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Brazzil - Media - September 2003

Brazilian Press: Bring Back the Journalists!

The media, taken as industry or institution, finds itself paralyzed. Its
reactions are counterproductive or, at best, conventional and remedial.
This 'journalism-without-journalists' concept (hiding behind the waves
of lay-offs) is as preposterous as the neglect practiced by every large
publisher in the last 10 years regarding their own human resources.

Alberto Dines


The relationship between government and the press is getting sour in Brazil and this time it's really serious because the issue is political, not economic. The communications industry is in the middle of its worst financial crisis ever and there is a pervasive pessimism overflowing to the news. It is not blackmail and it is not exactly a climate of persistent demands, either; it is more like a tone of ostensive sourness that does affect the content of information, creates a climate of artificiality and makes public opinion vulnerable to all kinds of orchestrations.

The government cannot do a thing to relieve the affliction of the media: any sign of generosity can compromise the image of responsibility that the administration needs to maintain, as well as a sense of justice. And even if there was some kind of homeopathic, patient-ward relief to be provided, the truth is that Brazilian society has reached a standard of transparency in which any privilege—including privileges to the media—is very hard to dissimulate. If the picture already seems somber on a macro level, the day-to-day reality looks dreadful.

** Newsrooms are being emptied out under hundreds of layoffs.

** The chances of getting re-hired are minimal because the economic sectors which are in any way associated with the media (advertising, consulting and marketing services, for example) are facing an even worse depression.

** Media companies are all in danger, with no exceptions. Some are de facto bankrupt, others are under the 'white' intervention of banks and the most fortunate ones are paralyzed.

** The recession in the world at large does not allow for much in terms of an afflux of foreign capital and the same goes for partnerships and investments sourced from domestic conglomerates.

** Recovery will take a while, even if the Monetary Policy Committee (Copom) approves a substantial reduction in the prime rate.

** Journalism in general is already losing quality, especially printed materials which are used for reference. Weeklies are no longer indispensable and will soon be disposable.

** Advertising and promotional gimmicks have become too obvious. IBM is investing heavily on the campaign to sell its "on demand" concept (started on June 16). The idea has disfigured newspapers and business sections and blurred the boundaries between information and advertising definitively. The corporation and its agency are protecting their own interests; newspapers and other journalism companies, by focusing only on the bottom line, have forgotten theirs.

** The public, increasingly skeptical about the media's reliability and frustrated with its lack of balance, is withholding trust.

** And in the middle of all this, the media gets ready to blame the government, which takes us back to the starting point of this analysis: in spite of the 9x3 score of last Sunday's pelada (soccer match) at the Alvorada Palace, our journalism runs the risk of joining the second division.

What to do? How to do it?

Management gurus are joining hands with experts in signology, or the study of Chinese ideograms (foreign to most regular folks) to declare that crisis and opportunity are two concepts with one common origin. True or not, the axiom at least works as an antidote to nihilism and an elixir against affliction. In immediate and concrete terms, however, this 'discovery' solves nothing.

The government has its hands tied. In any case, it's not the government's role to intervene directly or indirectly in a process which must by definition be free from any official action. José Dirceu, then a candidate for the House of Representatives and currently head of a federal department, brought up the idea of a "Proer for the media" in the TV show Roda Viva last year (10/28/2002). The minister's idea is a daring one: the media is an issue of national interest. Here is the quote from Dirceu:

"It's not only Rede Globo who is in financial difficulty. We could actually say that the whole sector, including the written press, is also going through serious financial trouble. We have to treat this as a matter of national interest and deal with it as an issue for the State to handle. It's obvious that the country is facing a scarcity of financial resources and it needs to establish priorities and guarantees about how to allocate funds made available by either BNDES or by the process of renúncia fiscal [fiscal waiver]. But there's no denying that we must pay attention to the situation faced by the communications sector. There is one alternative, which is the association of foreign capital, that we must end the regulation of legislation. Another is capital stock restructuring, mergers, associations, and a third one is a kind of financial engineering in which not only private initiative can participate but also entities such as public banks, in order to try to recover this or that company".

