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Otavio Frias Filho

Otavio Frias Filho: A gateway for new newspaper readers

The editorial director of the explains why journalistic interest in science tends to increase

Otavio Frias Filho, 46 years old, a journalist since the age of 17, graduated in Law from the University of São Paulo (USP), where he did postgraduate studies in Social Sciences. He modestly declares himself to be an occasional author, but besides the theater plays he has published, some already staged, and a book bringing together articles originally written for the papers, launched two years ago, part of this literary production that he now belittles is now a book of essayistic reports, Queda livre – ensaios de risco [Free fall – essays of risk], recently launched and, by the way, feted by the specialized critics.

But Frias Filho, Otavinho (Little Otavio), as they call him, if only to distinguish from his father, Octávio Frias de Oliveira, the entrepreneur who bought the Folha de S.Paulo in 1962, is, above all, a newspaper boss, or to be more precise, of the biggest newspaper in the country. And it was in this quality that I asked him for an interview, in July 2003; it was of great interest for my doctoral thesis about the place occupied by science and technology in the thinking and in the practical activities of the Brazilian elites – which would be made visible by the discourses of the media, amongst other sources. A few months before, with the same objective, I had interviewed Octávio Frias, the father.

When it was decided that a survey about the public perception of science would be the subject of the cover story of this issue of Pesquisa FAPESP, we understood that the interviews of the two Frias could enrich it considerably, by showing the visions of journalism&science of people who, in different ways, have contributed, and are contributing, to the dissemination of scientific subjects in the country. There was no room for the two interviews, for which reason we are publishing, for the time being, excerpts from the interview with Otavio Frias Filho, naturally with his authorization, to use it for a different purpose from the one declared at the time it was granted. In the text that follows, he talks about scientific journalism, but also about his visions of journalism in general, which appears to us to be pertinent information for the reader of the magazine.

In our contemporary world, so marked by the flows of information on a global scale and by the predominance of the image in the shaping of public opinion, what place is left for printed journalism?
The premiss is the same one as for your question, and I think that this poses a problem for people who deal with text professionally. This is a civilization in which the image predominates more and more, and all the polls show, in one way or another, at one pace or another, a certain decadence of the habit of reading, or at least of the conventional reading of books and periodicals. It is a problem that exists. And I think that the newspapers should not turn their backs on the image, as some went so far as to do for a while. One example that comes to mind is Le Monde, which for so many years refused to have photos, and even to use color printing, and ended up giving in.

Surrendering, indeed?
That’s right. I think that this surrender is correct even, because we cannot ignore the reality of the preponderant presence of the image, but, at the same time, I believe that the newspapers ought to strengthen their content in terms of text. They are eminently textual vehicles – and this vocation will continue to exist. And there are also certain contradictions, certain ambiguities, in the idea that images have advanced over text. Let’s take, for example, the phenomenon of the Internet, so much discussed nowadays: many analysts consider that the Internet is fostering a renaissance of the habit of reading, that people are going back to reading and to writing with a frequency that did not occur previously.

But I agree that the general trend is one of a preponderance of the image, which is not going to be reversed, so that the newspapers have to adapt themselves, in part, to this reality, and, in part, oppose themselves to it, affirming themselves as a vehicle with a certain textual density, with a certain capacity for elaboration. Although the superficiality of the general information papers is notorious, I think they account for a certain tradition of drawing up a textual narrative that is important and should continue alive.

With regard to this debated role of the Internet in the renaissance of the habit of reading and writing, is this not a question of another kind of reading, far from what we are thinking of when we use this word in more traditional terms? The text in the Internet is very telegraphic, very unargumentative.
I agree, though I would add a rider, namely that the Internet provides for countless readings, of kinds and modalities of readings. For example, if you want to research everything about [the philosopher] Martin Heidegger on the Internet, you will be able to spend weeks doing it, months, perhaps, you’ll read a monumental quantity of texts. So it also makes this kind of going into depth possible, in a way that perhaps no other medium permits, given the virtually infinite accumulation of data that it makes possible. But, generally speaking, the kind of reading and writing that the Internet, an interactive medium, stimulates is fragmentary, transitory, superficial, incomplete, very heedless with regard to the cultured norm. Today, it is becoming increasingly clearer that the language of the on-line bulletins, for example, hailed as an important step in the modernization of communications, is very similar to the language of a very traditional vehicle in terms of the media, which is the radio.

