Local News Deserts in Brazil

Historical and contemporary perspectives

Authored by: Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva , Angela Pimenta

The Routledge Companion to Local Media and Journalism

Print publication date:  April  2020
Online publication date:  April  2020

Print ISBN: 9780815375364
eBook ISBN: 9781351239943
Adobe ISBN:




The history of Brazil’s local press is marked by a late start in the nineteenth century on the eve of the country’s independency from Portugal, and the continuous struggle of newspapers to become viable enterprises. In the early twentieth century, Brazilian newspapers were few and mostly aimed at the elites and concentrated in the wealthier Southeast and South regions. More recently, there have been opportunities for local newspapers to thrive all over the country. However, the combination of two ongoing crises – the digital revolution and a persistent economic downturn – have undermined the Brazilian press, hitting hardest small local outlets that lack editorial independence and effectiveness in covering civic issues. In this context, in 2017, Projor, an NGO dedicated to the advancement of Brazilian journalism, launched Atlas da Notícia (News Atlas) with the aim to map Brazil’s local press. Published in late 2018, the second edition revealed the absence of registered news outlets in 51 per cent of a total of 5,570 municipalities, home to 30 million Brazilians. Besides these so-called ‘news deserts’, another 30 per cent of municipalities were found to be ‘nearly-news deserts’, since they only have up to two news outlets publishing at least biweekly issues.

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Local News Deserts in Brazil


Differently from the US, where the press came along with the first European settlements and soon spread to almost all small communities, newspapers in Brazil only started during the colonial period. A further difference is that newspapers have never really established themselves as a viable enterprise in most areas, except in large or middle-sized towns. These variations between the development of press in the two countries were due mostly to economic factors, although cultural features have also had their influence. The fact that economic development in Brazil has been so much more concentrated in certain regions than in the US explains why local journalism has been historically less important there. Brazilian local press surged at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century along with the prosperity brought by 16 years of growth and stability in the country during that period. But from 2014 on the country has plunged into serious economic and political crises, the effects of which have been devastating to the local press. The negative impacts of the crises have been aggravated by business model disruption in journalism brought about by the adaptation of digital technologies in the sector. This chapter provides an overview of the historical development of local press in Brazil followed by an analysis of its contemporary context. It then presents the findings of the Atlas da Notícia (News Atlas) project and discusses its implications.

Historical development of local press in Brazil

Lichter, Rothman and Lichter (1986) and Michael Schudson (1978), in his seminal Discovering the News, describe how journalism evolved in the US. Although in the beginning American newspapers mostly imitated those produced in England, the important social, economic and cultural differences in America from the English model resulted in a specific kind of journalism. In Brazil, colonisation was not led by families who came to the New World to establish themselves, as it was in North America. Rather, the Portuguese settlers came to their new territory mostly to spend short periods of time to enrich themselves and go back to Lisbon. As José Marques de Melo argues in his excellent book Sociologia da Imprensa Brasileira (1973), Brazil was populated by the Portuguese, from 1532 on, in a slow process, mostly alongside the coast, with a single objective: exporting natural goods to Europe. The Brazilian hinterland was practically non-populated for centuries. Furthermore, there was almost no economic activity in the colony, except for the extraction of mineral and vegetal resources. Importantly, these activities were carried out without the need for invoices, bills of sale or credit memos. Establishing newspapers was not in the interests of the settlers, who also did not see the need for them for cultural purposes. The colonial social environment was not propitious to the existence of libraries, schools or newspapers. Additionally, it is highly likely that the Portuguese royalty would not have been sympathetic to the notion of people in the colonies printing their ideas and debating public policies that could become dangerous to its rule.

