By Andrew Downie Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
On the first day of 2006, the lead story in Rio's O Globo newspaper was about the fireworks and festas of the night before. In the days before and after, ample coverage was given not only to domestic politics, trouble in the Middle East, and yearly retrospectives, but also to the seaweed invading the city's beaches, how to avoid traffic congestion on New Year's Eve, and the paper's annual competition to choose outstanding social entrepreneurs.
To some, the heavy accent on community stories might not be fitting for Brazil's second biggest-selling newspaper. To others, however, it is one reason why, in a era when journalists and editors in many nations are losing prestige and respect, the scribes of Brazil's fourth estate are held in ever higher esteem.
"Our priority is obviously news," says Luiz Garcia, a veteran columnist at the paper who writes a daily critique of the coverage for the staff. "But the thing we do well is provide a service. We tell you who to complain to if the meat at your supermarket is off.... We tell you how to do your taxes online. We help make life easier for our readers."
That kind of service has helped satisfy readers in South America's most populous nation. A recent survey by leading polling firm Ibope shows that 63 percent of Brazilians "have confidence" in the country's newspapers. Only doctors, the Catholic Church, and the military are considered more trustworthy.
In the US, by contrast, the credibility rating for the press is at a historic low, while its favorability rating remains high, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year.
The service provided by many of Brazil's 3,004 daily and weekly newspapers is a crucial factor in gaining and keeping the public's confidence, especially in Rio and at the smaller, regional publications, experts say, despite some reservations about transparency and professionalism. But journalists and press watchers say there are more substantial reasons, too, especially when considering the country's more serious papers.
Although its sheer size and geographical diversity mean no Brazilian newspaper has a truly nationwide reach, the few predominantly Sao Paulo papers that vie to be the country's best are doing so because they have played a vital part in Brazil's transition to democracy.
Ever since Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship ended in 1985, the press has been a consistent, and sometimes the only, monitor of politicians, police, and other powerful interests.
Last year, the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper broke the story about a campaign-finance scandal that rocked the reigning Workers' Party and the government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Weekly news magazines like IstoE and Veja have led the way in denouncing graft inside government ministries, banks, and other agencies. …