So there could be still a role to be fulfilled by the daily paper, between the levels of society’s social and political liaison. What view do you have of this?
I will comment on this point, but, before, I’m going to make an observation on a parallel point, which is the following: in the Folha, we do an analysis that, on the part of a large contingent of people, there continues, and will continue, to be a demand for a panorama of news items that reflects the fundamental things that have happened in the last 24 hours. We understand that it is this 24-hour rhythm, and not the vehicle – which can be either paper and the screen – that defines a newspaper. We consider that this need is even sharpened, to the extent that there is a very great, impossible to assimilate, of information, with very different levels of credibility. On the Internet, we have everything from sites that are very authoritative from the conceptual, intellectual, etc. point of view, to those that are extremely irresponsible. The idea, then, that traditional newspapers, whether with the old support or the new, serve as a sort of anchor, an informative benchmark in the midst of this hubbub, this cacophony of news, is even an interesting opportunity to be exploited by the papers. As to the other aspect, from the political point of view, it seems to me that journalism once had a much greater influence than it has today. The papers were once much more political beings, including being more partisan, but I think that they continue to perform a certain role, in terms of political liaison, economic liaison, etc. They continue to be not only a center for public debate that involves all the elites of society, that is, the business elite, the intellectual elite, the trade union elite, the political elite etc, but a vehicle that shapes and undoes certain consensuses.

By talking about the involvement of the elites, we arrive at the question about whom the newspaper is aimed at. Is this question not in itself what defines the difference of newspapers with regard to other media? I mean, the newspaper continues as a medium that targets these elites, while the role of a great mass vehicle was left to television and radio 50 years ago.
I totally agree. I think that it is just that that defines more and more the vocation of the papers. This happens in the developed countries, and in a much more marked manner, much more excluding, in poor countries like ours, where these elites represent a much smaller percentage of the population as a whole. But, in one case or in another, the consumer of the newspaper as a merchandise is an individual who has certain expectations and certain requirements in intellectual terms, which are on a level a little bit above those of society as a whole. It is a fact, there can be no argument, that this distinction already crystallized 50 years ago between what is a vehicle of information for the masses, television, and the vehicle of information for the group of the elites, which is the newspaper.

About the vehicle for the newspaper, is your expectation that paper will be totally discarded later on?
I don’t know how to answer that question. I think it difficult for anyone to answer it in a categorical way, because things are still happening, and there isn’t yet any clear prospect to make a forecast. My personal impression is that the two vehicle will probably live with each other for some years, perhaps for many years, and I do not exclude the possibility that the paper support may come to exist forever.

Does not printed journalism, today, above all if we think of its stories, of the city, science, crime etc. constitute, still and in a certain way, one of the most important narratives of contemporary culture? After all, more than the Internet, it brings us stories and plots that keep on unfolding, full of before and after, with a climax and happy or dramatic endings, and to this extent keeps showing the world, day after day, in a way that is very much of its own.
Yes, a big discussion is going on today in Brazilian journalistic circles about journalism. Within the Folha, there are also discussions about the standards for journalistic, news item text.

In the likeness of the great majority of the newspapers in the Brazilian tradition, which is a tradition that has undergone a lot of influence from the American press, the Folha adopts a text that sets out to be objective. Which means, we know that objectivity in absolute terms does not exist, neutrality and all that, but these newspapers set out to have a text that gets as close as possible to the model of an objective report of the facts. So there are a series of rules that circumscribe the stylistic freedom of the author, there are a series of questions that the journalistic texts have, of necessity, to attends to, in short, there is a whole framework that limits the latitude of choices for the author of the text, based on the idea that this limitation will guarantee a more objective standard of reporting.

The Folha prizes this standard a lot. I would say that it was restated in the 1980’s, and has been toned down a bit in the last 10 to 15 years. My personal vision about this is that there is a certain pendular movement in the tradition of a newspaper. Certain vehicles straitjacket their text in such a way, that it is healthy for there to be a movement to loosen it up, to allow a bit more personal liberty, because this excessive straitjacketing ends up killing off creativity itself. On the other hand, I don’t think one should lose a certain objective text standard as a point of reference, because, due to the influence that the papers exert today, reaching publics that are more numerous and more heterogeneous, it would be a mistake for them to adopt a freedom that would end up disfiguring a certain unitary discourse of the paper, at least from the point of view of the news items. I think that we are in transition towards a more flexible text, fewer people advocate the idea that the papers, if only to stand upto the vehicles of real time communication and to the television – sometimes we forget, but television is a real time information vehicle -, ought to a adopt a more flexible text standard.

