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Oct. 11, 2019, 1:50 p.m.

In a corner of Brazil, local reporters are switching to government jobs and the state is achieving “media capture”

A strategy of “capturing the main professionals from the newspapers, in their respective fields of work, and thus reduce the tensions of being disturbed by the journalists every single day.” “Memory is crucial for journalism, and we are losing it.”

An unfortunate reality of the news business today is that it seems to create ex-journalists faster than it creates journalists. Reporting has always had a healthy turnover rate; downtown-living idealists turn into mortgage-owning, kid-having suburbanites, and that makes the paycheck of a comms or PR job more appealing. But the room for an exit, whether intentional or un-, increases as the industry’s struggles drag on. There’s less money for management to counter a competing salary offer. The work in the newsroom might feel less fulfilling. And journalists’ skills are still in demand.

That’s the background I brought to reading this paper from Murillo Camarotto, a reporter at Brazil’s Valor Econômico and a former fellow at Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It’s specifically about one corner of Brazil — Pernambuco, a relatively poor state in the northeast — and what has happened as the region’s news organizations have faced the same structural decline as their peers in other countries. What’s happened has been a remarkable number of reporters leaving news to go work for the governments they used to cover.

Since 2007 the same political group [the Brazilian Socialist Party] has continuously governed Pernambuco. This research shows how this group has managed to become politically stronger during the last decade and, somehow, reverse an unfavourable relationship with the local newspapers.

In spite of being one of the poorest places in Brazil, Pernambuco has historically had a combative and awarded local media. Until recently, local reporters had been winning the most important national journalism prizes with inspiring local stories and initiatives. This context has been changing dramatically, influenced both by the digital disruption in the media industry and by a “draining” process of the newsrooms.

Based on exclusive data collected from media outlets and on interviews, this research shows that the local reporters have been abandoning journalism (a lot of them prematurely) in one of the most impoverished areas of Brazil, where the public surveillance is paramount. These shifts have resulted in serious failings of local newspapers in addressing Community Information Needs (CINs).

First, a quick aside: It’s worth noting a few important differences between these newspapers and what you might expect given the American industry. First, the three newspapers Camarotto looks at are quite small, even by the sad current state of American circulation. Jornal do Commercio has a daily circulation of 15,000. Diário de Pernambuco was down to 10,000 when it stopped reporting circulation numbers two years ago. Folha de Pernambuco stopped reporting them all the way back in 2007. All of this in a state of about 9.2 million — bigger than New Jersey or Virginia.

Second, ownership norms are different: “In the Brazilian Northeast, most of the publications are traditionally owned by local politicians or business people and not by the big national media groups.”

Third, business models are much more reliant on government spending. While U.S. newspapers are happy to run legal advertising and other government-mandated announcements, in Brazil, “it is common to see the federal government, as well as state and big-city administrations, signing big annual contracts with media outlets for several thousand copies a day. These subscriptions are valuable and journalists are keenly aware of their importance.” And then there’s state-purchased advertising, long a lever of state influence in Latin American newspapers. (Flashback to this 10-year-old Nieman Lab post about it.) At Diário de Pernambuco, payments from governments accounted for 54.8 percent of total revenues in 2017.

Back to the study. Camarotto identified 202 journalists who had left two of the three papers (Jornal do Commercio declined to cooperate) over a 10-year period and looked at the jobs they’d left for. The largest share — 75 people, or 38 percent of the sample — left to go work in politics or government. That’s more than left for other media (27 percent), private-sector PR (14 percent), freelancing (9 percent), or academia (5 percent). Camarotto says the share going to government would likely be higher if it included that third newspaper, which is “still the most desirable option in terms of journalistic work in Pernambuco.”

Again, reporters leaving their newsrooms isn’t new, and reporters becoming spokespeople for the local mayor or school district isn’t unheard of. But the scale seems larger here, and Camarotto sees a strategy at work (emphases mine):

These numbers, combined with the interviews discussed in the next section, point to a strategy of recruiting the best journalists from the local newsrooms in Pernambuco. This research cannot prove that there is a deliberate plan to weaken local watchdog journalism, but interviews and qualitative analysis of the newsrooms production over the years show that:

  • The best professionals are now on the other side of the counter.
  • The local newspapers have become much more docile.