The materialization of this idea, though, is extremely complicated. The banking system is controlled by Banco Central and the remedial measures (undertaken in 1995) in some banks to avoid an overall bankruptcy were successful because they were strictly controlled by the government. There was no deviation. Any similar inspection in the area of media is unthinkable, though. Without the proper inspection, any attempt to bring more financial health is doomed. Not to mention the reaction of the so-called setores de vanguarda (avant-garde sectors), which have always disliked Proer, in spite of its undeniably positive results.

On the other hand, the media, taken as industry or institution, finds itself paralyzed. Its reactions—when they do react at all—are counterproductive or, at best, conventional and remedial. Corporate creativity is at its lowest level. As far as any sustainable increase in circulation is concerned, the joint promotion by Globo and Folha de S. Paulo to offer a collection of romance novels with large discounts will have a mere placebo effect, at the most. It is a waste of resources and energy and it will only add to the boredom already felt by readers.

This 'journalism-without-journalists' concept (hiding behind the waves of lay-offs) is as preposterous as the neglect practiced by every large publisher in the last 10 years regarding their own human resources. Brazil has produced and trained large amounts of talented individuals and made them available to printed media publishers. This talent is now summarily sacrificed and/or replaced by youngsters without the necessary level of experience, who can't be blamed for being called upon.

The Way Back

Consulting services were hired but the results were disastrous, even criminal in some cases, almost amounting to the accomplishments of Jayson Blair of the New York Times: slowly and innocently, they fooled everyone and created a tumor that finally had to be lanced. A gang of international pilferers with excellent connections in the academic marginalia traveled the country from north to south selling the idea that all problems would be solved with large overhauls in printing systems. Systems were redone everywhere, but not a single one of these geniuses dared to say to his respective contracting parties that before taking care of the packaging, we have to produce content. If they did, they would miss their break.

The geniuses in finance and administration hired to do all this reengineering never changed any of the framework, let alone concepts, nor did they prevent media entrepreneurs from committing the prodigious collection of crass and irreparable mistakes perpetrated in the last few years. The exceedingly high salaries were or are being pocketed as we speak, but the actual bill was paid by all who were decapitated in the recent downsizings.

The only reasonably successful strategic initiative was the search for a new segment of readers among those layers of readership that had benefited from the Plano Real. Popular newspapers did, in fact, mushroom everywhere. The benefits of the plan, however, did not endure. The whole segment stalled and in some instances even retracted due to the adverse economic situation. The surprise factor works well in the beginning, of course, but you have to put out a new paper every day.

Where to Go for Help?

Help can only come from journalists. Although they cooked some of the fiascos themselves, the damage was endorsed and thickened by business people who understand very little or nothing about the business and/or lack the psychological discipline to resist the temptations of power. The occasion calls for professionals of the press who are able to think with an entrepreneurial mind—because it has proved very hard to convert entrepreneurs into journalists.

We need to remember history: all journalism companies were created, operated and expanded by journalists, with extremely rare exceptions. It's time to bring them back. This is a great opportunity created by the current crisis. The government can create incentives; agencies can regulate the market and its practices; the legislative power can be called upon to curb abuses related to concentration of ownership or conflicts of interest. But journalism can only escape this crisis if journalists are the ones making the decisions. Including decisions about the photos of presidential peladas.


Alberto Dines, the author, is a journalist, founder and researcher at LABJOR—Laboratório de Estudos Avançados em Jornalismo (Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Journalism) at UNICAMP (University of Campinas) and editor of the Observatório da Imprensa. He also writes a column on cultural issues for the Rio daily Jornal do Brasil. You can reach him by email at obsimp@ig.com.br

This article was originally published in Observatório da Imprensa — www.observatoriodaimprensa.com.br

Translated by Tereza Braga. Braga is a freelance Portuguese translator and interpreter based in Dallas. She is an accredited member of the American Translators Association. Contact: terezab@sbcglobal.net




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