Brazil in my 10 years as a journalist

Exactly 10 years ago I started my first job as journalist at a sports website in São Paulo. Boy, these years went by real fast. I, the media industry and Brazil have changed a lot in the last decade. And there is probably much more to come after the big sporting events are finished and my country becomes a little less self-absorbed. The improvements have been notable enough, however, to start a change in our communicating culture. When I started, all a young reporter could hope for was to write for print media or be on TV (if you were good looking enough), earn US$ 15,000 a year and work on stories about how failed and corrupted we are. That Brazil is no more.

And the biggest changes came in the last 10 years.

Like it or not, the media business has changed a lot in Brazil.

Back in November 2003, working at a sports website meant I could have my college education paid for. But no one who worked there was truly happy: a couple of years before their printed version had died. They only kept it on the Internet because it was much cheaper and got proper funding from… the college I went to. In those days, lecturers would say my class was starting in journalism at the worst moment ever. “I bet no more than 10 out 100 of you will still be in journalism within five years,” one of them said. He hasn’t worked in mainstream print media since, but those who adapted to the Internet are doing well now.

Another change was in the number of people speaking foreign languages. Since I speak a few, I could do loads of stories on international football. That was basically because I was looking where no one else was — I had about 20 colleagues, a few spoke English, a couple could do Spanish well. It is quite a difference from my most recent job. Many could do great in foreign languages, some could even do Mandarin. That reflects how much Brazilians have traveled and studied abroad in the last 10 years. Before the last decade, that was an asset to our narrow-minded elite. Now middle-income people can afford it.

I left the sports website for Reuters to work in the coverage of the 2004 Olympic Games. It was the best move I ever made. When the flame was put out, I started reporting politics, which has been my main turf since then. That allowed me to follow the mensalao scandal from the beginning. The votes-in-Congress for-bribes scheme discovered in the Lula administration has been a driving force in Brazil since then. It has also been pivotal to understand how Brazilian mainstream media works: most of them were fair to hit the Worker’s Party (PT) for their behavior, such a different one from what they promised.

But they haven’t given the same treatment to politicians of other parties involved in corruption. Reporters are not to blame.

That has fostered a web of fanatical online PT followers, a very notable one when I covered the political campaigns that ended in Lula’s reelection (2006) and Dilma Rousseff’s election (2010). Those Lula boys don’t treat journalists with due respect because they are led into believing whatever media publishes is to go against them. They exist because of something new in Brazilian media: many are funded by the government and some get their news straight from cabinet ministers who don’t like mainstream media. Although I have voted for both PT and opposition candidates, it is difficult to say these people’s perceptions are completely wrong.

If you look at bare figures, Brazil’s success in the last decade is going to be measured by social programs like Bolsa Familia, which is a revamped version of social programs ran by Lula’s predecessor, opposition’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso. But if you read Brazilian media, that will always be tainted by the mensalao scandal that took place in 2004, was discovered in 2005 and still seems big enough to take down most of old PT leadership since then. Some of those were arrested recently and might actually do time in jail. There was surely too much political influence in the trial that led to those convictions.

At least the whole process brings some closure.

Let’s see if our mainstream media agrees to move on. Brazil has improved as a whole, but political debate is still poor.

After I worked at every desk in the Reuters Portuguese service and came back from the coverage of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I left for a new adventure. That was to be the editor-in-chief of the Brazilian issue of British football magazine FourFourTwo. My hopes were really high, since that was my first print media job. The material we had to work with was really great, although the publisher here wasn’t to the level it should for such a product. But the timing couldn’t be worse: September 2008. That means the exact moment Lehman Brothers went bankrupted and the world economy entered a depression.

We definitely tried, but there were no ads. Sales were low. And forecasts were grim. I stayed for six months and the magazine is no more. I am still a correspondent for the main FourFourTwo, a task that has given me great moments — three cover stories and interviews with Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Zico, Socrates and many others. But in the beginning of 2009, going back to the Internet business seemed like a better idea.

That is an idea I would never think of back in 2003.

Firstly I became an economy news writer for UOL, Brazil’s most popular news website. But soon afterwards I was invited to be a political reporter — another decision that shows more change in the media business here. UOL started less than 20 years ago as an online shopping window for Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s best-selling newspaper. In 2008, there was a massive shift for them: they decided to produce their own content, since its future looks better than Folha’s.

I was assigned as their main reporter for political news and I had no predecessor to talk to, just a few editors that had been reporters long before. When they sent me to Brasilia, after Rousseff was elected, I was their only staff reporter there. Now they have a proper office, more reporters and bigger ratings.

The internet is not a bet anymore.

In Brasilia I noticed why Brazilian politics are so detached from the man on the street. Covering Congress is like going to a fantasy island where everyone overstates their importance. Those who really know how to pull the strings and get things done are usually less interested in online reporters. Those old foxes are mostly baby boomers who can only understand the impact of print media. Reporters like me have a shot at interviewing a few ministers, being in presidential press conferences, covering big Supreme Court trials and taking part of historical moments. I got all that.

But scoops are almost exclusive to print and TV journalists.

I left UOL shortly before the London Olympics for three reasons: I was going to the UK anyway for my MA at City University, I wanted to start an international career and I was eager to cover the biggest event on Earth for Yahoo! Brazil. Those would be my third Olympic Games, the second at the proper venues and a good preparation for Rio-2016. When I left, Brasilia was still the fantasy island where protesters would never come to. Most politicians had always downplayed the impact of demonstrations.

As a student and London correspondent for Globo.com, I could read Brazil differently. When I wrote about the city I was living in, I was actually writing about Brazil too. Living abroad showed me how Brazil is little known and how insufficient our efforts are in making it a more international place. That is why I came back to open a content agency to work in both Portuguese and English. So far it there have been good businesses, but I am eager for more.

If Brazil doesn’t get fashionable until 2016, when?

In the last 10 years I had loads of responsibility, some fun and a few tears. Responsibility came as I got to see two different presidents taking office from the insides of the presidential palace, elections in three other countries and the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Fun came when I saw Usain Bolt win the 100 m dash in London, Corinthians become Fifa Club World Cup champions in Japan and a concert by R.E.M., my favorite band ever. Tears came as I worked at the site of an air crash that killed 200 people in São Paulo, when I met people that had been tortured during the dictatorship and when tennis player Gustavo Kuerten retired (I know the last one sounds shallow…).

But the biggest gap in my CV is surely the fact I wasn’t here during protests of June. I tried to fill it with this blog, which has been, in a way, another example of how media has changed here and abroad. It is this blog that gave me the chance of being a bridge between Brazil and the rest of the world. It is also this blog that has given me even more friends than those I gathered in the last 10 years as journalist. How could I not love this profession even more now?

Well, I hope I still have you all in the next 10 years too. 

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Brazil in my 10 years as a journalist

  1. Daniel CMS

    I disagree when you say “we (Brazilians, Brazil I suppose) are trying to become more international.

    As Brazilians hardly put themselves in someone else’s shoes, can’t stand criticism, can’t differentiate between discussing arguments and personal attacks, my guess is that we Brazilians want the world to like us but are not willing to help the world to better understand us. Thus becoming more international seems a tough job.

    • Mauricio Savarese

      Thanks Daniel. I think people are trying more. Not succeeding yet. But that might come some time in the future. :-) Best!

  2. Mauricio great post! What a career roller-coaster you’ve been on in the last ten years. I used to be a regular FourFourTwo reader until I had children.

    Your journey is very inspiring and will serve to show Brazilians and other nationalities the advantages of forward thinking and broadening your horizons internationally.

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