"Folha Needs To Remain Restless," Says Editor-In-Chief

Six months in, Maria Cristina Frias plans to bring more diversity in the newsroom and in Folha's coverage

Paula Cesarino Costa
São Paulo

At the six-month mark of her term as the Folha's new editor-in-chief, Maria Cristina Frias says that the newspaper must remain restless and in constant renovation, without giving up its central values: an independent, pluralistic, nonpartisan journalism that critically covers the powerful.

She is untroubled by the current political turbulence in Brazil, saying that in polarizing times like these, it's tempting to take sides, but she sees her role as always looking for journalistic balance.

She started her career in broadcast news and began to work full time at Folha 20 years ago. She took over the role after the passing of her brother Otávio Frias Filho, in August of last year. He chose her to succeed him and gave her specific instructions for the next few years.

Frias is also the first female editor-in-chief of a major Brazilian newspaper and has a personal goal of making the Folha newsroom a more diverse environment, both in terms of staff as well as coverage. She describes herself as a voracious reader, who has "the mind of a reporter."

Ilustração coluna Ombudsman
- Carvall
 
You took over as editor-in-chief six months ago. Can you give me an assessment of this period?  
   

It's been a very intense and difficult time. Otávio's presence and talent is missed tremendously, both by the newsroom and myself. I had the privilege of working alongside my brother every day. He chose me as his succesor, and the board agreed with his decision. He was very thoughtful and gave me some pointers for the next few years.

Soon after his passing, the then-candidate Jair Bolsonaro started to attack the press, particularly Folha.
We published scoops like the illegal purchase of WhatsApp blasts against his opposition. That story reverberated in the international media.

Once elected, Bolsonaro went to a TV show to say, "Folha is over." We saw then a viral social media campaign to subscribe Folha, as a way of standing up for democracy.

No matter the turbulences, my main goal is to keep Otávio's legacy alive and continue to practice the journalism he preached: an independent, pluralistic, nonpartisan jornalism that critically covers the powerful.

In a time with so much polarization, combative spirits and little appreciation for democracy coming from some, it's tempting to take sides, but my responsibility is to make sure these principles are kept and that different points of view are always taken into consideration.

We are not opposing the Bolsonaro administration, only keeping up with our values of always covering the government in a critical manner. Folha is still the same Folha, and to keep on like that, it needs to remain restless and in constant renovation. Tomorrow's paper has to be always better than today's.


You are the first female editor-in-chief in Folha's history. How is your gender relevant to your position?

I wonder how long we are still going to make a big deal about the first female to do this or that. Unfortunately, there are many roles which women have not been able to reach, such as Folha's editor-in-chief. We broke this ground ahead of our two main competitors.

Being female helps me in my search to keep opinions and sources always in balance and when we are looking for stories that appeal to a broader audience. Like all the main newspapers in the world, we are want to have more women in our readership.

The more diverse our newsroom is as well as our reporters' background, the better will be our reporting and we will be able to reach a wider audience. The newsroom is 40% female, which is in line with newspapers from the UK and the US, but we are aiming for a better gender balance, including in the opinion desk.

Last week we had an all-hands meeting to discuss diversity and what we can do about it. I want to make this a recurring thing, because we need to change procedures, editing, sourcing, and so on.

The same applies to improve the rates of blacks, asians and people from less privileged backkgrounds in our newsroms. Our next trainee cohort, that had 3,000 applicants, will offer a stipend.
 

President Bolsonaro and his senior cabinet members show an hostile and sometimes aggressive behavior towards the press and especially Folha. How these circumstances influence Folha's journalism?

In a way, all administrations are a bit hostile to Folha, since we cover the government in a critical and independent manner. They tend to be defensive and sometimes use their power to attack us. The newsroom was once raided during the Collor administration, for example. So we are used to a certain animosity.

The Bolsonaro administration has showed a particular difficulty in understanding the newspaper's role, which is to bring clarity to collective issues, using thoroughly reported facts; to monitor what politicians do and make a commitment to defend democracy and Brazil's development.

When he treats the press with scorn and hostility, he tries to undermine this effort and encourages his base to mistreat and be violent towards journalists. It is an abominable and dangerous behavior -- and pointless, because we will keep doing what we are doing.

Newsrooms all over the world are going through downsizing and budget cuts. At the same time, they suffer with the competition from online giants. What's your opinion of this and what are your challenges in this regard?

It's hard to make long-term plans when you start your work from scratch every day, with a new newspaper issue.

Times are tough. The Brazilian economy has not rebounded yet, but there is hope. The weight of subscriptions in our business model is growing, and we are also using multimedia in our coverage. We have been getting great results in podcasts, for example.

How do you define yourself as a reader?

I'm a voracious reader, a news junkie. I love print: when I travel abroad, I compulsively buy print editions and I read news on my cellphone and on my computer as often as possible during the day and in the evening. It's not only out of duty - it's something I like to do, even if I get annoyed when I spot a mistake.

I think like a reporter; I cheer our scoops, give the competition credit when they scoop us and I'm always thinking about what we could do better.

Besides being editor-in-chief, you also head a daily section in our business desk. How do you divide your time between the two?

I love working on my section, but at at first, I thought I couldn't keep doing both things at once. As time went on, with colleagues and sources cheering me on and telling me how it's important to keep on writing, I felt more comfortable with keeping the two roles.

Like hospital directors that continue practicing medicine, I saw that being in the newsroom helps me in my editor-in-chief role. It allows me to keep in touch with our journalists, understand their needs and workflows, see how things are working or not working, and it keeps me updated in our journalistic practice.

I had to give less time to the section in my first months as editor-in-chief, which was only possible by the my dedicated and talented team, but now I plan to divide my time better between the two roles.

Translated by NATASHA MADOV
Read the article in the original language​​