Originally written by Anjali Mullany for Fast Company.
As conflict rages in Syria, the news industry is in crisis, too. Lara Setrakian’s Syria Deeply is reimagining the business of storytelling.
The conflict in Syria has been raging for 629 days. Between Internet blockades and the serious threat to journalists’ safety, public reporting on social networks has been a primary–and sometimes unreliable–source of information. That’s left Syria watchers bouncing from news site to news site, piecing together information from different sources.
Today, a new website about the Syrian conflict launches, one that aims to not only provide comprehensive coverage of the Syrian conflict but to disrupt the design and business of news.Syria Deeply is a “story monitor” and “news dashboard” dedicated to reporting on a single beat, a redefinition of the “beat” focused on covering one continuous, chaotic storyline and the communities involved, rather than covering a broad topic or genre. And there may be lessons here for the mainstream news industry, which has yet to find a sustainable, maximally useful way to exist on the web (much less fund international coverage).
The User Experience Of The Syria Story Sucked
After a “five-year odyssey” covering the Middle East as a reporter, Lara Setrakian was hit with a revelation. “The user experience of the Syria story sucked. It was just abysmal. It was bits and pieces, very hard for the end user (being the news consumer) to take it and process it and come to any kind of synthesis,” she says.
“As I started sharing that sentiment there seemed to be an extremely broad consensus. My friends in the Middle East press pool, we just feel like we have so much more to give and we’re not innovating in the ways we do it. Twitter was a leap forward, but there are so many more steps to any kind of framework or delivery system that can really give the best of us.” In particular, Setrakian was concerned by the amount of information reporters weren’t able to publish and make public. Television news broadcasts are finite in time; the traditional article, even on the web, doesn’t accommodate smaller pieces of information.
When Setrakian was introduced to the open source crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi, she found herself telling the startup “how I wished we could build a proper landing page for the Syria story that was modular, that had a Ushahidi map, that has a great Twitter box, that had some original content. So I drew it out in my notebook for anyone who would listen,” she laughs.
Ultimately, Ushahidi built a wireframe based on those early sketches, and Syria Deeply was born. As Setrakian started to share the idea with her friends, she says “it became clear that we’re really onto something. This is a framework that can be applied to any story, which serves in so many ways.”
As Syria Deeply evolved, Setrakian decided to give up her reporting gigs at ABC News and Bloomberg to work full-time on the site–which she is funding out of her own pocket.
The Age Of The UX Designer
Design is at the core of Syria Deeply’s philosophy. Setrakian, who worked at McKinsey as a business analyst after graduating from Harvard, believes “this is the age of the UX designer. News has a big data problem–there is so much content from so many places. Organizing information has become a major challenge and an opportunity to leap ahead with innovative news design.” The site is designed to be both replicable and iterative; Setrakian says she views Syria Deeply as one big R&D lab . Partners include a range of innovative companies, from Prezito SoundCloud to Transterra.
From a taxonomy perspective, Syria Deeply is the opposite of most news sites. In a traditional news taxonomy, information is divided by broad topics, like World News. Each topic is divided into subsections, like the Middle East. Each subsection is then often divided into even smaller subsections, like Syria. Each section gets smaller and smaller. Topic pages live in obscure ghettos on many news websites: auto-aggregated and ugly dumping grounds for content that happens to be tagged with particular keywords.
On Syria Deeply (designed by Brock Petrie and developed by Soumyadeep Paul and Arindam Biswas, who runs Collective Zen) the topic page is the homepage. Setrakian’s hope is that this site-wide focus on a single beat will allow for deeper, more thoughtful reporting.
The site lacks the navigation bar that is nearly ubiquitous across the top of most news websites. Instead, the site’s creators chose a modular design (based on Setrakian’s early notebook sketches) that divides content not according to a topical hierarchy, but instead presents a more egalitarian side-by-side selection of consumption styles and content forms.
The top of the homepage highlights the length of the conflict (629 days as of this writing) and features a headline banner which is meant to give visitors “a sense of the scatterplot of the news day” in one sentence. One row down, visitors can listen to SoundCloud briefs (hosted by Setrakian); browse more top headlines in a module designed by Snip.It, a sort of Pinterest for news; or browse Syria Deeply’s original content: raw interviews, social media roundups, and contributions from Syria Deeply contacts based in Syria (which the site’s staff workshop and fact check).