Almost literary?
Almost literary, there are those who advocate allowing a certain going into more depth, a differentiation in relation to what the television and the bulletins now do on-line. I accept this idea in part, because I think it very important for the newspapers not to lose a basic textual point of reference, containing rules that aim at contributing towards the objectivity of the report. My position would be intermediate, shall we say. There are niches of great stylistic freedom in the Folha, in the signed texts, and, above all, in the columns. Perhaps the most notorious example in these last few years is Zé Simão, who has created a style of humor. I have the habit of sometimes associating him with Juó Bananere, the São Paulo press columnist of the beginning of the century. I see certain similarities in the use of humor, in his colloquialism etc. There really are, then, niches of great vitality, I would say, of stylistic creativity. But I am very skeptical with regard to some formal radical experiencesof the Brazilian press, because I think that a text will turn out that much more well written, the larger the obstacles and adversities it has to face.

From the point of view of style even?
Yes, even from the style point of view. Imagine the quantity of conditionings, of impositions, and even of intimate rules, shall we say, that a writer like Flaubert imposed on his text. Yet perhaps there is a consensus today that nobody wrote with such refinement, with such literary perfection as Flaubert. But I am not requiring us journalists to be, each one of us, a Gustave Flaubert, that’s obvious. It’s just an example that, sometimes, the best of texts has to do precisely with discipline and subjection to a series of rules, standards and constraints. By the way, I referred before to the American press, saying that it has been exerting a hegemonic influence on the Brazilian press, at least from the 1950’s until now, and I forgot to mention that the tradition of the European press is naturally different, with much more freedom, not only in the choice of the themes enumerated, but also, and above all, in the stylistic treatment of the articles. There are in fact these two models.

Has your participation in this process of defining the Folha’s editorial policy come from the 1980’s?
With executive responsibilities, since 1984. As a participant in the discussions, since 1976, 1977. In the 1990’s, there was a correction to the course, and we, I myself, ended up concluding that, albeit true, the ideas of journalism as a standardizable profession, and of the newspaper as an industrial product, can stand limits. That is, it is important to lay down standards, because this corresponds to a technical development of the profession and of journalistic learning, it is important to hold the newspaper as an industrial market product, but I would relativize this, in the sense that this product associates aspects of the factory with aspects of the atelier, and these are not to be eradicated in our activity.

Is this because it is bound up with a human intellectual deed?
Because it is bound up with a human intellectual deed, and because we are not dealing with an exact science. So the limits of laying down rules appear sooner or later. It ends up tying up things with red tape, as happened with the Folha, it ends up fossilizing the text, as also happened here, it ends up killing off creativity and inventiveness, above all of the younger people, of the younger generations, who are arriving at the paper. The limits for this policy have become clear, and it has undergone important corrections.

Is there some relationship between the editorial project presented to the readers and the newspaper’s commercial performance?
In the case of the Folha, there was a trajectory of circulation growth throughout the 1980’s, in a more or less ascendant pattern. In the 1990’s, there was then a growth in circulation on a geometric scale, from 1993, 1994 onwards, when the Folha and other papers started to adopt a policy of promotion, that is, of linking other products to the sale of the paper: gifts, encyclopedias, a volume of this, an atlas of that, and so on. With this, there really was a boom in newspaper circulation, and the apogee occurred round about 1995, 1996, and from 1997, there began to be a fall, in my view because the policy of promotions wore out, exhausted itself, but also because the economy has been growing very little in the last few years, and people have no money. In addition, newspapers are going through a very strong crisis in their quality as media companies, and this crisis is determining that they cut investments, ravage their budgets, apply a ferocious policy for containing expenses, etc. So the vehicles lose their capacity for aggression, for market presence. This goes for the Folha, and it goes as well for the other large sized general information newspapers, like O Globo or O Estado de S.Paulo. In the last 30 years, there is no record of such a strong crisis as the current one, hitting the media sector in the world and in Brazil.

What are the circulation figures for the major Brazilian newspapers today?
The Folha continues to be, in July 2003, the daily paper with the biggest circulation in Brazil. We have an average superiority in terms of circulation of about 30% over O Estado de São Paulo, and of about 25% over O Globo. In approximate figures, we are today at a level of average circulation close to the level we were at the beginning of the 1990’s, that is, around 350,000 copies a day. In the boom of the policy of promotions and part works, the paper’s average circulation reached 1 million copies, and there were Sundays on which record figures of 1.5 million copies were reached. Which means to say that the circulation curve of the Folha and of the major newspapers generally, because they underwent similar processes, describes a parabola over the 1990’s.

