Folha publisher, businessman and economist Luiz Frias, 57, says that the future of the newspaper, which turns 100 years old this Friday, will continue to be based on the pillars of its editorial principles and financial independence.
“The highest priority was, is and will continue to be the newsroom. My father [Octavio Frias de Oliveira; 1912-2007], my brother [Otavio Frias Filho; 1957-2018] and I have always believed that editorial independence comes before financial concerns,” he said.
As the most widely circulated newspaper in the country since the 1980s, based on a diversity of opinions as well as non-partisanship and criticism, Folha's future goal, according to Frias, is to reinforce these editorial principles and prioritize its digital model. It will give more weight to the financial revenue that comes from subscriptions instead of advertising.
In editorial terms, the goal is to deepen the curation of topics amid the cacophony of information available on the internet.
“In a world where time is short, curating what is important has become essential for people's professional and intellectual training. Curation and editing has been elevated to a new dimension of relevance,” he says.
In addition to his role as publisher for Folha, Frias was also responsible for creating new businesses over the past few years, such as PagSeguro and PagBank, among others, and UOL (Universo Online), the largest content, digital services and technology company in the country.
Frias says that Folha's team of journalists, frequently attacked by the Jair Bolsonaro government (no party), has been put to the test in this period of “extreme polarization,” with a vindictive government.
“Every government official wants the press on its knees. The problem is that the press on its knees only interests the government, not society.”
But, according to Frias, Folha must also exercise self-criticism in its work in a “ruthless way,” becoming increasingly rigorous with the accuracy, precision and depth of the news. Any errors should also be corrected, according to him, with equal or even greater prominence.
Regarding the future of the newspaper, he says: “I see Folha maintaining its independence and faithfulness to its editorial principles. Influence and prestige are a consequence.”
Folha turns 100 years old as the nationwide leader in subscriptions, but structural market changes have made it difficult for legacy publications. Its priority is producing and publishing news for those who read the online version of Folha and attracting new subscribers, but what are the main strategies that will keep the newspaper on top in the years ahead?
Folha was a pioneer in Brazil in the business model of producing professional journalism in the world, also called quality or prestigious journalism.
This is the case of the American newspaper The New York Times, which closed last year garnering 48% of its circulation revenue from digital. Other examples are the Financial Times and The Economist.
Folha inaugurated the paywall in Brazil, which today is followed by the others. It is a digital model that gives greater importance to subscription and less to advertising. Of the total subscriptions sold by Folha in 2020, 80% were digital. We ended 2020 with digital subscribers representing more than two thirds of the portfolio and a few percentage points below 40% in revenue. Our goal is, in two years, to reach the level of The New York Times, with half of the circulation revenue coming from digital.
How can we continue to modernize the Folha Project in the face of the dizzying changes in information consumption?
First, by continuing to do critical, diverse and non-partisan journalism. Social networks and fake news only increase the need for real information, the kind that is fact-checked and confirmed, not engaged, does not take sides and listens to different sides, which only professional journalism is able to offer. It is not for nothing that we beat all audience records on the internet during the health crisis.
As everything fits on the internet and reaches people in real time, you are overwhelmed by a multitude of information, with the important news mixing with what is not important. In a world where time is short, curating what is important has become essential for people's professional and intellectual training. Curation has been elevated to a new dimension of relevance. I want a Folha or The New York Times to help me discern what is important in the infinite, and inherent, cacophony of the internet. Modernizing the Folha Project will be surfing this new need better than the others.
What future do you see for the printed newspaper?
Our business is to produce quality content and curate what's important in a world where news and fake news mix with the same stridency. The platform comes after. It used to be only paper, today it is mainly digital.
A newspaper differs in that it publishes editorials on a daily basis, the result of consolidated positions over decades and repeatedly debated by a body of journalists. Folha has established positions on the main issues. In your opinion, in what fields can this opinion be discussed, emphasized or modified, in the coming decades?
As much as there is jurisprudence in macro themes, generalist and abstract principles that have been consolidated over decades and over which a reasonable consensus hangs, its application in specific situations in daily life or in certain determined periods, often, is no longer obvious and starts to carry a lot of controversy.
This is the case of Presidents [Donald] Trump and [Jair] Bolsonaro. On Monday, March 13, 2017, Folha caused an uproar among journalists and those who think about journalism as being the first to publish a full-page interview with then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro. At the time, the retired captain was already saying the same aberrations that he repeats today. Folha deemed it legitimate to give voice to a relatively unknown candidate who had already reached 9% in the polls. There is no use hiding or censoring. It’s worse.
In the long run, under the scrutiny of daylight, the best ideas prevail. And nothing has prevented Folha from continuing to do its critical journalism. The rest everyone knows. Folha became a target of the president, who attacks us almost every week.
Our business is to produce quality content and curate what's important in a world where news and fake news mix with the same stridency. The platform comes later. It was only paper, today it is mainly digital
From a very young age and with his father, Octavio Frias de Oliveira, and his older brother, Otavio Frias Filho, closely followed Folha's trajectory, but with a strong affinity for the business world, which led to the diversification of the Folha Group, and later, UOL. Now, also as a newspaper publisher, what are your top priorities?
The highest priority was, is and will remain the newsroom. My father, my brother and I have always believed that editorial independence comes before the financial. There is no editorial independence without financial independence.
