Journalism still matters: how to be relevant in the post industrial era

Last August, I decided to leave the newsroom and go back to the school benches. Unlike many other colleagues, though, my reason to leave was not the pessimistic perspective of a declining industry, or even the stress of an underpaid and over explored profession. It was due to an optimistic view that journalism still matters, maybe more than ever, and we need to figure out how to make it viable again.

Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present”, by Chris Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, gives some valuable insight on how journalists can survive on this unstable scenario. It starts with the assumption that “there are many opportunities for doing good work in new ways”. It might sound obvious, but a relevant part of the traditional – and, sometimes, the non-traditional – media responds to our current challenges by trading relevance for click-baiting. Therefore, the thought internet can be a tool for improving journalism, not lowering its quality, is a good starting point.

The essay presents many qualities that new journalists need to pursue in order to maintain their work’s relevance and quality. A few of them I found particularly important for the type of journalism I want to make. A basic literacy level in coding is one of them.

“Journalists should learn to code. It’s true that to be fluent and useful in many programming languages requires very highly developed skills; not every journalist will be able to do this, and not every journalist should do this. But every journalist needs to understand at a basic literacy level what code is, what it can do, and how to communicate with those who are more proficient.”

Coincidentally, as I was reading this essay, the daily journalist routine showed me the importance of coding. On Monday, I was working on a story about magistrates and public prosecutors that received wages above the legal salary cap. I knew that both the State Court and the Prosecution Office had this data available on their website. But the volume of information we wanted to extract required either entire weeks of work or an automated routine that could download and organize the information. And I wouldn’t know where to start to build this automated routine.

Since the story had a huge potential, a developer was assigned to help me with this process, and this data issue was solved in a matter of hours. Nonetheless, I kept thinking of how many other great stories I could go after, on my own, if I knew a little bit of coding.

Other relevant quality underlined by this essay is more about a change of habits than proper learning of new techniques. After five years working as a political reporter, I developed a reasonable range of sources, from well informed employees in the city council to senators and other high rank politicians. Nonetheless, I neglected to establish relations with the audience. I’ve made all my social media accounts private – in order to keep some level of privacy – and avoided any form of interaction with readers.

“Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist; editors and reporters, designers, photographers, videographers, data scientists and social media specialists all have their own perspectives and accountability for storytelling. This requires judgment exercised consistently and publicly; whatever the medium of publication, information is now instantly shared, discussed, annotated, criticized and praised in a live, uncontrolled environment.”

A journalist presence on social media might be important for the development of a solid career, since a high popularity in this environment might be transformed into a bigger impact of a journalist’s work.

But also, being a public person can also be a way to make journalism more transparent to the readers. To know who’s behind the story might turn the story itself more “believable” – or less, depending on the reporter’s reputation. And, when all sorts of conspiracy theory are popping on everyone’s timelines, any efforts toward making a serious and relevant work “believable” is worth a try.

But their analysis is not restricted to journalists. They also state that, despite the model crisis, traditional institutions are still important. Even the most successful new journalistic enterprises lack the influence, the funds and the capacity to follow a story from the first report to the last. Also, a story published on The New York Times or The Guardian is still seen by the audience as more “believable” than something written by an unknown blog. And this sort of credibility is particularly important when readers are bombarded with all sorts of information, from all sorts of sources.

Nonetheless, the lack of resources and the changing environment mean institutions have to change to survive.

“We want to argue that news institutions of the future, apart from simply being smaller and revenue agnostic, should have three defining characteristics. They will have a hackable workflow. They will embrace a form of what we call “networked institutionalism,” and many of the largest, national journalism organizations should embrace local accountability journalism in partnership with local news outlets. Finally, news institutions will have to dramatically rethink what counts as “valid journalistic evidence,” find new ways to evaluate this new evidence, and program these collection and evaluation process into their hackable workflows.”

I believe that these sort of changes on the media ecosystem (and others) are not solely a publisher’s headache. Journalists that work for these institutions need to be able to propose new models of work, new formats and new ways to overcome this crisis and make this new, post-industrial journalism reach its full potential.