But there is an aspect about circulation that I think it is important to mention in this context, which is the following: people usually tend to link circulation to editorial content. My experience has shown to satiety that the editorial content is one of the aspects of weight in the formation of the phenomenon of the circulation of newspapers, but it is not necessarily the most important. There are other aspects: price, quality of service, attention that the subscriber is given, presence in the media, marketing. And there is a fifth aspect, almost metaphysical, which is something like the image that the newspaper projects, the identification with some trajectory of tradition that it represents. And there is one detail that I think it important to mention: in a newspaper like the Folha, out of every ten readers, about nine are subscribers. So in the major papers, basically for subscribers, there is no need for putting a firework display on the first page to supposedly sell more. Because the bond with the great mass of readers is another one, it’s a bond that implies credibility, that implies trustworthiness.

The current press crisis is economic and deep. What are its causes?
There was a first cycle in the 1990’s, with an environment of expansion in the world economy, the golden years of Clinton etc. And a second cycle, with an environment of recession in the world economy. In the first cycle, there was the idea that a technological revolution was under way that would affect society at large more deeply, but specifically the media sector. So companies embarked on this revolution, because they didn’t want to miss the train of history. They invested a lot, they diversified their activities, they took loans. To do what? The Internet, which did not exist before and today brings together 15 million internauts in Brazil. To do cable TV, to create new titles, popular newspapers in the style of the Extra, in Rio, magazines like Época, financial newspapers, like Valor. With the depreciation of the local currency, the prices in dollar were multiplied, which has implied a gigantic financial onus for the companies.

Shall we talk a bit about science? What is your vision of science as a subject of journalistic cover?
The Folha has a tradition in the coverage of science, isn’t that so? The paper had the luck, in my view, of having had José Reis in charge of editorial staff in the 1950’s and beginning of the 1960’s. He was with the paper before, since the end of the 1940’s, but he became editorial director later. And he exerted an enormous influence, whether in the Brazilian scientific environment, as you know very well, or in the sense of constituting in Brazil this journalistic genre, scientific journalism, and of bringing it, in a pioneering way, to the pages of the Folha. So we have always sought to keep the paper at least at the level of this tradition ushered in by José Reis, who was, besides a much respected journalist, a researcher of merit, above all at the beginning of his career, before dedicating himself more completely to scientific journalism. In a more general manner, I have the impression that journalistic interest for science has increased in our days and will just tend to increase.

First, because science exerts a very great, albeit indirect, influence on people’s lives, and I don’t see any reason for this influence coming to decrease. On the contrary, I think it is just going to increase, we live in a technical-scientific civilization. Second, because science has come to be seen as one of the gateways for the younger public to the habit of reading newspapers. And this public is a bit of an enfant gatê for the newspapers nowadays, because they are all very worried about how to guarantee new readers, how to continue to form readers. So there is this aspect of an age group, generation strategy. And in third place, I would say, because the scientific community has come to give more importance to publicizing their results in the media. And this has even come to work, in a rather harsh expression, as a sort of hard cash. We know that resources and investments in given areas of research depend on the kind of repercussion they have in the media. The whole case of the medical challenge to the Aids epidemic is a good example of how well organized lobbies make a subject appear with greater visibility in the media, and of how this visibility, in turn, also justifies bringing in voluminous funds for tackling this ailment. Evidently, I am not criticizing setting funds aside for tackling Aids, or for discovering a possible vaccine for it, but just pointing out the fact that ailments as serious or as epidemic as Aids,or endemic ones, have much less visibility.

Malaria, for example?
For example. And perhaps for this reason, they have less funds for research. In short, you know very well, better than I do, indeed, this whole problem of scientific policy, and of how publicity in the media plays an important role in this issue of scientific policy. But it is a third aspect for which I think that scientific journalism has gained a presence and more visibility.

There, is, amongst journalists, much divergence about the areas of affinity of the coverage of science, which is usually to be found in the pages called General. Some advocate that it ought to be more linked to the economy, and there are those who think that it should be linked to culture. What is your opinion?
I think that it is a very sui generis coverage. Why? Because it awakens, above all, at some moments – and the case of Dolly the ewe is emblematic, for example -, an almost universal curiosity. At the same time, it requires a very demanding set of instruments of work: carrying out the activity of a journalist as a reporter who is covering events in the city calls for a lower kind of professional qualification than that required for a person who is going carry on his work as a science journalist, one who is going to do scientific journalism.

