Izabela Moi launches news agency focusing on low-income areas near São Paulo

For five years, a group of young people from the periphery of São Paulo, under the supervision of journalist Izabela Moi, faced a challenge: portray their neighborhoods from an “insider’s view,” with coverage that went beyond clichés about violence and welfare.

The Mural journalism project was born on Nov. 24, 2010 as a daily blog published in Folha de S. Paulo, a leading newspaper in Brazil. Little by little, the number of participants and the impact of their activities increased. Eventually, the blog was not a big enough platform, and last Thursday, Nov. 5, the Mural Agency for Journalism in the Peripheries was launched; its writers focused on low-income areas on the periphery of São Paulo.

While managing the Murals project, Moi built her career at Folha and saw the idea of Mural as an opportunity to put into practice what she believed to be the mission of journalism: informing to transform realities. After spending a year at Stanford University with the JSK Journalism Fellowships, she returned willing to take the initiative and turn Mural into a sustainable organization that would, through good journalism, reintegrate poorly represented spaces of São Paulo.

“When people start, they don’t know if the next day is going to come. The first year, we were 20 correspondents and nobody knew each other. We did everything without funding; it was a mission that we shared. We just knew there was a gap in this kind of news, and we wanted to fill it,” Moi said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The first muralists — as members of the project are called — came from a group trained by former BBC reporter Bruno Garcez. He had received a scholarship from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to invest in a proposal to train citizen journalists.

“I had already developed a project at Folha to try and approach journalism students in public schools. I met Bruno at a time when I was very dedicated to the project. He had to return to the BBC and did not know what to do with people who had been trained, hence the idea to make a blog for the stories of these young people who act as local correspondents,” Moi said.

Over a thousand stories later and with 75 active muralists, Mural now has a site where readers can access other activities and content produced by the group.

“The blog will continue to be updated, but it’s just a small showcase,” Moi said.

Focus on hyperlocal coverage

The Mural was the first blog that was part of a large Brazilian news organization that practiced a certain journalistic genre that emerged in the U.S. in 2009: collaborative hyper local journalism. It came out of the crisis experienced by traditionally modeled newspapers and the need to revive audiences’ interest in the news.

One year before the Folha-born initiative, The New York Times launched Local, a site meant to have local residents cover news from low-income neighborhoods of New York City. The New York Times project ended in 2012, three years after its debut.

Brazilians believe that this model is able to make room for new voices in the media and reflect the complexities of regions unknown to most readers. The key differences between the two initiatives are investment in the training of community correspondents and a horizontal operating model, which allow everyone to participate in the project’s decisions.

“We made some rules to facilitate the work, but at first I spent more than three hours a day answering emails and guiding the Muralists,” Moi said. “We built our journalistic principles. Although most are journalism students, I need to ensure the quality of guidelines and maintain editorial standards as the publisher of Folha de S. Paulo. I spent three years leading print operations. When I left the newspaper in 2012, we chose six Muralists who had developed an eye for editing to form an editorial board for the blog.”

Every year, a new group of Muralists is chosen and the participants keep in contact online and meet on Saturdays. Moi’s initial challenge was to show those involved that they could report on their own neighborhood without having to report on exotic-sounding or easy agendas about cultural attractions.

“I said that they had to see their neighborhood with a critical eye and produce content through a reporter’s eye, and they asked ‘how are we going to talk badly about the neighborhood we live in?'” Moi said. “When they understood that they could report about the neighborhood without falling into the dichotomy of ‘love it or leave it’ — when they put the focus on the information — the process changed.”

The critical eye of Muralists in their own neighborhoods yielded content on infrastructure, with stories about pipe leaks, medical clinics, broken traffic lights, and lack of garbage collection. After being reported on the blog, these problems received the attention of local administrators. According to Moi, the reports fulfill their function and have a great influence on the transformation of local realities.

Projects for the future

In addition to blogging, the Mural Agency brings to its portfolio proposals to reach the public, especially those in the periphery. Among their activities are Expo Mural, a traveling exhibit that shows the agency’s work, and the Mural in Schools, which promotes lectures and workshops on the project in public high schools. For Moi, these projects are a way of bonding with the audience and sparking an interest in being informed about what happens in their neighborhoods.

After launching the site, the next steps for the agency include investing in different types of funding to ensure its sustainability.

“We’re finding that our projects are of interest to some partners,” Moi said. “We are also creating a platform for classified job listings in the periphery. These partnerships allow us to get more resources and distribute our content further. We have very strong a mission that gives consistency and stability to the organization. Now all we have to do is be patient enough to find funding in a way that guarantees our independence, ” Moi said.

This article was originally posted on the University of Texas at Austin’s Journalism in the Americas blog. Izabela Moi was a 2015 JSK Fellow.