Why Build a Data Journalism Agency in Brazil?

By Sérgio Spagnuolo, founder and editor of Volt Data Lab

Twitter: @ProjetoStock

It’s not easy to start a business in Brazil. Any kind of business. The formal process of creating a company is long, bureaucratic and costly.

Unless you want to be a micro-entrepreneur here — that is, to limit your venture to $15,000 a year in revenue and only one employee — it could take up to three months and thousands of dollars to get your business properly up and running. Beyond that, despite some welcome relief for small companies in the past few years, taxes continue to be a nightmare too.

Brazil ranked an abysmal 116th place in the “Doing Business 2016” report, published by the World Bank last year.

The economy in Brazil is currently a mess: GDP is shrinking, unemployment is ascending, interest rates are high and inflation is rampant. The federal government is unable to do anything about it, and the opposition is even more unwilling to commit to any solution.

Source: Bloomberg

Political instability, made even worse by an attempt to impeach president Dilma Rousseff, has been taking away foreign investments, helping the dollar to reach record highs against the real.

Brazil is a tough place for every business right now.

As if all this is not enough, news media here is far from its best shape. More than 1,400 journalists have been fired since 2012 from newsrooms across the country, while magazines and newspapers are rapidly losing revenue or even shutting down. Social media has become a tough competitor. All this affects news output and, above all, quality.

Brazilian journalism layoffs per year since 2012

Source: Volt Data Lab
Still, even with all this happening, we are creating Brazil’s first data journalism newswire: Volt Data Lab.

Volt already exists as an independent data-driven venture, producing on-demand reports for selective clients and publishing original stories on our own. We will continue to do that as a major part of our business.

But given what we’ve observed about the state of journalism in Brazil, we have also seen an opportunity to help newsrooms and NGOs to publish high-quality stories for an affordable price.

Data journalism is growing here, but we are far away from what journalists have been doing in the United States or in Europe — like with the NYT's Upshot, Washington Post's Wonkblog, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, The Guardian's Datablog, Germany's CorrecT!V, among many others.

More than start a business-as-usual news agency, what we want to do is build a venture focused in our community.

We want this community not to be limited to people working in newsrooms and NGOs, but one that will reach their audiences and improve the quality of what they are publishing on their websites when it comes to data-driven stories.

Soon we will offer a fixed-price, low-cost newswire for small and mid-sized media companies, sending them several stories a month for less than the price of one freelancer reporter. Some people have asked me: why would they buy a story that is not exclusive, that other subscribers will also have access to? It is, after all, a tough, competitive market.

The best way to answer that is with bullet points:

  1. The price will be more than fair.
  2. To keep their business going, media companies need traffic coming into their website. Amid the constant noise of the Internet, it is our belief that relevant, quality content attracts readers and improves the debate.
  3. Smaller newsrooms and communications teams tend to serve certain communities of their own, either geographically or by area of expertise, so most of the time they are not fighting for each other’s readership. A small digital newspaper from the North of Brazil is not competing with a mid-sized one from the Mid-West.
  4. Finally, subscribers will also have the chance to customize data, graphics and text, should they choose to do so. Our team will adapt a charting tool for each subscriber, so they can customize the graphics for their own visual identity and even change how some charts look, should they choose to do so. Volt will not be a strict “don’t touch my story” kind of agency: subscribers will be able to adapt, rewrite and play with the data we provide them, using it in the way they see fit. For instance, a local newspaper could make a specific cut about local violence using our clean and ready-to-go data tables with national statistics. We might even help them do so.

Volt has a few other ways to prove its value:

  • A free trial of our newswire is coming soon, expected to start at the beginning of the second half of the year.
  • We won’t accept graphic advertisements in our pages. First, because we are not focused on growing our page views. But mostly because that is our client’s business, not ours. We want them to scale their audience using Volt’s original stories. For this reason, our reports will only be shown on our website to the general public days after they are made available to subscribers.
  • We are going to listen to our subscribers about what they want. Volt will make periodic consultations, surveys and feedback meetings with clients to see what their needs are, what they want to see published and how we can serve them better.
  • Partnerships are being made to enhance even further the way we work and collaborate. We are already partnering with Aos Fatos, Brazil’s main fact-checking venture. We have also worked, and expect to continue working, with Open Knowledge Brasil, an NGO that advocates for open data policies, in their program "Open Spending."

Our team is still working hard to get all those things in order, and in the meantime we will continue to do on-demand stories for newsrooms and NGOs.

More will come soon.

This, we believe, is how you build a community — offering good services for fair prices, working to deliver the best value for your subscribers, listening to their needs and arranging valuable partnerships. Volt wants local journalists to see beyond the crisis in our country toward smart solutions.

Yes, it’s hard to do business in Brazil — especially now, especially in media. But with innovation and an open mind, we believe it is not only possible, but very feasible.

Of course, we are only a news agency — but, hopefully, one that will have a positive impact on journalism in Brazil.