And this is precisely why I decided to leave the newsroom: so I can eventually come back. With new ideas, new insights, new ways to do a good, relevant work.


After four months, Brazilian Woman’s Party remains a blank page

Four months after its creation, the Brazilian Woman’s Party (PMB) remains a question mark in the Federal Chamber. At the beginning of a legislative year that is expected to be decisive to the future of the country, the organization still remains silent about president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the government’s CPMF proposal and any other major issue being discussed in Congress. The current 19 deputies – of which only two are actually women – will hold a meeting next week, but a more solid position is not to be expected.

Just one of many political parties created in Brazil over the last four years PMB, was on the spotlight when it was created for taking the “don’t judge a party by its name” Brazilian political tradition a step too far. It seemed to be a party to discuss feminine issues that was eventually “taken over” by 19 male deputies who just wanted to leave their former parties without risking to lose their mandates.

These men (and two women) have little in common amongst themselves. They come from 12 different parties, from the leftist Worker’s Party (PT) to the deeply conservative Democratic Christian Party (PSDC). Their background is also radically different. Assis do Couto, from Paraná, was part of the Landless Worker’s Movement (MST), a socialist organization for agrarian reform. Carlos Henrique Gaguim, former governor of Tocantins, is one of the richest landowners in Congress.

Since all of them left their former parties to avoid being subject to other decisions, the party will most likely remain neutral. “We have several schools of thought within the party. Some campaigned for this government [on 2014 elections], some opposed it. Therefore, I believe the party will remain neutral and let its congressmen to vote however they want until the next elections”, said Toninho Wandscheer, one of the current PMB members.

Regardless of the fact names do not count for much in Brazilian politics, this male “invasion” of the party caused significant outrage on social media. Despite being led by a female president since 2011, the country fares poorly on feminine parliamentary representation: it’s only the 118th in the world, with less than 10% of female deputies in the Federal Chamber. And having a Woman’s Party made almost entirely of men is not exactly pleasant news for any woman fighting for equality.

On the other hand, from the beginning, it was never meant to be a feminist political platform. President and creator of PMB, Sued Haidar has declared more than once that “it’s a feminine party, not a feminist party”. Also, her strong pro-life stances conflict with the vast majority of the feminist movement.

The male deputies could, also, have been rejected by Haidar and her colleagues. But the prospect of having a mid-sized party, instead of a small and more cohesive political platform, is far too tempting to be ignored. For instance: in 2015, the federal government paid R$ 811 million to official political organizations, via the political party fund. The division of this bounty is based almost exclusively on the number of deputies a party has.

Blank pages

Still, the question remains: why would 19 men join a political party that was meant to defend women’s rights, and that, apparently, has absolute no political agenda? According to Luiz Domingos Costa, professor of Political Sciences at the Catholic University of Paraná, since the Electoral Supreme Court (TSE) forbade what was called “party infidelity” back in 2007, taking over a newly formed party became one of the only ways for a congressman to switch parties without losing their seats.

“It is too hard to create an official political party. Nonetheless, once it is approved by the TSE, it comes with dozens of perks, including public funding and the possibility to participate in the forthcoming elections [Brazilian legislation does not allow independent candidatures]”, says Costa. Therefore, politicians who are not getting along well with their parties’ elites seek a newly created party to suit their own political ambitions – and it doesn’t really matter whether the new party is supposed to be feminist, misogynist, socialist or liberal.

This bizarre political trend, which included the creation of three other mid-sized parties over the last five years, seems to be near the end, though. Last December, the Senate approved a constitutional amend that includes a “transfer window” for dissatisfied congressmen – which is expected to be promulgated next week. It might not change the habit of switching sides as an easier alternative for true internal party democracy, but at least it will hamper the creation of new “blank page” political parties.

According to Costa, this “blank page party” trend conceals a potential risk to democracy, since the number of effective political parties in Brazil has raised from around 8.5 in 2010 to nearly 13 in 2015 – one of the highest in the planet. “A high number of effective parties is not, in itself, a factor of political instability. But when it is combined with other instability factors, such as an economic crisis and a weakened central government, it might turn the country unmanageable. And this is precisely the scenario we face today”, says Costa.