All this changed in 1808, when the Portuguese king moved to Rio de Janeiro, fleeing from Bonaparte’s forces, which were attacking Portugal. As the new headquarters for the empire, Brazil was supposed to have what had not been necessary until then: schools, colleges, libraries, museums and printing houses to attend the Court’s needs. It was at this time when the first newspaper in the country, the Gazeta do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro Gazette), was published by the government. The Brazilian case is in contrast to the first American newspaper, the Public Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestic issued in Boston in 1690, a private initiative of a businessman, the English publisher Benjamin Harrison, proprietor of a coffee house. Harrison was not very successful, though. Having published his paper without a licence and having printed some material critical of the British Government, he was jailed. It took 15 years for another newspaper to be issued in America, but the press flourished there throughout the eighteenth and particularly in the nineteenth centuries. In Brazil, besides the Official Gazette, another newspaper that was regularly published in 1808 was the Correio Braziliense (Braziliense Post). The paper was printed in London and smuggled into Rio de Janeiro to be distributed mostly among opponents of Portuguese rule and campaigned for more autonomy and independence of Brazil from Lisbon. Brazil became independent in 1822. During the nineteenth century, several newspapers and magazines were published, most of which, however, were sponsored by political parties or by people who campaigned for particular political causes, such as the abolition of slavery and the establishment of a republican regime in the country.

Meanwhile, in the United States, starting in the 1830s, according to the aforementioned Schudson (1978), the press notably changed its purpose. Instead of being mostly a means for conveying ideological messages, it became a business to sell news to an audience of consumers and to sell its audience to advertisers who wanted to increase the sales of their own products (from soap to clothes, from furniture to toothpaste etc.). This transformation occurred because of a conjunction of several concomitant economic and social factors in a relatively short period of time: the invention of web- and sheet-fed presses that ensured a large-scale production of print copies, the quasi-universalisation of literacy in the country, the spread of railroads throughout its territory, economic prosperity that resulted in better income for more people who would now have enough money to buy both news and advertised goods, the enhancement of working conditions such as a decrease in working hours and days – which made it possible for more people to have more time for leisure activities such as reading newspapers and magazines. Such processes facilitated a significant increase in the number of daily newspapers in the US from 65 in 1830 (with a total circulation of 78,000 copies) to 138 (with a circulation of 300,000 copies) in 1840, according to Schudson (1978). Most importantly, during the nineteenth century, the United States experienced a period of intense economic development that spread through the country to its expanded territory in the West. The country became an egalitarian market democracy across the whole land. The newspapers performed a formidable role in this process by selling ads that caused the market of consumption goods to grow exponentially, by creating a powerful media businesses, and by spreading the ideology of the free market and growing consumption to the whole country. Alberto Dines, one of the most accomplished Brazilian journalists of the twentieth century, used to say that in nineteenth-century America every small town had at least three institutions: the sheriff, the bar and the local newspaper.

In Brazil, the development of the press was quite different during the nineteenth century and the first four decades of the twentieth century. Newspapers were few, concentrated in a small number of cities, and were mostly political, aimed at a small group of elites and literate individuals. Brazilian newspapers were vehicles of government platforms or of those who wanted to be in government, of political parties, of proselytism or dilettantism of those who were wealthy enough to be able to sponsor these media. The Brazilian Westernisation was not similar to that of America. Brazilian capitalism was formed in a very different fashion to that of the United States, and it was and still is in many ways uneven and complementary. This means that some regions in the country have not developed themselves in the same way as the Southeast and South regions, especially states such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. In those Brazilian states (and particularly in their capital cities) the audience was wealthy, educated and with enough free time to consume news. It was there that in the twentieth century newspapers developed in relatively similar fashion to those of the US in the 1800s. Another key difference between the two countries is that Brazilian society has a tradition of orality that the United States does not have. Until the mid-1950s, when television was introduced in the country, most citizens were illiterate. Radio and television consumption became the norm before mass audiences were formed for the print media. In addition, in states and cities where the market for the print media was not enough to support independent outlets, newspapers had always been sponsored by governments or political clans interested only in achieving power or their particular political purposes.

Local press in contemporary Brazil

It was only in the last decade of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century that opportunities for local newspapers to thrive emerged. But by then, journalism in almost the entire world was already struggling with a structural crisis brought by the internet and social media. These new hurdles meant significant obstacles to the development of local media in Brazil, and much of the progress that had been made around the turn of the century was stalled or reversed. Importantly, since 2014 the economy that had been growing in the previous 16 years has stalled, and Brazil has again been marred by recession or slow growth that particularly affects small cities and states, undermining in turn their local journalism. The challenges for contemporary local media in Brazil are considerable. However, there are still people engaged in the attempts to make them better, moved by the belief that they are essential to the preservation and improvement of democracy. Among them are scholars at universities who dedicate their research to better understand the local press, associations that try to promote it and NGOs that pursue the improvement of its quality.

