The team from Middle East Voices won the 2012 Online News Association (ONA) award for “Topical Reporting, Large Site,” for their collaborative reporting technique during the Arab Spring.
To gain better insight how their innovative approach to journalism won them the award, I spoke with Davin Hutchins (former VOA Managing Editor, Middle East), Robert “Bob” Morris (VOA Chief of English, Middle East), Adam Martin (ODDI Manager of Technology Services), and Eric Pugh (ODDI Web Developer).
Creating a Magnet for Arab Spring Content and Contributors
With the Arab Spring came a series of new communications issues. These issues ranged from increased state-run media censorship in affected countries, to activists using Twitter and Facebook to coordinate demonstrations, to newsroom desires for more user-generated content to show real-time scenes on the ground. “It just seemed like social media was the secret sauce for the Arab Spring,” explains Hutchins (or Hutch, as his colleagues call him). So after three or four months of just writing stories about the Arab Spring, Hutchins realized that his team “needed a device that was more social and had that conversational quality to it,” as he puts it. The idea was to get local people in the Middle East to contribute original content to create a blog of curated ideas and opinions.
About five months into the Arab Spring, the website for Middle East Voices was officially launched.
As for content, Hutchins summarized that “it started with an idea” where a team of about 10 people wrote and tweeted as much as they could, created a simple and responsive website, and brought Bob on board to manage the growth. Robert “Bob” Morris notes that “there was the extra bonus layer … which was really optimizing it for the mobile platform with a responsive design so it just isn’t a shrunken website that shows up on the screen.” Of course this is important in a world that is increasingly relying on their Internet-ready mobile device to find news. Having a good design for smart phones and tablets is “key to growth and success not only for us but for any news organization,” adds Morris.
Evolving Goals and Priorities
“Bahrainis had a big influence,” explains Hutchins about how the MEV team decided they needed an alternative platform to Facebook or Twitter for public discussion. Hutchins and his team were actively covering the Lulu Revolution (Bahraini anti-government protests) in mid-2011, when Bahrainis began overwhelming the Middle East Voices Facebook page with argumentative comments. “They were shouting and arguing with each other, so we created a special hashtag called #BahrainDebate just to get them off our Facebook page. It let them shout at each other over Twitter,” clarifies Hutchins.
This huge spike in activity inspired Hutchins and his team to create a separate microsite for Middle East Voices. Initial stories about Bahrain covered various aspects of the revolution such as “people who had been in prison, doctors who people said they gave preferential treatment to certain sects” and the like, explains Hutchins. “Every time we did it, we’d see spikes,” Hutchins says of their covering controversial topics in the Arabian Gulf that are rarely covered in Middle East press.
“Then we’d mine more,” he continues, “we’d see that the Twitter people were on one side or another but they had thousands of followers—most of them were mobile, about 75%, and most of them were using iPhones.” With this realization, Hutchins and his team began to pay much more attention to how users were not only accessing but also sharing content. Hutchins thought, “well, Bahrain is kinda what the Gulf is going to look like in three years and maybe the whole Middle East in five.” Perhaps most importantly is Hutchins’ realization that social media is at a much more mature level in the Middle East than in other non-Western parts of the world.
“The Middle East Voices site is more now like the ‘mothership’ to other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, whatever else,” Morris explains how the multi-platform approach enhances and helps drive the goal of engaging a bigger audience. “It is proving the concept of participatory journalism and collaboration with our audience. In this era of declining budgets, we can’t afford to hire more journalists and stringers,” said Morris, “We more and more need to rely on citizen journalists or the experts in the know to provide content to the audience so it’s a circular process.”
Morris also notes that the goal of the platform has evolved into providing an open platform for discussion. “Particularly for the Middle East, having people being able to let their voice be heard is particularly important to them because they have been under wraps for years or decades–this is a new-found freedom for them and we’re providing an avenue for them to communicate with not only us at VOA but with each other.” With that, the MEV team began to see the necessity to not only allow people to post comments, but to also feel free to submit thoughtful and educated opinionated essays for the Insight, Viewpoint, or Counterpoint section of the website.
