São Paulo, Brazil – I am 4,800 miles from home, a continent away and in another hemisphere — yet the scene seems familiar. On a rainy Monday morning in August, I’m queuing up with hundreds of other journalists who cover education.
We wait patiently at a registration desk as greeters hand over a plastic name tag and a canvas tote bag filled with goodies: a blue metal water bottle, a logo-covered pen, a mobile phone charger and a printed program.
The participants will spend two days shuttling between sessions at the second Congresso Internacional de Jornalismo de Educação – the International Congress of Education Journalism, sponsored by Brazil’s Association of Education Journalists, or Jeduca.
It is, for all purposes, the EWA of Brazil, and it shows that a good idea translates worldwide.
The group has reached critical mass in record time, with nearly 850 members since its founding in 2016. Its cofounder, Antonio Gois, first heard about EWA during his time as a 2010-11 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. One of the other fellows was Emily Richmond, who mentioned that at the end of the spring semester that she planned to take a job as EWA’s public editor.
Gois, a well-known education journalist in Rio de Janeiro, navigated to EWA’s website and was impressed with its rich mix of resources for reporters that included, among other items, guides about how to make sense of research and how to interview children.
“I thought that was amazing,” he said.
He returned to Brazil – at the time, he was a reporter for Folha de São Paulo – but he never stopped thinking about bringing home something like EWA. Gois soon began talking about it in earnest with colleagues and found that others wanted the same thing.
“You see that you have a good idea – it’s not when you say, ‘Hey, I have an idea’ [and someone says] ‘How brilliant you are!’ but when you say, ‘I have an idea,’ and they say, ‘Hey, I have the same idea!’”
Gois quietly began building the organization. Its first meeting consisted of just five journalists — it took place at the São Paulo apartment of a colleague at the paper, Fabio Takahashi, and Takahashi’s wife, Renata Cafardo, a former TV reporter who now covers education for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo.
Also at the meeting were Paulo Saldaña, at the time a reporter at O Estado and now a reporter at Folha, and Sergio Pompeu, then a reporter at O Estado.
They ordered pizza, pulled up the EWA website and talked about the possibilities.
“The good ideas are not the incredible, brilliant ones, but are those that a lot of people are talking about … and are willing to support,’” Gois said.
They incorporated Jeduca in June 2016 and created an editorial board.
Gois, Takahashi and Cafardo began getting the word out that there was a new nonprofit aimed at promoting education journalism. They soon found that demand for high-quality content was high – not just from media outlets, but from education institutions as well: universities wanted them to create a curriculum for degree programs in education journalism.
“We had to say, ‘Wait, wait, we can’t. We are brand new,’” Gois recalled. “So a lot of things required patience to say, ‘No. It’s not that time.’”
Marta Avancini, the public editor of Jeduca, shows off her most-used phone apps, including EWA. (Greg Toppo for EWA)
Support for Reporters
One of Jeduca’s first priorities was to create the public editor position. They hired Marta Avancini, a journalist who specialized in education, human rights, childhood and adolescence, disability and science. A former Paris correspondent for Folha, she said most journalists reacted to news of her new job with disbelief.
“It is something new,” she said. “There has never existed a service like this in Brazil, so sometimes people have a hard time believing that it is a free service, open to any journalist who is writing an article or producing a content about education.”
Reporters were relieved to finally have an informal editor who could offer a fresh set of eyes or help flesh out ideas. Most of the demands on Avancini, she said, are simply for sources.
“I always try to understand the idea, in order to suggest the best source and also to ‘open the perspective’” of the piece, she said. “The education journalism in Brazil tends to be quite ‘official,’ so it is important to try to open, to amplify the perspectives.”
On occasion, Avancini said, she guides reporters through the entire process, “for weeks, until the article is ready.” She often works with reporters pursuing complex pieces – and with those who don’t typically cover education.
Often, she said, reporters worry if they’re disturbing her or taking her away from something more important. They’re not.
“I am available full-time, so sometimes I get calls in the evening or on weekends,” she said. “It is fun!”
Two years after its founding, Jeduca is open to all journalists, Gois said, not just those who cover education. Because so few news outlets support reporters dedicated to covering education, he said, the group had to offer services to virtually anyone interested in writing about the topic.
“We thought that we cannot be very specific – we have to be broad,” Gois said.
Avancini’s services are available to anyone, including non-members. On occasion, she’ll advise educators who want to write about their work. “We are very flexible with that,” Gois said. “We are very open.”
The group held its first congress in 2017, as a tiny satellite event tacked on to the annual meeting of Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism, or ABRAJI – an IRE analog.
They asked for four classrooms.
“We feared that there would not be enough people – we feared also that we didn’t know how to do it,” Gois said.
They filled the spaces. And because they had a small budget, they asked speakers to pay their own travel expenses. All of them accepted the offer, he said. A few later complained that they hadn’t gotten an invitation.
Speaking Truth to Power
The event’s success gave them the confidence to pull off an event on their own, independent of ABRAJI.
“We could walk alone, without their help,” Gois said.
For the August congress, Jeduca pushed to bring in journalists not just from the nation’s three big population centers — São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasília – but from throughout the country. Gois estimated that the three cities encompass “90 percent of the journalists” in Brazil.
“We want to talk with people from other states,” he said.
By the time the second congress began on August 6, they had attracted 429 journalists from 18 of Brazil’s 27 states, as well as others from Mexico and Argentina. The main sessions were accessible in three languages, with simultaneous translations into English, Spanish and Portuguese.
At the event, held at an urban prep school in the city’s upscale Higienópolis neighborhood, large main-stage events alternated with smaller, more hands-on sessions on data reporting and early childhood education.
One session brought comments on the country’s Base Nacional Comum Curricular, its version of the Common Core State Standards, by Stanford University scholars David Plank and Martin Carnoy.
Another brought representatives of the leading candidates for Brazil’s 2018 presidential election to the main stage. Brazilians at the time were obsessed with the October 7 election, which featured 13 candidates.
In a one-on-one session with Gois on the meeting’s second day, I told the crowd that efforts to raise the profile of education in recent American elections have mostly fallen flat. While efforts like ED in ’08 have helped get candidates thinking in a more nuanced way about education, sexier and more pressing issues nearly always take over the debate.
Perhaps the highlight was a sometimes combative keynote session in which three reporters took turns grilling Brazil’s education minister, Rossieli Soares da Silva, who told the crowd, “I believe in the education we created.”
Asked where he sends his 15-year-old son to school, Soares da Silva admitted that he chose a Catholic “confessional school” in Brasilia. “This is very important to me, especially because we’re living in a city that I didn’t know,” he said.
He added, “Well, I really didn’t expect this question.”