Does these even go for trying to translate the jargon of the area into common sense language, doesn’t it?
Precisely. And this is an area where there has to be a lot of care, in my view, in two directions: first, one has to avoid as much as possible journalism being manipulated by the game of the major laboratories, of the big companies that know that visibility in the media is translated into income. And, at the same time, one has to take care for this caution to lead the journalist to “wrestle with the news”, as we say in our jargon. For example, in the case of Viagra, I know that all this spate of news helps the manufacturer a lot. Now, it’s an extraordinary fact that cannot be ignored by the papers. But there is this aspect of separating the wheat from the chaff, that is, of using the methods and criteria and jurisprudence of our profession to try to identify what is news, or to what extent a fact is, in fact, news, to what extent it is being manipulated by a manufacturer, by a laboratory etc. This caution must be permanent in scientific journalism. And, of course, the caution for also avoiding falling into the temptation of a certain sensationalism, because scientific journalism gives a broad opportunity for every kind of sensationalism.

As people say, a discovery a day is possible in scientific journalism, not in science.
That’s right. I’m not talking now, you know, of the paleontological frauds, or of the Loch Ness monster, but we know that sensationalism is an element that is always on the lookout for this kind of coverage, and our science editor is very concerned precisely with this aspect of avoiding passing on the false image that behind a scientific fact of more or less limited proportions there may be an extraordinary, sensational event.

My query about which pages should house the coverage of science is linked to the following question: almost always, it is the translation of scientific knowledge into technology that determines the changes in our daily lives. It so happens that it is difficult for technology to have the appeal, the charm that science often shows. Technology news in general is in the economy, far away from science. If the two were together, with the charm of science contaminating technology, wouldn’t journalism be providing a better information service for the reader?
Well, I get the impression that the coverage of science is very alien to the economic aspects of science, and I don’t know very much why this happens. Probably because the aspects that awaken that universal curiosity to which I referred before are more properly the scientific ones.

Which are perhaps more connected with the pleasure of knowledge, of discovery?
Precisely. And connected a lot with what is marvelous, mysterious, unexpected. While a more technological, shall we say, coverage, more attentive to the economic reality, to the economic substrate of science, tends to interest a more limited public.

But isn’t it a problem, from the point of view of the organization of news in the paper, that science is in one place and technology is in another? Wouldn’t it be possible to bring them together?
That’s true, and it’s a good question. Perhaps one should think of bringing them together.

Thinking not only in domestic terms, but also internationally, does scientific journalism tend to occupy a larger space than it occupies now in the media?
I’m not in much of a condition to judge, because I’m a bit of a hillbilly editor, as Fernando Henrique Cardoso would say. I travel little, I accompany the international press much less than would be desirable, for lack of time, and because, after all, Brazil is a continental-sized country, the national reality weighs heavily in our journalistic menu.

Just as well.
Yes. I accompany the international press very little, I haven’t ever had the opportunity of living abroad, so I wouldn’t know how to give an opinion on the basis of observation. But in intuitive terms, I would say that scientific journalism is just going to grow in terms of space and presence within journalism. Because I think that the more traditional themes of journalism, namely, the institutional themes, notably politics and the economy, have been losing relative importance in the thematic make-up of newspapers.

Is this perceptible?
Without a doubt. If you take a newspaper from the 1950’s, compare the relative weight of the various kinds of news item, you’ll see that there is a lot of political news, those long stories showing how the session in the Senate had been on the previous day, in detail, how the session of the Chamber had elapsed, in detail, the decisions of the president, of the minister etc. So there was a lot of political coverage, very little coverage of the economy, it wasn’t even organized as such, subjects like education would appear in a very sporadic fashion, very disorganized, even science was a very incipient news item. The main menu of the newspapers in the 1950’s was, therefore, a lot of politics, a lot of international dispatches taken from the agencies, a certain disorganized news coverage of the local community. With time, in the 1960’s, the 1970’s and so on, other genres would get organized, cultural journalism itself grew a lot in the 1960’s, journalism of the economy grew a lot in the 1970’s, service journalism, as it is called, arose in the 1970’s, at least, in Brazil. So in the relative make-up, politics and even the economy, to my mind, have lost room to accommodate other subgenres that there are, which have a presence today in the contents of any paper. I think that science is going to grow, for the reasons that I have already mentioned.