This helps to “create a marketplace of ideas,” further details Hutchins, “just because we publish it doesn’t mean that’s what we think—we’re just providing a platform.” Hutchins noted that on topics relating to Bahrain and Syria, it was quite common to have competing essayists. “There’s also many debates with polls.”
“We don’t have to bend our stories to one conceptualization of what the Middle East is… there’s a larger western narrative what it all means,” Hutchins explains about the violence sparked by the recent anti-Islam film on YouTube. “It actually means many different things to many different people. MEV has helped many “realize it is quite complicated and it’s a tapestry and you can’t just make these general statements about Muslim-Christian relations or American foreign policy.”
Technological Challenges and Opportunities
So, technically, the beginning of what the team refers to as “MEV 2.0” is when ODDI came on board and offered their technological streamlining services. In addition to creating a new clean, responsive design webpage, the staff meticulously organized and prioritized content so people could intuitively navigate the pages. Hutchins distinctly remembers that they “had lots of conversations about what was the best menu order and how it should look” so that the MEV team could “get it just right.”
Perhaps the biggest technological challenge was actually that of Syria. It’s a unique region that is known for not only blocking the Internet but also for jamming satellite TV and radio broadcasts. Those who are technologically savvy use proxy servers or VPNs to get information around government controlled censorship software. “Beyond that, there’s low bandwidth and a low hardware rate,” says Hutchins, “the people that come through have their name changed and they’re pretty Internet savvy to break through the firewall.”
Yet, there’s not that many people inside the firewall, so to speak, who are willing to risk their safety to get information out. “Reporters Cecily Hillary and David Arnold—who covered Syria—got to know many of them personally,” Hutchins explains about the local Syrians who created aliases and were willing to become regular citizen journalists. “We built this whole content vertical, calling it ‘Syria Witness’, about their lives inside the war zone.” The sources remained anonymous by name, but the staff interacted with the same sources over and over about their lives in affected areas to be sure that they were legit. Interactions came “primarily through Twitter, then through Gmail, and then by cross referencing”. Cross-referencing means that the editors asked other anonymous users if certain details were accurate or if they may know each other. “I knew we couldn’t come up with new sources every week, we needed the same six to seven sources, so we did an episodic thing every week,” Hutchins further details about the process of vetting strangers behind a war zone firewall, “While this presented a technical and logistical challenge, it also provided an editorial opportunity to distinguish the site from other news organizations by incorporating the missives of those few brave souls.”
Hutchins admits that a huge challenge was that they had to learn to serve a vastly mobile-ready audience. “We had a mobile site but it didn’t work on the right browsers. When we had Eric Pugh join us, he really knew how to go in to find a theme to address these issues but then customize the theme,” Hutchins elaborates, “there were just certain things that we knew that the site should do that open source plugins wouldn’t address and Eric knew how to tweak those.”
Martin added, “I don’t think the actual technology was the challenge in many ways, thanks to Eric, but how the technology choices we were making—taking a mobile first approach—impacted the way Hutch and Bob and their team thought about the content and about a lot of the choices we made through out the process and about how we wanted to present content on the smaller mobile screens.”
Perhaps most importantly, the whole team had to “take a new look at what stories, what type of content, what types of visuals were going to be most impactful when we got down to that single column small screen view on a mobile,” adds Martin. According to Martin, the process forced the team to “think about the storytelling and the editorial and journalistic components to our audience, and how those things influence each other.”
What the Judges Looked For
Middle East Voices was up against large corporate media giants, such as CNN, the New York Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Specifically, however, MEV found themselves in a category with Nate Silver’s renowned FiveThirtyEight political calculus blog and a blog about religious affairs. “Blogs are important, but they’re usually single voice… it’s different than trying to get people to blog for you,” explains Hutchins.
