiment with data and coding. On his own time, Spagnuolo canvassed publicly available datasets and published stories with his findings (this one, for instance, about the assassinations of Brazilian environmentalists).

“Nobody cared and nobody read it,” Spagnuolo told me, laughing. But following the success of “A Conta dos Passaralhos,” he started receiving freelance assignments for data-driven stories, which he published under the Volt byline.

This evolution coincided with a growing interest among Brazilian newsrooms, slim as they were, in beautifully told data stories online, spurred by the passing of a local version of the Freedom of Information Act in 2012.

“It unearthed a trove of government information that was either difficult or unavailable before,” said Tai Nalon, cofounder of Aos Fatos, a political fact-checking startup that partners regularly with Volt on news stories and other reporting projects. (Their latest effort together is a fact-checking bot, funded by Facebook.)

At least four large legacy newsrooms have created dedicated news desks since 2012, such as O Estado de S.Paulo’s Estadão Dados. A piece Estadão Dados produced on federal university loans became the first work of data journalism to win a Prêmio Esso, Brazil’s top journalism award. On the digital side, a prominent example is Nexo Jornal, an explainer-focused digital news startup that’s mastering charts, graphs, and interactives.

“We realized that we had a demand for better online experiences among our audience, coming from our millennial readers in particular. They naturally consume digital news and are not willing to subscribe to print,” said Leandro Demori, who was the online editor for Piauí, a longform journalism magazine, when I first spoke to him (he’s since joined The Intercept Brazil as its executive editor). Demori first contacted Spagnuolo when he was working on Medium’s launch in Brazil and looking for good content in Portuguese to feature in the platform. He found Volt’s layoffs report. The two then worked on several data-based stories for Piauí’s site.

The new availability of datasets and openness to data-based reporting in newsrooms were met by Brazilian reporters eager to hone their own data skills. Not all Brazilian journalism schools offered comprehensive data journalism classes, but initiatives like the Knight Foundation’s MOOCs on data and programming in Portuguese attract thousands of students. Online courses from the Brazilian association for investigative journalism Abraji on data journalism and the freedom of information law are consistently in high demand.

Spagnuolo experienced the boom in interest first-hand. Volt opened its own journalism fellowship last year and received an overwhelming 360 applications in a few weeks with little promotion other than word of mouth (“I thought I would get 20, 30 applications at the most,” Spagnuolo told me). The three-month paid fellowship went to Renata Hirota, a former reporter turned statistics major, who became Volt’s second full-time employee.

Its projects were time-consuming, and Volt was still in search of a sustainable business model. As part of the 2016 Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism cohort, Spagnuolo started thinking seriously about how to turn Volt into a real business (disclosure: I attended the same program in 2014). He devised a scalable B2B model that would offer data visualization packages for small newsrooms. Back in Brazil, he found there wasn’t enough demand to make that model work, and began teaching courses on data journalism, while continuing to work on one-off projects under the Volt byline.

But he had thus far been relying only on people in his network to refer him for projects, not seeking out clients himself.

“Like many journalists, I wasn’t comfortable with this role. I wanted someone else to do it for me,” he said. But after encouragement from a mentor, he changed his perception. “I realized that nobody would sell Volt better than myself. It was a game change.” A week after that talk, he closed contracts with new clients: PR and advertising agencies. He had found a new revenue stream in whitlabel data-based reports for other companies.

Spagnuolo wouldn’t disclose yearly revenue, but such large-scale projects and white-label reports now account for 84 percent of Volt’s revenue. The rest is divided between news stories, consulting, and data training courses. He keeps a lean full-time operation, but in 2017 was able to work with 18 freelancers, among them journalists, designers, and developers.

Volt Data Lab as an agency has had no shortage of business. One such large-scale project, Atlas da Notícia (“News Atlas”), a partnership with the nonprofit Projor that was released in November, mapped the scarcity of local print and digital outlets in Brazil. It found that only 1,125 out of 4,500 Brazilian cities had at least one news outlet, meaning that 35 percent of the country’s population has no substantial source of local news.

2018 will be another momentous year, marking the first presidential elections since Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment at the end of 2015 and the FIFA World Cup Russia. Volt’s forthcoming work includes data projects around these two events, as well as continued work on the News Atlas, and other projects with mainstream newsrooms. It’s also working on a podcast about the impact of open data in everyday life.

At the close of 2017, Spagnuolo again updated Conta dos Passaralhos, the layoffs project that had started it all. 2017 proved to be the second-worst year in employment numbers in the news industry since 2012. Volt Data Lab has its work cut out for it.

Wall in Brazil by Gustavo Minas, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 22, 2018, 9:38 a.m.
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