Fellow TH!NK3 first round winners who attended the Online journalism: chances and challenges conference in Malaysia in mid-August may have already heard these words, unless I managed to make them all sleep while delivering a very boring speech. But because I am sure it sounds more interesting when not accompanied by the sound of my voice and my annoying Italian accent, I thought I would put it in a blog post to share it with those who were there and those who weren't.
When I joined the TH!NK 3 blogging platform in March this year I had just left a full time job as a reporter on international development issues with the news service of a US based consultancy which has its European office in Barcelona.
In that role, whenever I traveled to conferences or interviewed development professionals from across the world, they would all be very surprised I could do such a job and still be based in Spain, notably Barcelona, which is a fairly cosmopolitan city, but not exactly a hub for international development in Europe.
Although this was often difficult to explain to people, working from Barcelona and writing about international development topics was doable. It required a lot of international phone calls - which, thanks to the internet, were relatively affordable for the company I worked with - and some traveling, but I certainly would not have been able to address development topics in my articles were I not writing for an online news service.
Why is that?
First of all, articles which are published online need to be short. They can go beyond the basic information and facts which are required by the topic but do not usually exceed 1200/1500 words and most of the time they are much shorter.
The reason is simple: the internet is fast. Readers check articles from their computers at work or late at night at home and they do not have or just do not want to spend too much time in front of the screen.
One of the first things I was taught when I started writing for an online news website as a journalism student back in Italy, is that internet readers get bored easily. This is why you have to pay extra attention not to chase them away or discourage them with very long stories.
How does this relate to covering development topics from Barcelona? It does, because it means that while all the information I provided needed to be accurate and fresh, I did not need to be sent to cover development projects on field as long as I could get hold of people involved and gather publishable images. The reason? My stories needed to be relatively short and essential.
While meeting people and seeing things in person is 100 times better for a journalist who is working on any news assignment, we all know this is very expensive and media have been cutting this kind of costs dramatically in the past years.
Some months ago I was visiting a friend who works for a development project addressing reproductive health in rural Morocco. I was interviewing my friend and her team for a TH!NK 3 blog post and one of her colleagues asked me if a journalist could really make a living covering development topics as, in her experience, journalists and especially their editors were never interested in the work of NGOs.
She was right. Development attracts less readers and money than gossip, finance and other kinds od news. Being able to cover it and make a living out of it was a great opportunity for me.
Nonetheless, addressing development for an online news service did have its limits, which I had to deal with.
First and most important: the voices of those who suffered from poverty, hunger, lack of health care and education or were hit by natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods were almost never directly represented.
While NGO workers and officials were often reachable - with some efforts - and some of them were actually working on the field, the only feedback on the projects they were working on that I could present in my articles was the one they would give me. They provided figures and facts, for sure. They would even provide pictures, but we all know numbers do not always reflect reality in its completeness when it comes to people in need and the impact development projects are actually having on their lives.
Just to give you some examples.
1) I once covered the work of an amazing Indian organization called CHILDLINE, which assists Mumbai street kids who lack basic services such as education and health care and are often exploited and abused. I was able to say that about 2 million people call Childline every year to report cases of needy children and that while 60 per cent of them were adults, the remaining 40 per cent of calls came from kids between 6 and 12 years of age. I was given reports on several cases of children whose situations were addressed by the helpline. But I never had a chance to see or talk to any of them, before or after they were assisted. I never had the chance to even talk to one of the volunteers who answered the phone and spoke to these kids or people who were trying to help them. I opened my story with the case of an 11-year old kid who worked in a circus where he would lay down while heavy stones were placed on his body for people's entertainment, until a member of the audience one day called the Childline. This child's case was mentioned in the lead of my article, so his story was probably what attracted readers to it. But I had never even seen this kid's face, I had never talked to him, to the person who called the helpline nor to the people who assisted him after that.
2) The second example is that of a woman I had the honor to interview before she passed away last year. She was Teresa Sarti, the head of a medical NGO called Emergency which assists patients in war zones across the world. Talking to this woman was really moving. She dedicated her life to the NGO her husband founded and constantly feared for his life and that of their daughter, who sometimes accompanied him on his missions to Afghanistan and other war stricken countries. She said what gave her strength in those moments of fear was a videotape she received from one of the organizations' hospitals in the Iraqi Kurdistan, showing a child running in a hospital corridor thanks to the prosthesis he was given after he had lost his legs in a mine blast. When I crafted my story, I highlighted this particular anecdote. But again, I had never seen that child and I had never spoken to his family and to the doctors who assisted him.
3) My third example is a bit different. I once interviewed a journalist who leads one of the country programs of a Canadian organization called Journalists for Human Rights, which promotes the coverage of human right issues in different African countries. JHR organizes trainings for journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I spoke to the head of their programme in Kinshasa, who happened to be a very experienced local journalist. In this case I did manage to get some first hand views from a local journalist who came from the same environment and featured the same background as the programme's beneficiaries. But I was just lucky. My interviewee was able to brief me on what persecutions and pressures journalists have to face in his country when they report on human right-related issues and could give me some brilliant comments on the training programmes themselves, as he spoke about occasional misunderstandings and tensions among local reporters and JHR trainers who are not able to communicate with them as colleagues rather than teachers - because trainees too are working journalists and they do not need to be treated as students - trainers who don't speak the trainees' first language (French) fluently and who are not familiar with the country's political and social situation. As I said, I was very lucky.
The second issue I became familiar with while reporting on development for online media is the choice of topics and keywords which are used to attract readers online.
My job often resembled that of a content writer rather than a journalist. I would write and even co-write articles on how to shape your CV in order to get hired by a development organization, how to write a funding proposal and so on. I even gave information on the recruiting processes of different organizations when I wrote articles about their work. I would tell readers what kind of experts were in demand by organizations such as the UNHCR or the Global Alliance Against Malnutrition. I would give information on how big donors such as the Geneva-based health foundation Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria awarded their grants. I would profile countries such as Italy on topics like what the best graduate programmes would be for people studying development and what opportunities were there for them. The reason? Information on jobs and funding - especially in times of crisis - tend to attract readers on the internet.
In the beginning I tried to fight this policy, as I found it disqualifying for my job. Then we started getting a report on views for each article published on the website and I realized there was a huge difference in numbers between the articles who mentioned the words "jobs", "hiring", "CV", "funding" and "grants" in their headlines and those who did not.
Complying to this strategy was still disqualifying, but I could not fight it. Later on, I was freelancing for a US online newspaper covering general news. I have worked with many editors, but the editor I had in this news website is among the ones I admired the most, professionally speaking. I was her correspondent from Spain and one day I filed a story on cannabis seeds which were sold in a cannabis expo in Barcelona to people who officially wanted to grow plants for medical purposes. I didn't put the word "Marijuana" in the headline when I published the story. My editor emailed me a couple of minutes later and asked me to do so. Views increased immediately. Although this was not development-related, it just confirmed the fact that the internet has its rules one cannot really fight against when working for an online news service. And writing about development makes no exception.