Audience Engagement Top Stories
4 mins read

Can Portugal’s Mensagem be a new hyperlocal publishing model?

Nestled in the epicenter of Chiado, the cultural and political heart of Lisbon, Portugal, lies an intriguing experiment in local news. For it is here, amongst the cafés of Portugal’s capital city, that the ex-executive Editor in Chief of Diario De Noticias, the country’s oldest daily newspaper, has gone back to her roots and launched a digital, hyperlocal newspaper, Mensagem.

The new digital title, focused specifically on central Lisbon, has attracted funding from both the Google News Initiative Growth Program and the Facebook Accelerator Programme not only for its editorial focus on positive news and local stories, but also its recognition of wider Portuguese literary culture. The title has a strong community emphasis, with monthly open newsroom meetings, live interviews, debates and other events that help bond both the readers and the City of Lisbon closer together.

We sat down with Catarina Carvalho to discover why she left one of the most powerful roles in Portuguese media to experiment with its antithesis – hyperlocal journalism. The venue for our interview, Café Brasileira, was carefully chosen as it was a national hub for Portuguese artists and writers throughout the 20th Century, and today acts as the ’emotional headquarters’ for Mensagem.

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A Brasileira café, Lisboa

WNIP: Can you tell us why you left Diario De Noticias?

Catarina Carvalho: The new owners of Diario De Noticias didn’t share our vision for a national newspaper, for a number of reasons, and so myself and the Editor, Ferreira Fernandes, left to start something we were both passionate about – local community storytelling.

We both share the idea that journalism should be made for the people, it should be close to the people, and it should tell the stories of the City. Café Brasileira was the perfect location for this, historically, but of course, we couldn’t work from a café even if we’d have liked to! But we are based nearby because we wanted to capture the spirit of the café and we also wanted to run events from here.

WNIP: When did you start Mensagem and how have you funded it?

CC: We started in February 2021, following six months of preparation, and the title is funded by the group that took over Café Brasileira’s management. Antonio Quaresma – it was his idea to have a journalistic venture at the Café and it’s his contribution to the City of Lisbon. We are also backed by both the Google News Initiative Growth Program and the Facebook Accelerator Programme.

Our journalism is supported by a membership program that includes special events and community discussions/talks, and that is a core of what we do, creating a community hub both online and offline. Our core readers are those who are deeply engaged with the City of Lisbon, both young and old.

We are focused on engagement, not volume

Catarina Carvalho, Co-Founder, Mensagem

We strongly feel that it is a scalable business that can be replicated elsewhere, not least because it is journalism for the people, by the people. It is a very different style of journalism, focusing on local stories which inspire our readers in a powerful way. It’s a positive style of journalism, narrative-based, and we’re essentially ‘proof of concept’.

WNIP: What is your team comprised of?

CC: We have the two senior journalists, myself and Ferreira Fernandes; Nuno Mota Gomes, our audience and digital editor; and four journalists as well as some outstanding freelance writers.

WNIP: Could you give us an example of stories you’ve covered?

CC: A major focus is on people doing things within the City that people don’t know about, unique stories – for example, there is an old lady who decided to create an inner-city garden within her own neighborhood, and she accomplished it with the help of her neighbors. It’s constructive journalism, and we portray readers not as victims of news but as agents of news and change.

Another lady lives in an old neighborhood by the castle, where a lot of the City’s older generation live, and during the lockdowns it was difficult for many of them to go to the stores. This lady, who we nicknamed the ‘Uber Eats of Alfama’, delivered food, household items, etc and hired another two or three people to act as delivery couriers for the old people of the area.

We also recently ran a story about a doctor who comes from a Roma family and he has become very successful as a medical practitioner here in the City – a story that helps banish local stereotypes.

WNIP: What’s your impact been in Portuguese news media?

CC: They don’t know how to deal with us, because we don’t do politics, we don’t cover the mayor’s office, etc. We are more interested in the local people and their stories.

We are also on Facebook and Instagram, not because we think these platforms are problem-free, but because that’s where our members are and we need to be where they are too. Instagram is a major audience engagement platform for us as it is so visually compelling.

Catarina Carvalho, Co-Founder, Mensagem

WNIP: What are your plans for the future?

CC: We think this publishing model of constructive storytelling, done at a hyperlocal level, has a future in many countries and cities – we want to perfect the publishing model here in Lisbon. And, I think, ultimately it could even be franchised out across different territories.

We are only one of ten startups chosen by the Google Accelerator MediaLab in Europe – out of 150 entries – and they feel, like us, that there is a future for this type of journalism, especially those stories that aren’t covered by other media.

Journalism has to get out of the bubble it is in, we need to go back to telling empathic stories, so that reading becomes a pleasure again. We want to promote empathy within the city and no story is small enough for us.

Catarina Carvalho, Co-Founder, Mensagem

WNIP: Thanks for your time, and good luck in 2022.