A few months ago, I traveled from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro. The plane took off under heavy rain, and two hours later we landed in sunny Rio. As soon as the plane landed, I wondered if it was still raining in Salvador — if so, I could make fun to my friends by sending a selfie from the beach while they watched the rain fall back home.

So I began to think where I could get the ridiculously basic information I needed at that moment. I knew it wouldn’t be on Correio’s Web site, nor in our competitor’s. I thought, that was not good; we are local media outlets, and I had just realised that we were failing to deliver certain local information to our readers.

My next thought was that the best way to get this information would be to ask a friend through WhatsApp. When I opened the app, before I sent a message to anyone, I received a video from a friend in Salvador. He was in his car, filming a flood outside. Bingo! It was still raining a lot in Salvador.

It was very uncomfortable to perceive our very own local media outlet as useless in delivering this information. 

Was it a missed opportunity for Correio not to have news about the rain in Salvador? At that time of the year, it rains daily in Salvador, so the decision not to constantly cover the weather makes sense. Yet it was basic information that I, a Correio reader, needed at that moment.

Then I thought of the question in a slightly different way: Was it a journalistic mistake for Correio not to inform me that it was raining in Salvador?

A few months after this experience, Correio began experimenting with providing local journalism (not breaking news) in WhatsApp groups, since this is the most popular chat application in Brazil.

We created segmented WhatsApp groups in which, rather than being the primary generator of information for the group, our role was to be the community builder — gathering people with common interests and validating the information they share.

Correio's WhatsApp group launched for a football game was a great success with users.
Correio's WhatsApp group launched for a football game was a great success with users.

We curate and mediate the debate, we check and validate whatever people post and share, and we participate in the discussion as a member of the group.

In a way, this initiative led us to re-think what journalism stands for. Media outlets are no longer the unique information holders. Our role in the WhatsApp group is to be an expert, but we recognise that our readers often have information just as valuable as the information we have.

We decided to experiment during a football match, creating a WhatsApp group with fans of a local team. Our group received more than 250 applications from readers to participate, but we decided to invite only 59 people (a reference to the year when the local team of Bahia won the National Cup). This would limit the group from being too large and creating an unwieldy discussion.

The group was launched half an hour before the game and quickly became very fun. People talked about team, tactics, players, etc. Some of them were in the stadium and shared pictures.

The football experiment confirmed our hypothesis: that we could offer great value to our readers by simply gathering them around their interests and curating the content. We continued to play a role in responding to questions, verifying or fact-checking information. For instance, when someone asked if a certain player would be on the field, we confirmed that, yes, he would.

Correio readers loved the WhatsApp group so much they kept it going after the event.
Correio readers loved the WhatsApp group so much they kept it going after the event.

After the game, Correio left the group; but the users kept it active, using our rules and inviting new friends. They still get together to make bets on the games, have some beers, and socialise.

We also invited the group members to a cocktail event in the newsroom and shared the experience with the football club. They became very interested in partnering with us. We utilised them in a second test group, offering some gifts from the football club such as books, squeezes, hats, and discount store coupons. Both experiments showed us that it was clearly a successful initiative. 

Even though monetisation was not a prior goal for the WhatsApp testing, we do see chat groups as a way of monetising. The outstanding positive feedback we had from readers showed us that this had potential as a premium product that users may pay for.

Some of the groups could be permanent (for example, members of a specific neighbourhood, a group focused on economy issues or cultural issues, etc.). Other groups would be temporary, such as our football game or other events such as the Oscar ceremonies or a political debate.

We had outstanding feedback from the readers who participated, and the initiative caught the attention of organisations focused on innovation in journalism around the globe. The experiment was highlighted among the most innovative initiatives in the world in the study “Why Chat Matters as a News Medium.”