Friday 2 December 2016

Sao Paulo celebrates new voices from the margins

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

‘Within Agencia Mural we are building up a network with other local and hyperlocal news groups, which can be pooled together to be offered to advertisers...’
‘Within Agencia Mural we are building up a network with other local and hyperlocal news groups, which can be pooled together to be offered to advertisers...’

The newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo is one of the largest and most influential publications in Brazil.

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In November 2010, the publication teamed up with a handful of journalists who wanted to give a voice to marginalised citizens from the city's outskirts. Together they launched Blog Mural - an online outlet staffed by writers from Sao Paulo's most marginalised communities.

Blog Mural has published a story every day for the last five years. Now with 75 local correspondents (known as 'muralistas') in more than 40 neighbourhoods and more than 10 cities around the metropolitan area of Sao Paulo, the blog is changing into something more substantial: the Mural Agency for Journalism in the Peripheries.

Izabela Moi is the co-founder and general manager of the Agency. "Nobody is dedicated full-time to the project," she says. "We don't have a 'physical place' for our organisation, so everything is done in a very tidy virtual office.

"In the beginning, the editorial board was just me. When I went to Stanford, for a fellowship, I designated six muralistas as editors, so they could work one day a week and deal with all the pitching, review, editing and publishing of that day.

"We have a very well-organised system of planning the publications too."

The Muralistas come from areas with little or no infrastructure or amenities. There are very few jobs.

"Every day around four million people come to work in the centre of the city just from the Eastern regions," says Moi. "It's like all of Uruguay moving daily in trains, buses and subways. But chronicling what's happening in their own neighbourhoods has helped the muralistas get out of a dualistic way of thinking.

"Either people are proud of the 'hood, and boast about it and close their eyes to reality, or they only look forward to the opportunity to escape it forever. Mural has shown all of us - reporters and audience - that there is another way: looking at it as a space to be transformed.

"The project has empowered the muralistas as citizens. The news we produce is different. We got out of the 'violence crime blood' beat and out of the 'good deeds by big foundations' beat - the two extremes that pitch this population as perpetrators of violence or victims of society. We normalised poverty as an economic status. Nothing more."

It's not surprising that technology has played a part in empowering these citizen journalists. And it's not surprising that the technology is primarily mobile.

"Not all muralistas have internet connections at home," says Moi. "Not all of them have computers. But all of them have a smartphone, and it is the mobile that has empowered everyone as a reporter.

"Our videos and pictures come from the phones. Sometimes a muralista calls another one, who is already at work, to dictate a story. We have been using a lot of WhatsApp as a way to connect and report about collective stories."

Recruitment and training is a huge element of Mural's success. It's no surprise that Moi was previously Folha's general manager for training.

"We started with more or less 20 people, but not everybody stays," she says. "So, every year, we open a selection process for 20 more. The new recruits go through one month's training - we use something similar to a massive open online course. We have our editorial principles that everybody has to follow, and our own style guide - we don't use words that stereotype poverty or poor people, for example."

The new expanded agency has big plans. There's a job-hunting site, with open positions segmented according to the neighbourhoods Mural covers, a schools outreach programme, a travelling exhibit, showcasing the work of the muralistas. And a podcast is on the way, which commercial radio stations are interested in distributing. Mural's stories are now regularly picked up by other news organisations too. And advertisers are also paying attention.

"Within Agencia Mural we are building up a network with other local and hyperlocal news organisations, which can be pooled together to be offered to advertisers. We have shown our plan to some big ad agencies, and everybody seems really interested. Hopefully, this will be operational by the beginning of 2016."

Moi is optimistic about the potential of hyperlocal news to empower citizens, and find a sustainable business model for journalism.

"We've never valued information so much and used it in our daily lives as tools for making decisions," she says. "Citizens are more savvy about using technology to exchange information, but I still believe that we need professionals that are able to deal with enormous amount of information to filter, to edit, to curate, to show different perspectives and to dig up what is not shown.

"What I think - in terms of the future - is that we journalists will have to be more skilled and much more prepared to deal with an audience that knows better, and that shifts to other places quicker if their needs are not answered."

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