By Fernando Belzunce
In just three weeks, after Brazil’s elections on 2 October, Sérgio Dávila (Sao Paulo, 1965) will know whether the newspaper where he grew up as a journalist, and which he now edits, will have to deal with Jair Bolsonaro, a leader with serious anti-democratic leanings, or with Lula da Silva, whose return could further agitate a country in constant turmoil. The two presidential candidates, representatives of this global era of extreme polarization, are well aware of the onslaught of Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most respected and feared newspaper.
How do you cover such a decisive election?
The challenge for us is always to be non-partisan. Folha’s editorial principles are independence, impartiality and critical journalism. But we don’t want to treat different candidates as equals either.
There are two main candidates, Jair Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva, but the former stands out for constantly attacking democracy and the Brazilian electoral system itself, so we have to provide extremely critical coverage based on facts. This does not mean that we are going to do friendly coverage of the other candidates, such as Lula. No. We will do a very critical coverage of everyone.
Folha de Sao Paulo stood out in the early 1980s for its defence of democratic restoration. Now you are very critical of the Bolsonaro government. Are the two eras comparable?
The role of journalism is fundamental in both moments, which are historical but also different. Before there was a country under a dictatorship and now we have a democracy. In the 1980s the newspaper gave a voice to people who fought against the dictatorship, while now there are many voices that can express themselves freely.
There have been direct online attacks by the president of Brazil on one of your journalists and also online persecution of other editors. How do you protect your professionals?
This president is very combative with journalists, especially if they work for Folha de Sao Paulo and especially if they are women. Patricia Campos, the journalist who was attacked, meets all the conditions.
We ask our journalists to be very careful about what they publish on social networks and we ask them to let us know if they suffer any kind of attack, virtual or otherwise. In such cases, we put our legal team at their disposal. We also offer special training to protect mental health.
Mental health and journalism
What does the training cover?
It teaches techniques to be safe in the social environment. It is very important. After two years of the pandemic we had to be concerned about mental health and we expanded that initiative because of the exposure of our journalists on social media. We also hired a psychologist to listen to our professionals. Any editor can book an appointment and talk about what they need. She consults Monday to Friday all afternoon and has no more time for the next two months. She is doing a great job. It is very important to deal with mental health professionals.
Donald Trump cancelled subscriptions to The New York Times as soon as he came to the White House and Bolsonaro announced the same decision about Folha de Sao Paulo when he came to power in Brazil. How do you see this parallel?
Bolsonaro said he would cancel Folha’s subscription, but in the end he kept it. It is more complicated to react to our exclusives if he doesn’t read us. Indeed, Trump is his great inspiration and we are very worried about what might happen if he is not re-elected. Should we be worried about a coup d’état? It is not impossible.
Folha has a journalistic culture inspired by the great American media. To what extent has your career as a correspondent in the United States and your training at Stanford contributed to that culture?
That inspiration precedes me. This newspaper is a hundred years old, but the modern newspaper dates back to the 1960s when the Frias family acquired it. The father, Octávio, had the ambition of a very professional and, most importantly, very technical Brazilian journalism. That was his challenge and he passed it on to his children. Then, of course, my professional experience in the United States helped me a lot to assimilate that culture.
You have been very controversial, with opinions that have caused unease among some readers. Why is it so difficult for plurality of opinion to be appreciated?
Plurality of opinion has been a hallmark of Folha since the 1970s. We have almost 200 columnists and bloggers who represent a wide ideological diversity. What happens is that in such a politically polarised world, as in Spain, it is very difficult to remain plural. We recently published an article by a very controversial Bolsonaro minister. You can imagine… They criticise us a lot from the progressive or conservative side, but now more from the progressive side saying that this is not the time to be plural and that we have to publish only one type of opinion.
We refuse to do that. I think the Bolsonaro presidency tests our model of journalism. It is easier to be The New York Times, which is a partisan newspaper, positioned in favour of the Democratic Party, than to be Folha, which is a newspaper critical of all the candidates. We were very critical of Lula’s presidency and published big exclusives. Now we are doing the same with Bolsonaro. But opinion is plural. This principle cannot be put aside because to do so would be to give up doing Folha de Sao Paulo.
Decades ago, your company took on the major challenge of distributing the newspaper throughout Brazil, with more than 1,300,000 copies sold on Sundays. How do you work on the presence of your medium in society when the physical product is falling?
These numbers are very important, but the digital ones have an enormous dimension. The Internet has 120 million users in Brazil and Folha reaches 30 million of them. We also have 360,000 digital subscribers, a big number for the Brazilian reality. The positive side is that Brazil is a continental country, so getting the print edition to every corner is very expensive. Also, we have many readers in Portugal or the United States who no longer depend on the print edition. We are not in the business of printing pages, but in the business of producing content according to professional journalistic principles. That is our job.
What challenges do you face in the digital environment?
Our challenge is for Folha to make the best possible transition from print to digital, maintaining its great influence in the Brazilian public debate. Very modestly, I think we are achieving this. We were the first to have a digital subscription model in Brazil and we stand out for being pioneers in big digital bets.
To what extent does the digital subscription strategy set the newsroom on its path?
Having large revenues from subscribers makes you less dependent on the moods of the market. On the economic situation or advertisers. In the end, the subscription makes you even more independent.
You have been pioneers in partnering with foundations to cover great causes such as the defence of the Amazon. Does the path of philanthropy open up many possibilities?
I think it is a very important path as long as these projects are developed without any interference in the editorial line of the medium. We do the coverage because the subject is of mutual interest, but the last word is always ours. Folha is still the only one of the main Brazilian media that maintains a correspondent in the Amazon.
Years ago you left Facebook because the platform changed its rules unilaterally. What is your current relationship with the platforms?
We were the first to leave Facebook because they changed the algorithm in a way that was detrimental to professional journalism. Years later, when they changed it again, we came back. Our line of argument with the platforms was always that they should pay for content that helps drive their business model. Because what we produce, the product of professional journalism, is what drives social media businesses. Kitten videos have their limit….
To tackle the digital challenge, you will place a lot of importance on training and the selection of new journalists…
It is absolutely key. We subsidise courses that journalists want to do and we always promote specific seminars. We are also very rigorous in the recruitment process. We have a job bank and three or four very demanding professionals examine each candidate. We focus on diversity.
Why did you decide three years ago to bring in a diversity editor?
Brazilian society is incredibly diverse and tremendously unequal. We wanted to respond to this problem with an ambitious programme and we were pioneers in creating the position. The main mission of this editor is to ensure a diversified vision, which affects the hires we make, but also our content, our interviewees, our sources and even our readers, as we want them to better represent the Brazilian plurality. Their responsibility is very broad and has the capacity to act horizontally throughout the company. We have data that shows that our audience has diversified and that this is already working. We also have the highest percentage of black journalists ever at Folha.
Do you think this is a good time to be a journalist?
Yes, I think it is. Journalism is more fundamental than ever. Because of everything we are going through, because of the polarisation, because of the attacks on democracy and because of the attacks on journalism itself. If I were a young student today, I would choose journalism again. An old Folha columnist, very funny, used to say that after World War III only cockroaches and journalists would remain in the world. I say journalists will tell the story of the cockroaches.
This article was originally published in Spanish by Spain’s ABC. It is republished with permission.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fernando Belzunce is the chief editor of the Vocento group, which includes ABC.
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