Brazil has finally been consolidating its democratic institutions over the last 25 years. Its economy grew significantly in the period until crisis hit in 2014. The Brazilian people have benefited from a long cycle of socio-economic advances brought about since re-democratisation in the late 1980s. The main improvements were carried out by the Real Plan under former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration (1994–2002) and by progressive social policies implemented under former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration (2003–2010) and during President Dilma Rousseff’s first term (2010–2014) (Fausto, 2015). Since the military left power in 1985, Brazil has also moved towards higher standards of governance. The press has been an important driver in these institutional improvements. A good example is the continuous publication of corporate malfeasance stories involving public officials and politicians, facilitating the approval of key legal advancements such as the 2011 Freedom of Information Law and the 2014 Anti-Corruption Law (Instituto Ethos, 2015).

However, since the political crisis that led to the impeachment of Rousseff in August 2016, the country has been heavily hit by the combination of a severe political institutional crisis and an economic downturn. Its media and communication industries have been impacted by these events, and digital technologies have affected the sectors deeply. These changes pose an immense challenge to the Brazilian news industry. Newspapers and magazines have suffered sharp declines in readership, advertising and circulation revenues. According to latest data provided by Brazil’s print and digital media industry auditing body Instituto Verificador de Circulação (Circulation Verifier Institute; 2017), between 2014 and 2017, the circulation of the main 11 national and regional print newspapers dropped 41 per cent from 1.26 million copies to 736,000 copies.

There are no reliable data about the impacts of the digital revolution and its political and economic effects on the local press. However, it is very likely that the effects are similar to the cases of news outlets in larger cities. Apart from the so-called ‘big press’ based in cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the national capital Brasília, which are known for editorial independence and covering civic issues, Brazil does not have a strong local press. This fact has negative implications for democracy. Local newspapers do not exercise the role of control and oversight of local power and therefore have failed to fulfill the mission of informing citizens. They follow the agenda and focus of news outlets based in metropolitan markets such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the contents of which they reuse, as Nunomura (2018) points out.

The results [of the research] show the excessive use of second-hand news, that is, not produced by [local papers’] own teams. The analysis of the discourse here showed that, in the case of [former president] Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the six newspapers [researched] reproduced, with almost identical angles and without local or regional contextualization, the discourse of Folha de S. Paulo, O Globo and O Estado de S. Paulo. Lately under the government of [President] Michel Temer, these newspapers sought to distance themselves from the narrative of the three major publications, denoting serving the political interests of their regions.

The vulnerabilities of local press must be understood within the Brazilian reality. Having a dynamic and diversified economy, Brazil is also a country marked by deep geographic and socio-economic asymmetries, inequality of income and of access to education. According to a 2004 World Bank Country study:

Brazil is a continent-sized nation, marked by profound contrasts and diversity. Some of these are geographic or climactic in nature, others are racial or ethnic. Brazil’s population draws on Native American, African, and European roots, and successive waves of immigrants, principally from Asia and Europe, have added to the mix … Yet other contrasts are social in nature and generally less welcome. Living conditions for Brazil’s 170 million people vary dramatically, and income disparities in Brazil are significant – not only across regions but also between metropolitan centers, nonmetropolitan urban centers, and rural areas.

(Velez et al., 2004)

As of 2018, Brazil is a country of 208 million people where these enduring asymmetries and inequalities also permeate the journalistic craft and civic news supply throughout the 5,570 municipalities (Governo do Brasil, 2018). In the more developed regions, such as in the Southeast and the South, there are more news outlets and among them more newsrooms that are competent and committed to covering public issues and have greater respect for the freedom of the press. However, in remote regions of the Northeast and the North, the presence of news outlets is more sparse. In these places – and even in parts of the Southeast and the South – the risk of corporate and political interference in journalistic outlets is more prevalent. As stated in the Media Ownership Monitor Brasil, a joint report by two NGOs – Intervozes, focused on social communications, and Reporters Without Borders, focused on the defense of freedom of expression –

our [Brazilian] media system shows high concentration of audience and property, high geographical concentration, lack of transparency, as well as economic, political and religious interference.