[…]

Based on the shreds of evidence, we can recognize that an indirect process of media capture has been taking place in Pernambuco, with concerning consequences for the local democracy. This process has been happening alongside the digital disruption, which creates difficulties for identifying it properly.

During the interviews, however, some journalists who have taken up positions in the local government have perceived that, in the long term, the newsrooms of Pernambuco have become more docile.

“I believe that it was a well-succeed strategy of somehow capturing the main professionals from the newspapers, in their respective fields of work, and thus reduce the tensions of being disturbed by the journalists every single day. So then, they took just the most critical reporters, who have been doing the tougher criticism. It is obvious that this exhaust the newsrooms,” said Micheline Batista, 47, who left “Diário de Pernambuco” to work for the Government of Pernambuco.

(Media capture is a play on the concept of regulatory capture, where an industry gains effective control of the regulators who are supposed to keep it in check. Here, the governments that should be reported on are instead capturing the reporters.)

Camarotto gives one example: a special Jornal do Commercio project called “PE Body County” to track murders in the region, which were at the time spiking: “the group [of four reporters] managed to install an electronic panel on an important corner of Recife [the capital], screening in real-time the updated number of murders.” But the project shut down and none of the four reporters work in journalism today: “Two of them are the current press secretaries at the Government of Pernambuco and at the Recife City Hall.”

In Camarotto’s interviews, some ex-journalists give familiar reasons for their departure — low pay, declining relevance, no room for advancement. But some did see the government luring journalists away strategically.

“I didn’t want to leave,” one reporter said. “I had just arrived at ‘Jornal do Commercio’ and I was really excited. And I was 29 years old. But I received a good offer from the [governor’s] press secretary, an offer which I have never looked for. I was supposed to earn two times my reporter salary and it really touched me. At that time, I was not worried about this, I wished to remain in the newsroom. But I went.”

Perhaps as a result, Camarotto writes, “70 percent of the sample (reporters who changed newsrooms for political offices) said that nowadays it is much easier to publish official press releases on the local media. Most believed that newsrooms in Pernambuco are now filled with inexperienced journalists, who have not yet developed the ability to filter and check information before publishing.”

The paper also includes some content analysis that aims to show a decline in journalistic quality and quantity over this period. Camarotto compares the share of local vs. national content from a week of 2019 newspapers to the same week in 2009; unsurprisingly, he finds a big dropoff in local coverage. He also compares coverage of two specific local scandals 17 years apart — 1997 and 2014 — and finds a huge drop in the number of stories about them produced in the local papers. I’m not sure how valuable that comparison is; the two scandals he chooses, both about the same former governor, seem quite distinct, and the decline in coverage borders on the absurd (311 stories vs. 20) in a way that makes me think the two are hard to parallel. And for broader measures of decline, like delocalization, it’s hard to know what share of the blame falls on the economic troubles of the industry versus the departures of specific reporters. Still, his broader point — “that the leading newspapers have become much more complacent” in coverage of the government — seems sound.

As I said earlier, the political context of Brazilian media is different in important ways from what you’d see in the United States, Canada, or much of Europe. But the case of Pernambuco is a reminder that talented reporters have options — and the declining economic state of local news could both send them to the institutions that most need coverage and leave behind less experienced — and perhaps less confrontational journalists — to do the work they once did.

“The newspaper is becoming a government gazette,” said one ex-journalist. “During my time there, we had three to five people in each section and that was already insufficient. Now they have one or two. The newspaper is very muzzled and the effect over the content is noticeable. The newspaper cannot criticize the mayor or the governor.”

“I worked closely with older reporters, people with more experience,” said another of his newspaper days. “So it was easier to learn. I had a lot of colleagues I really admired, people who deeply know the past, the past governments. The newsroom used to be an information exchange environment. Memory is crucial for journalism, and we are losing it.”

Photo of the Recife waterfront by Ernesto Comelli used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 11, 2019, 1:50 p.m.
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