By Davin Hutchins, Managing Editor of Middle East Voices (VOA English)
What does the future of international broadcasting look like in the age of mobile? Should journalists focus on providing objective information even though information is no longer scarce in the age of the Internet? Should public diplomats focus on explaining a foreign policy or rather sparking discussion and promoting free speech even if it’s critical of that policy?
These are questions we ask ourselves daily – no hourly – at Middle East Voices. Middle East Voices is a newly launched “social journalism” project hatched out of VOA English. The website soft-launched in November of 2011 and is gearing up for a bigger debut after the MEV team completes its “innovation boot camp” with the “incubators” at the BBG’s Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI).
Originally conceived as a community that uses participatory journalism to focus on Arab Spring uprisings – which we still do especially in Syria, Egypt and Bahrain – we are expanding our scope to address the wider phenomenon of grass-roots democratization across the Middle East, including the Arabian Gulf and Iran.
While the Arab Spring is usually associated with revolution and regime change, our sense is Arab Spring 2.0 will revolve around monarchies implementing reforms, citizens demanding more civil and social rights and the free exchange of ideas about what home-grown democracy should look like in the region.
As a digital-only project, Middle East Voices has become obsessed with conversing with our sources and audience on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and WordPress. We obsessively pour over Google Analytics in real-time – and over long periods of time – to draw conclusions about the issues Arab countries really care about so we can constantly refine our coverage.
We have learned a lot about how international broadcasting must evolve – and quickly – to serve a vital role in this rapidly changing landscape. We’ve come up with five rules on innovation that journalists and public diplomats should follow to remain relevant to their audiences.
1.) Don’t tell, listen and then amplify – According to our data, Middle East Voices’ target audience barely responds or comments to articles about diplomatic meetings, official statements by heads of state. If the Arab Spring revealed anything, it is that future generations don’t like being told what to do by older generations. This audience wants to participate, engage and change the system. What does seem to work, according to our analytics, are posts which asks questions, and sparks a conversation. We allow comments to be published immediately and let the community flag bad ones. All of this is in the name of listening and amplification to show we are partners in the marketplace of free ideas.
2.) Be interesting while being objective – Objectivity is the cornerstone of any journalism endeavor. But objectivity can take many forms and again our analytics show that dry, declarative prose does not resonate in the age of Twitter and Facebook. At Middle East Voices, we have experimented with crowdsourcing Twitter and YouTube data on anniversary protests in Bahrain, moderated live audio debates on Syria, published essays that were responses to user-submitted op-eds on Egypt’s politics. And we are learning that objectivity also comes from creating online constructs for a plurality of voices to flourish and to simply be good moderators. We constantly get kudos from our community for being good referees as well as journalists. Writing objectively in an engaging fashion with colorful prose also goes a long way.
3.) The conversation is the article – Journalists tend to obsess about having the perfectly balanced article at the end of the day – without question a necessary and noble pursuit. But more and more, journalists need to be more transparent in their process because the audience demands it. The long tail of tweets leading up to the article can be as impactful as the final product.
4.) Make sure your whole team is addicted to analytics – Because of the nature of broadcasting, there is a tendency to determine audience size over long periods of time with crude methods. With a website and real-time Google Analytics, you know what people are responding to down to the second. We made a decision to give real-time analytics out to the entire team so they can see how their posts resonate with the audience. And by watching the little pings light up, story conceptualization and writing are auto-refined because writers are paying hyper-attention to data. Plus it has introduced a healthy atmosphere of competition on who best reaches our Arab audience.
5.) Think mobile and work your way out – Research conducted by the BBG on our behalf in the past year suggests more than 90% of people in the Middle East own a mobile device. Adoption rates of smartphones are skyrocketing in the Arabian Gulf as status symbols. Social media use is spiking. So when you design digital products for countries where mobile is going to pop faster than PCs did, you design for the small screen and work your way out. The team at ODDI have sold us on taking on “responsive design” for our site redesign, where the website automatically knows if you’re coming from PC, iPad or Google tablet and resizes accordingly. This trend also underscores that content is will remain king and engaging content will triumph over layout.
I’m sure there are principles we’ve left out which we can continue in follow-up post as our data, and thus our conclusions, are constantly tested and change. Innovation means risk and risk often means failure. We have 10 new ideas per week and 7 of them fail. But 3 don’t. Lessons learned from risks are invaluable. We can’t definitely answer any of the questions at the top of this post – not yet. But we’re pretty sure innovation will lead to the answers.