“There were certain things that we were addressing that the competitors weren’t addressing,” points out Hutchins. “In MEV, we want to hear from the people in the Middle East who are affected and provide information that is of value to them as they define it, not as we define it,” further explains Morris. “We hear from anonymous people as well as people with world class names, it gives it a whole different feel than the typical blog.” “We were trying to get down in the weeds on certain conflicts and certain issues; if you go to some of the content pages, I wrote a blog post about what proxies people are using in Syria—which ones are good and bad,” adds Hutchins.
In addition, it can’t be discounted that Voice of America is about 70 years old and evolving into the realm of digital journalism—the equivalent of an old dog learning new tricks. “The fact that VOA is 70 years old and we were doing something within the context of an older institution that was innovative was a juxtaposition for the judges and the fact that it was all about the Arab Spring was important,” concludes Hutchins about the MEV website entry.
Hutchins believes that by creating a diversity of voices through a variety of platforms may have been something fresh for the judges that were absent in some of the competition. “”By having this dialogue — bilateral conversations, if not multilateral — and providing photo galleries, audio — providing content in many forms — gives it a lot of texture,” adds Morris. Martin adds, “going ahead and publish things like Viewpoint/Counterpoint and really creating a gathering place, a meeting place as it were, for people to come, your audience to come, and share their ideas and information not only with you to help you to better inform the journalism that you do but to connect and share with each other really stood out for me but I imagine really stood out for the judges as well.”
The Future of the Collaborative Reporting Model—a Bold Approach
“I think that other news organizations have to be going in this direction,” Hutchins says as he lays out his reasons for improving the design and use of mobile platforms. “Mobile is growing … I think that social media will be considered more a democratic media where people can participate without having to go through gatekeepers. … That’s an important change for many people.”
Indeed democratic media can also be considered participatory journalism. “One of the themes really was participatory journalism. This new approach that media organizations small to large really need to embrace. I think the MEV site really demonstrated how that can be possible,” explains Martin. “As Hutch mentioned it, participatory journalism was a theme within several ONA sessions. I think MEV stood out as a group of people who really took hold of this and are doing it in a way that other large organizations have not been able to do yet for whatever reason.”
Of course one huge issue is how to monetize these digital efforts. “Journalism orgs are struggling with the ad model to stay in business,” adds Hutchins. But, reporting done through the BBG is different because US taxpayers pay for it. So of particular concern is how to adequately budget for the expansion and use of new technological tools.
“One thing I noticed going to the ONA conference, is there’s a lot of people who made social media sites not with journalism in mind. Now you’re actually starting to see a lot of tools come out that are UGC focused or verification focused, and so like we used Ushahidi once—but its really made for humanitarian planning, it didn’t have a very good journalism application,” reveals Hutchins. “What is needed are more tools for UGC verification.” Hutchins hopes that “there’s a lot more journalism focused tools that help speed along the verification or user participation and I hope that continues, I hope there’s also a business model for using them.” For example, Hutchins notes that a particular Facebook app meant for photo submissions to a big brand name soda company for a contest isn’t meant for locals to submit photos from a war zone in Syria. “It just doesn’t work.”
Last but not least, coding is another large area in need of expansion. “There will need to be more coders and sophisticated people on editorial desks—that was a main message at ONA. … I think in order to survive in this new world, you’re going to need people who can even build custom tools for your specific mission. VOA does that—I’m just thinking there needs to be a lot more,” stresses Hutchins.
Morris concludes that they “hope to have something just as innovative for the next ONA” while Hutchins concludes that he is “hoping to apply some of these English ideas in Arabic on the sites I’m on.” Overall, the MEV team plans on competing again in the future. “I hope it marks a new era and isn’t an anomaly,” says Hutchins with a smile in his voice.
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(Thank you to Davin Hutchins, Bob Morris, and Eric Pugh, Adam Martin for their contributions to this post.)
(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)