(Intervozes and Reporters Without Borders, 2017)

The report indicates that among the largest 50 media companies, 73 per cent are based in the metropolitan region of São Paulo. In total, 80 per cent are located in the South and Southeast regions. In remotes areas of the Amazon, political interference in local media was allowed by the Federal Senate Social Communications Committee. An example for this is the way in which community television stations licences were granted, a story that was revealed by Elvira Lobato (2017), a reporter, in Antenas da Floresta (Antennas of the Forest). As of 2014, politicians and their relatives owned 373 (21 per cent) of a total of 1,737 local Amazonian television stations. Senator Mozarildo Cavalcanti explained the politicians’ appetite for broadcast.

The role of TV is to be a showcase for the politician to remain in permanent evidence. To show your speeches and your participation in public hearings, in a way that [you] seem more intelligent and well-prepared than the others.

(Lobato, 2017)

Large corporations are also interfering in local media matters, as pointed out by Observatório da Imprensa (Press Observer), a news media watchdog website maintained by PROJOR – The Institute for Development of Journalism, a Brazilian NGO dedicated to the advancement of journalism in Brazil. In 2015, the largest environmental disaster in the country’s history was caused by a deadly dam spill owned by mining company Samarco and its controllers BHP Billinton and Vale SA in the historical city of Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais. Following the disaster, the local newspaper O Liberal (The Liberal) featured pro-Samarco coverage, including an article with the headline ‘Somos todos Samarco’ (‘We are all Samarco!’) (Ferreira et al., 2016). At the time of the disaster, Samarco was the highest local taxpayer, responsible for 80 per cent of local receipts, and also a significant advertiser of O Liberal. Notably, three months prior to the spill, the newspaper featured another friendly piece about Samarco, reporting on a public hearing held at the city council to discuss the expansion of two dams and examine blueprints presented by the mining company executives. Observatório da Imprensa found one-sided reporting of the story and quoted O Liberal’s friendly coverage of Samarco.

The president of the city council of Mariana, Lieutenant Freitas (PHS) [member of the Party of Human Solidarity] made a compliment [to Samarco]: Lt. Freitas highlights the transparency of the company. “It shows that Samarco has the concern to show what they already have done regarding every action they are going to take,” he congratulates. “In view of the crisis we are experiencing, the project can help our community with the creation of some jobs,” notes the councilman.

(Castilho, 2016)

The Atlas da Notícia (News Atlas) project

Aware of the weaknesses of the local press and also the lack of data about the presence and geographic distribution of local news outlets throughout the 5,570 Brazilian municipalities, in late 2017 PROJOR launched the Atlas da Notícia (News Atlas) initiative (PROJOR and Volt Data Lab, 2017). The project is inspired by the Columbia Journalism Review’s (CJR) America’s Growing Deserts of News project (Bucay et al., 2017). Atlas da Notícia’s first edition focused on identifying print and/or local media outlets covering civic local issues, such as policy making, public spending, law making, health, education, security, mobility and the environment. The data gathering, analysis and visualisation have been commissioned to Volt Data Lab (2018), a data-driven news agency. The research was based on four types of sources: data provided by the Special Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency of the Republic (Secom), through the Law of Access to Information, by the Associação Nacional de Jornais (ANJ), the National Association of Newspapers, by state trade news associations, such as Sindicato dos Jornais e Revistas de São Paulo (Sindijore/SP), and by a crowdsourcing campaign carried out by Observatório da Imprensa.