This, along with criticism, diversity and non-partisanship, is one of the pillars of the Folha Project—my brother Otavio's work—, all of which were discussed at length by the three in the early 1980s.
In 2006, on the left, Octavio Frias de Oliveira (1912-2007), then publisher of Folha, and his sons Luiz (in the center) and Otavio (1957-2018) on the ninth floor of the newspaper building - Eduardo Knapp/Folhapress
Could your position as a businessman in various areas outside Folha's journalistic activity become an obstacle to the newspaper's independence? How can you guarantee that Folha's newsroom remains independent and faithful only to its editorial principles?
My father always had other business activities besides the newspaper. What guarantees the independence of Folha's newsroom and its faithfulness to its editorial principles is “His Excellency,” the reader, as Seu Frias said. This unshakable conviction turned Folha into the largest newspaper in circulation in the mid-1980s, a position it holds today.
And only the reader's preferences makes it possible for a newspaper company to be prosperous and healthy. Being independent and maintaining its editorial principles is making it business viable.
You saw a gap opportunity in the payment system that didn't serve large segments of the Brazilian population. There was demand, but it was not served by the traditional financial system. Can you do something similar with the news market? Are there demands still being poorly met? Which ones?
We are very proud of the journalists who work for Folha. It is a young team, close to 35 years old, tough, haughty and combative. It has been put to the test in times of extreme polarization, a persecutory government, not to mention the pandemic. It has suffered attacks, but without giving in to provocation. It is an honor to work with this group of colleagues.
But Folha learned from my brother to exercise self-criticism in a ruthless way. We always thought we could have done better. I don't think there are any magic formulas or demands to be magically discovered. But I think that journalism has taken on a new importance, as I mentioned. The difference will be in the execution and how to deliver it to the reader.
Folha has a minority and indirect stake in UOL, the largest Brazilian internet content company, which in practice competes with Folha in the dissemination of news and in the search for subscribers. Are there plans to merge the activities of the two companies or does it still make sense to keep them separate according to their characteristics?
There are no plans at the moment. Any initiative that explores information and communication on the internet will be behind either subscribers or advertising. They are completely different companies, with different content, mandates and shareholders.
But the relationship is professional and win-win: one provides quality content for the other, which, in addition to receiving the content, achieves enormous visibility. This visibility contributed to the fact that Folha's audience on the Internet was, on average, 69% greater than that of its direct competitor, last year, according to data from Comscore.
The Jair Bolsonaro administration has been very hostile to Folha, which has revealed controversial aspects of the president's friends and family, as well as failures in his administration. During the Fernando Collor government (1990-1992), the newspaper's headquarters was invaded by the Federal Police. Other presidents also entered, each in their own way, in confrontation with Folha, but probably more so with Folha than other media outlets. What does that say about Folha?
It demonstrates that Folha pursues balance and exemption with some success, regardless of the person. That Folha is dispassionate and critical of everyone. People often complain that Folha is too critical. And I ask: have you ever seen a government official stop praising itself, stop bragging about its deeds and make a sincere self-criticism?
No, it does not exist and it is natural that it is so. Every ruler wants the press on its knees. The problem is that the press on its knees only concerns the government, not society. A kneeling, subdued press loses any usefulness it may have for a society. It’s useless.
The Bolsonaro government took over with the support of a significant portion of the business community, which bet on reforms and privatization. Two years later, Minister Paulo Guedes has done little. How do you evaluate the advancement of issues dear to the productive sector and the government's focus in this area?
It has delivered little, as you said. But, probably, time will tell. It was in the economy that this government has done the least damage, at least so far. Everything else is horrible.
Are you in favor of the impeachment of President Bolsonaro?
In democracy, and Brazil’s, although young, is one of the best in the world if you consider direct voting as the best system, impeachment is extremely traumatic and leaves its marks for decades. It is a medicine that must be used with extreme care. I find it problematic to ask for impeachment without a clear majority of the population defending it.
Folha said in an editorial last Wednesday (17), that although Bolsonaro's disapproval rose from an already high 32% in December to 40% in January, according to Datafolha, the share of those who defend his departure is expressive, but still a minority, 42%. Additionally, Folha defends that the 60 impeachment requests should be evaluated by Congress, in order to give satisfaction to society.
Every ruler wants the press on its knees. The problem is that the press on its knees only helps the government, not society. A kneeling, subdued press loses any usefulness it may have for a society. It’s useless.
What experiences and lessons would you highlight in Folha's 100-year history, of which you have actively participated in at least in the last 40? Objectively, how has the newspaper contributed to the country's institutional improvement?
I don't believe in miraculous newspapers that changed the country's destiny. I also am not much on looking back on history, I prefer to look forward. I prefer to believe in daily work, day after day. But, in honor of 100 years and Otavio, I would highlight the open letter he wrote to Collor.
What needs to be improved at the newspaper?
The newspaper can and must be more and more rigorous with the accuracy, precision and depth of the news. You should always check before publishing. And check again. Unfortunately we work on the imperative of haste. The best remedy is not only correction, but doing it with equal or greater prominence than the error. All of this seems elementary, but the difference is in the daily execution. This is where it becomes difficult to improve further.
Considering that things change much faster today than a century ago, where do you see Folha in a decade?
I see Folha maintaining its independence and faithfulness to its editorial principles. Influence and prestige are a consequence.
Luiz Frias, publisher of Folha, a newspaper that celebrates its 100th anniversary this Friday (19)
Translated by Kiratiana Freelon