Lisbon has a new local online publication, Mensagem de Lisboa, and it’s bringing a fresh perspective to how local news is covered. Atlas sat down with its editor-in-chief and co-founder Catarina Carvalho to learn more about the project.
Mensagem reads like a love letter to the city many of us call home. This intention was confirmed by Carvalho.
“We decided to do a positive, enhancing-the-city kind of media, not something to destroy what’s being done or to criticize [it],” she says. “You know, to show the real people of the city what’s being done by the citizens — not by the mayor’s office, or by the institutions of the city.”
The news outlet has decided to steer away from how major Portuguese newspapers cover news — typically, focusing on national stories. Instead, it’s concentrating on community journalism.
Founders Ferreira Fernandes and Carvalho are former editorial leads at Diário de Notícias, a Portuguese media titan. But they chose to abandon the paper after major changes were implemented that involved drastically cutting the newsroom staff and with which they didn’t agree with.
During Carvalho’s time in major national newsrooms and through participating in journalism conferences, she says she came to understand that the newspapers that will survive any big crisis are those deeply rooted in their communities.
Carvalho has been very attentive to developments in newsrooms throughout the world, and she said that by “analyzing very closely what happened to the local press in the U.S., what you can see is that the ones that survived were the ones that did a service to their communities.”
“The other ones, who just cut and paste everything that’s in big national newspapers, didn’t,” she says.
It was the union of Carvalho’s strategic insight into newsrooms and Fernandes’ notion that “the small stories are the stories that tell the whole story” that made way for Mensagem.
Fernandes and Carvalho’s exit from Diário de Notícias coincided with A Brasileira, the emblematic cafe in Chiado and now Mensagem’s headquarters, coming under a new leadership. The business group O Valor do Tempo took over the cafe, and the group’s president, António Quaresma, approached Carvalho with the idea of a newspaper at the cafe. This was the initial seed from where the project sprouted and eventually came into fruition.
They took inspiration from other community and hyper-local newspapers in other cities, such as The City in New York, The Bristol Cable, and the micro-level papers branching off from El Diario in Spain, like Somos Madrid and Somos Malasaña. And Mensagem’s founders decided on a model of community journalism that goes beyond publishing stories, by also incorporating neighborhood meetings, debates, and conferences about Lisbon.
Carvalho says that they would love to be able to report at a much more hyper-local level and have writers that cover each neighborhood, but laments the limitations that community journalism has in Portugal, as there is little to no funding for these ventures (Editor’s Note: Atlas can attest!). Local newspapers are few in Portugal, and those that do exist struggle to survive.
But Mensagem is looking to change this trend by bringing a new approach, by creating a model that is financially sustainable but doesn’t lose sight that community journalism is, above all, a civic duty.
Despite constraints, the newspaper is trying to keep a finger on the pulse of the whole city.
“We try to cover the city from Chelas to Belém, from north to south. We hop around the city,” Carvalho tells us.
Besides this, she also says that “you have to listen to people and not only be close to institutions or sources, but to the people who are living in the city.”
Mensagem hosts monthly meetings on the first Wednesday of every month, which is open to the public. And Carvalho makes it quite clear that their model involves “listening to people, and responding to emails, responding to Facebook messages, responding to Facebook comments, responding to Twitter, and being there — being there with people.”
And the people of Lisbon have responded well to this type of journalism. Carvalho tells Atlas that they’re frequently contacted by members of the public with story ideas — and that includes immigrants and expats.
She says they were surprised when they were contacted by so many foreigners, as their content is published in Portuguese. But what she learned after listening to them is that even if they read a machine-translated version of the story, as Mensagem “is such a different kind of media [organization], a community-based media [outlet] with so [many] different stories that they don’t find anywhere else, they feel they can understand the city better through our stories,” she tells Atlas.
When we asked Carvalho how Mensagem will cater to the immigrant community in Lisbon, she says that “one of the things that we are doing is telling the stories of the people who come.” Stories of immigrants are very close to her heart because her father immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child, and although he returned to Portugal as a young adult, his siblings continue to live there — a factor which, as she puts it, makes her “very keen on the immigrant experience.”
Besides this, Mensagem has formed a partnership with People of Lisbon, a project led by fellow expat Stephen O’Regan, where he follows the stories and produces videos about different people in Lisbon, both foreign and Portuguese.
So whether you read Portuguese or not, find a trusty online translator and check out the stories Mensagem is reporting.
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A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed it to O Vadio rather than Gloria Dominguez. We regret the error.