The project defines a local news outlet as a news content provider that publishes at least two local journalistic pieces per month. This criterion was adopted to take into account the aforementioned Brazilian socio-economic asymmetries and thus allow the inclusion of monthly periodicals that are common in remote areas. Published in November 2017, Atlas da Notícia’s first edition identified 5,354 news outlets in 1,125 municipalities from a total of 5,570. Thus, it revealed the existence of so-called ‘news deserts’ in print and/or digital news media in 4,500 municipalities, home to 70 million people, some 35 per cent of the Brazilian population.

Figure 3.1   Atlas da Notícia – mapping local press and ‘news deserts’ in Brazil

Other key findings of Atlas da Notícia, which revealed links between Brazil’s socio-economic asymmetries and supply of local civic news, included the following.

  • There are 416 municipalities, home to more than 15 million people, with only one outlet, either a local newspaper or news website.
  • Brazil’s three main cities (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the federal capital Brasília) account for 1,112 newspapers and/or websites, representing 20.7 per cent of the total. Together, they are home to some 10 per cent of the national population.
  • State capitals were at the top of rankings in terms of number of newspapers and/or news websites.
  • Florianópolis, capital of the Southern state of Santa Catarina, ranked first nationally in terms of its number of newspapers and/or news websites per citizen among municipalities with a population of above 100,000 habitants.
  • Fortaleza, the capital of the Northeastern state of Ceará, had the lowest rate of news media outlets per 100,000 habitants (0.87).

Atlas da Notícia is an open-source project. Its first print and digital map has contributed to other studies examining the relationship between local news provisions and socio-economic asymmetries in Brazil. For example, a May 2018 report by the Brazilian section of Article 19 (Artigo 19), an NGO focused on the promotion of freedom of expression, found that almost half of the violations committed in 2017 against bloggers, radio broadcasters and community communicators took place in so-called ‘news deserts’ (Artigo 19, 2018).

Considering the nature of the outlet where the victims worked when they suffered violence, 56 percent worked for commercial outlets, 3.33 percent worked for activist news outlets and 11 percent worked for community outlets. It is noteworthy, however, the high number of bloggers and of violations against broadcasters compared to 2016. These two groups constitute 19 occurrences, two-thirds of the cases that we covered in 2017 and are distributed along 14 cities … According to the Atlas da Notícia survey, 10 of these cities are in the so-called news deserts, not having any print or online newspapers. Two others have only one print outlet each and none online. In many cities where there are no newspapers, bloggers and radio broadcasters end up occupying this informational vacuum. The serious violations they suffer therefore pose both threats to the freedom of expression and life of these individuals, as well as the possibility of the complete silencing of local media.

Greater São Paulo is Brazil’s richest and largest metropolitan area. Nevertheless, it is also the home of news deserts, as revealed by Agência Mural de Jornalismo das Periferias (Mural News Agency of Journalism of the Outskirts), a digital news vehicle focused on São Paulo’s impoverished neighbouring suburbs (Agência Mural de Jornalismo das Periferias, 2018). Using Atlas da Notícia data, Agência Mural’s blog published by Folha de S. Paulo has indicated the absence of print and digital provisions in five neighbouring municipalities of São Paulo: Embu das Artes, Juquitiba, Pirapora do Bom Jesus, São Lourenço da Serra and Vargem Grande Paulista. These municipalites are home to a total of 382,000 people (Agência Mural, 2017). Another six neighbouring municipalities are nearly-news deserts, having one print newspaper and one digital vehicle each. Agência Mural interviewed a street vendor, Denilson Nascimento Vale, a São Lourenço da Serra resident. According to Vale, “Here in São Lourenço it is like this: when events happen within the city, we get to learn about them through comments of the people in the street” (Agência Mural, 2017).

Residents of Brazilian news deserts often rely on broadcast media and social networks, such as Facebook and Instagram, to access local news. In order to map the distribution of radio and television stations in Brazil, Atlas da Notícia published its first broadcast map in July 2018. It revealed that some 50 million Brazilians (25 per cent of the total population) live in 3,050 municipalities without registered local radio and television stations. When combined with the previous print and digital news provisions mapping, the results indicate that 2,879 municipalities (52 per cent) do not have any kind of registered local media outlet; 40 million Brazilians (16 per cent of the total population) live in these absolute local news deserts (PROJOR and Volt Data Lab, 2018). The research used data provided by Brazil’s Ministry of Sciences, Technology, Innovations and Communications (MCTIC, 2018), responsible for registering broadcast outlets, whose licences are granted by the Senate. It must be stressed that these 40 million Brazilians probably do receive some kind of local news from larger neighbouring municipalities that have some kind of local news media provisions. The second mapping has also revealed that radio stations are most prevalent in Brazil, totaling 3,749 compared with 3,367 print newspapers, 2,728 television stations and 1,985 digital outlets.

