In 2010, Vagner de Alencar was one of 20 young people living in the favelas of São Paulo who took a journalism course offered by ICFJ Knight Fellow Bruno Garcez. He and the other trainees became the first bloggers for Mural, a citizen journalism site launched by Garcez that covered the massive city’s favelas or “periferias” neighborhoods — largely poor shanty towns outside the city that are rarely covered by the media.
Almost 10 years later, Alencar is co-director of Agencia Mural, overseeing almost 90 correspondents in dozens of favelas around São Paulo. Mural has grown from a fledgling blog to a well-respected news site whose latest venture is a partnership with a major national news network. Mural now produces three television shows a week about the favelas for Band TV, from culture pieces to investigations of chronic problems such as infrastructure and sanitation.
The goal of Agencia Mural is twofold, Alencar says: to counter the negative stereotypes people have about favelas and the people who live in them, and to raise awareness of problems the government is ignoring.
Alencar grew up in Paraisópolis, one of the largest favelas in São Paulo. He covered it for Agencia Mural until recently, when he hired another Paraisópolis resident, Henrique Cardoso, a recent university graduate, to become the favela’s “Muralista.” Alencar and Cardoso recently showed a couple of visitors around Paraisópolis, talking about why they are so passionate about providing residents with news of their community — and about showing outsiders that the favela is not the crime-infested slum that many think it is.
“The image is always negative of almost all the favelas,” Cardoso said while sitting in a community center’s cafe and rooftop garden. “It bothers me because I was born and raised here, and I know that image isn’t true.”
Garcez conceived the idea for Mural with Izabela Moi, who was then the editor of a weekly education section at Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper. Garcez and Moi trained the first group of favela citizen journalists, and established Mural as a blog linked to Folha’s website. In 2015, Agencia Mural expanded, adding an independent news website while continuing the blog for Folha. Another growth spurt came in 2018, with funding from the Open Society Foundations.
Moi is still a co-director of Mural (along with Alencar and another original blogger, Anderson Meneses), while Garcez — now a digital editor for the BBC in London — is a mentor. Looking back 10 years, Moi said none of the founders could have predicted what Mural would become.
“We didn't know each other,” she said. “We were simply relying on an idea that we almost 25 people believed, or wanted to believe, together: that we were filling a gap on information and news about São Paulo. What brought us here is this common shared mission, this vision of what is missing and the belief that we can all help to build it together.”
In addition to grants, the news service makes money from its partnerships with media such as Folha and Band TV, which pay Agencia Mural for content. However, Moi’s role is focused largely on continuing to develop revenue streams to help Agencia Mural become more self-sustainable. The agency is starting a membership program, and it plans to start holding events that can bring in more funding.
Cardoso hopes that his coverage can lead to a better life for his neighbors in the favela, which has about 100,000 residents. He is working on a video piece for Mural’s Band TV show about unfulfilled promises the government has been making for years — to build a park and a hospital, and to turn a free-flowing stream into a concrete-lined canal that will no longer flood people’s homes any time there is a heavy rain. Mural correspondents in other favelas have produced similar stories of government promises unmet.
Many of those stories have had positive impacts for people who live in the favelas. One story, for example, showed how gaps between subway trains and platforms were causing 1,000 accidents a year. After the story ran, the city government added metal extenders to the platforms that reduced the gaps — and the injuries.
Agencia Mural has also had a major impact on the careers of the Muralistas, said projects editor Karol Coelho, also one of the original bloggers. Many have gone on to become reporters at Folha, the BBC and other important media organizations. Though they must replace reporters who go on to bigger things, she said, they are happy when someone moves on, and brings the Muralista perspective to a more mainstream media organization.
Cardoso would like to eventually work for a larger media organization, too. But for now, he wants to focus on covering the favela where he proudly lives. At first, he wondered if his neighbors would want to talk about the issues that make their lives difficult. But to his surprise, everyone wanted to talk to him, and they are grateful to Mural for bringing those issues to light.
“People know about Agencia Mural,” he said. “They trust us. They know that we are here in the community with them.”
If you would like to help support Agencia Mural, please visit this website.
Main image, showing Alencar (right) and Cardoso, courtesy of Taylor Mulcahey.