25% of Syria Deeply’s content is original; 75% of the platform is either automated or populated with static material, such as background information, much of which can be found in “Syria Files,” a dynamic portal of background information that helps readers make sense of the conflict with a refugee and fatality map, an interactive timeline, an overview of key players, and a visually impressive “defection tracker” showing the latest army and government officials who have jumped ship.
The site also takes advantage of technology that can help journalists be more transparent about how they find and report stories. There’s a module dedicated to Google Hangouts Syria Deeply staff host with experts and journalists. The Hangouts are, Setrakian says, an opportunity for reporters to “share their notes” with the audience and provide perspective on the conflict’s recent developments.
Another module features tweets from Syria Deeply’s most reliable sources–Setrakian says she’s found public reporting on social networks is often 48 hours ahead of the mainstream news cycle. In addition, there’s a module dedicated to Op-Eds on the crisis, culled from the staff’s diverse circle of contacts.
Working With Distant Sources
Protecting Syria Deeply contributors based in the war-torn nation can be challenging; it’s well documented that Syrian authorities use impersonation and surveillance techniques to identify and punish both activists and reporters. Syria Deeply works with the Electronic Freedom Foundation to do what they can to protect Syria Deeply correspondents in the field.
Then there’s the issue of finding and verifying information. In addition to working directly with their Rolodex of analysts, journalists, activists, and citizens around the world, the team makes use of social media to monitor the situation in the war zone. Syria Deeply staff are in the Skype rooms where the conflict is being strategized, and painstakingly interpreting what can sometimes be biased reports from informants inside the country. For Syria Deeply, social media isn’t an additional reporting resource, but an integral part of its core fact-finding and verification workflow.
It’s an ambitious project in an era when even news organizations with the most clickable content–celebrity scandals, sports dramas–are struggling to turn a profit. At the moment, only Syria-based contributors whose lives are in danger or have to pay for drivers and security get paid. Setrakian believes that the site can possibly become sustainable by pursuing avenues that most news sites aren’t yet exploiting, including: licensing the platform itself, organizing and selling its deep beat-specific data and insight to business and government organizations, and drawing traffic from audiences that are already searching for information about this specific crisis.
Syria Deeply was designed to be a replicable model. Setrakian hopes to use site metrics to learn how people absorb complex issues, and use that information to alter the design of the platform, which they could potentially license to others. In addition, more Deeply sites dedicated to Iran and Pakistan are already in the works–and Setrakian envisions more story-specific Deeply sites in the future, such as Drug War Deeply or Euro Debt Deeply.
“I like to think deep think is the new tabloid,” declares Setrakian. “We know high-level diplomats, government officials, even business leaders are very interested in this product. They need to monitor these markets, they’re all interconnected. Syria may have less market value than Iran Deeply or Saudi Arabia Deeply; nonetheless, there’s a very high-level audience that is thirsty for this project.”
So how can news organizations capitalize on that “high-level” demand? “Quality journalism is often information good enough to trade on; as you develop deep expertise in beats like Syria, Iran, China, or subject matter areas like oil markets, food security, and extreme weather, that expertise [can] be packaged into syndicated content, specialized premium products, B2B services, and executive education modules,” Setrakian tells me, pointing to her alma mater Bloomberg News as an example. “We [can] expand beyond the news business and serve the insight industry, which is booming.”
“But we really started out to serve the people who are already searching,” Setrakian emphasizes. Syria Deeply works with Media Cause, an organization which helps nonprofits with SEO. “They advised us that there are 7.5 million Google searches a month in English for the Syria story. So it’s those searchers we had in mind when we built this. In the first phase, reaching those seekers is how we’re going to gauge whether we’ve succeeded, and then we’re going to grow it.”
Perhaps the greatest source of Setrakian’s passion for this project stems from her belief that technology can serve as a bridge between journalism and foreign policy: “The U.S. suffers for lack of foreign policy literacy–we need to make a quantum leap in how people understand the world and America’s role in it,” she tells me. “Technology can help engineer that leap, as it helps us create a new wave of foreign news reporting and insight.”