Figure 3.2   Atlas da Notícia – mapping broadcasting media in Brazil

Despite the lingering economic crisis, internet access continues to increase, as indicated by CGI.br, the Brazilian Steering Internet Committee (Comitê Gestor da Internet Brasil, 2018). The organisation publishes TIC Domicílios (ICT Households), a yearly survey on internet indicators. Published in August 2018, the latest survey indicates that as of 2017, the proportion of internet users in Brazil increased by 6 percentage points in a year, from 61 per cent to 67 per cent, totaling 42.1 million households. In urban areas this proportion reached 65 per cent in 2017, which corresponds to 38.8 million connected households (CGI.br, 2018). The study also stresses the persistence of inequalities by socio-economic class and by urban and rural areas; internet access is 30 per cent in D/E classed households (the rate was 23 per cent in 2016) and 34 per cent in households in rural areas (26 per cent in 2016). In socio-economic classes A and B, the proportions reach, respectively, 99 per cent and 93 per cent. In addition, 19 per cent of connected households do not have a computer, which represents 13.4 million households whose residents connect to the internet through mobile phones. That proportion was only 4 per cent in 2014.

Published in November 2018, Atlas da Notícia 2.0 marks the first yearly update, showing that 54 print outlets closed down since 2011, mostly local newspapers located in the Southeast region (Atlas da Notícia 2.0, 2018). Since the second edition is based on the 2017 Brazilian Census updates, the results cannot be directly compared with the first edition, which used the 2000 Census. However, the second edition corroborates a key finding, the presence of news deserts in at least 51 per cent of municipalities, home to 30 million Brazilians. Also, another 30 per cent of municipalities run the risk of becoming news deserts, since they have up to two news outlets publishing at least biweekly issues. The second edition of Atlas da Notícia is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project and was independently carried out by PROJOR.

Folllowing President Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment, the federal government has discontinued its research on local news. Thus, in order to carry out the second edition of Atlas da Notícia, PROJOR has created a network of five paid data journalists, one for each of the Brazilian geographic regions, to track and validate the new data under Volt Data Lab oversight (Atlas da Notícia 2.0, 2018). The second edition also relied on a crowdsourcing campaign launched by Observatório da Imprensa in August 2018 (Observatório da Imprensa, 2018). Its findings will enable a new line of qualitative research that will investigate the causes that led to the closing of local print outlets in different regions of Brazil. Atlas da Notícia is a fledging initiative aimed not only at mapping local news provisions. Its long-term goal is to enable future policy building, fieldwork and education projects designed to strengthen local news outlets both editorially and economically.


Besides historical challenges, such as a late start and a lack of editorial independence and effectiveness in covering civic issues, the Brazilian local press currently faces financial hurdles brought by a severe economic downturn. Brazil is also marked by socio-economic and geographic inequalities that have greatly impacted the development of local press. The resulting inability of small outlets to hold municipal governments and corporations accountable – as seen in the coverage of the newspaper O Liberal, prior to a deadly 2015 dam spill in the historical city of Mariana – has negative implications for democracy in a country already hit by a deep institutional crisis. As the Atlas da Notícia findings indicate, the challenges facing the local press are exacerbated by geographic and socio-economic asymmetries. Both ‘news deserts’ and ‘nearly-news deserts’ are mostly located in poorer municipalities, be they in remote portions of the North and Northeast or in the outskirts of large metropolises, such as the Greater São Paulo area. The findings also suggest that the fate of democracy at the local level in Brazil – with repercussions for democracy in the entire country – is intertwined with its currently endangered local press.


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