Why building online communities strengthens journalism
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Why building online communities strengthens journalism

MK84 bombs on the runway of Elmas airport, Sardinia in late October, 2015. A community of online sources helped reported.ly’s Malachy Browne track the cargo from Italy to Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Roberto Cotti On Twitter

Quality journalism comes from strong community engagement as well as social newsgathering, as reported.ly’s Malachy Browne explains

Good sources have always been the lifeblood of good journalism. And today, sources are available as never before. Jeff Jarvis says the modern journalist’s role should increasingly become that of community organiser. It pays off for both: engaging audiences improves journalism and transforms passive readers into active, contributing members. And membership, he says, “is at the heart of this new journalism economy.”

For reported.ly, this couldn’t ring more true. We take pride when tweets we publish about events in Burundi find their way onto our Burundi Twitter list, the very community we rely upon. The same goes for Yemen, Ecuador, Nepal, the refugee crisis and any emerging story we’ve covered comprehensively. Success for us is when people in those communities update us with new information in real-time — translating statements, correcting us if we’re wrong or contributing in other ways. That engagement allows real-time journalism and public service to flourish.

Two recent stories we published exemplify how the spirit of community and collaboration can also result in more traditional, investigative work.

More Italian bombs shipped to Yemen

The first story followed on from an investigation published in June that tracked a shipment of bombs made in Sardinia, Italy, to armed forces bombing Yemen. Two sources who helped us on that initial story alerted us via Twitter, independently of each other, to more bombs being loaded onto a plane in Cagliari airport that very day. One of our sources linked to a local journal where journalist Michele Ruffi had shared video of the bombs on the runway. We connected with Ruffi on Twitter, who confirmed he saw the bombs beside an Azerbaijan-registered cargo plane. He emailed photographs and video of it.

A photographer who was delivering aid to the refugee settlement in Calais messaged us and said: “This might sound crazy, but refugees are saying that they’ve been locked up, flown to the far end of France and released.” It didn’t make sense, he said, but he offered to connect us with someone who could tell their story.

They weren’t telling fibs.

Clare Moseley, a volunteer working in the Calais camp known as “The Jungle”, found an interpreter so we could interview a Syrian man, Samir. Over the phone, Samir recounted his arrest and 900km transfer to Toulouse on Oct. 29, his release five days later and his return by train to the northern port.

Over the next 12 hours we spoke to the Toulousian lawyer who represented Samir and many other refugees in court, a reporter in Marseille who attended another deportation hearing, a journalist who photographed one of the planes transferring refugees, and a refugee agency that counted some 600 refugees transferred in the previous two weeks.

Further sleuthing on FlightRadar24.com revealed tail numbers for planes that were flying to airports near detention centers. Flight records matched the date Samir said he was transferred to Toulouse and the Marseille transfers. Histories showed these planes flying regularly between airports near detention facilities, and sometimes overseas, which French lawyers believe are deportations.

A second Syrian refugee allowed his French court documents to be photographed in “The Jungle” and emailed them to us. Geo-coordinates in the metadata (checked using exifdata.com) confirmed that they were taken in Calais, and the court details stood up. Julien Pain, editor at France 24 Observateurs summarised the details of the documents for us.

From Calais, Clare Moseley filmed interviews with two other men who recounted similar treatment.

These conversations occurred by finding relevant sources on Twitter (e.g. accounts matching ‘advocat’ (lawyer) ‘Toulouse’), by email, mobile phone, WhatsApp and Facebook. Once again, we used Facebook Signal and messenger, with some help from Google Translate.

Transfers from Calais was not an exclusive story: Tomas Statius wrote acomprehensive piece in StreetPress.fr showing one plane moving refugees on a smaller scale earlier this year. Statius was central to our report and provided photographs and information over the phone.

The collective effort by all involved allowed us to build on Tomas’s story and report that the Interior Ministry had scaled up its operation. In turn, France 24 built on the story and created wider awareness through its readership.

Partnering for public service

Audience behaviour has changed fundamentally in the digital age. “Mobile first” and “social first” mean readers consume a smorgasbord of news brands. Publishers can and should embrace the opportunity to break down the castle walls. We should end race-to-the-bottom “churnalism” that absorbs so much time, with everyone covering the same story in the same way.

When reported.ly has entered informal partnerships, it has often been to republish our journalism in other languages, including Norwegian, Italian, Spanish, German, Portugese, French and Arabic. The idea is simple: Having the story out in so many languages allows our reportage to reach wider audiences and those it affects most. And just as we build on the contributions of our community, national publishers with influence can build on our stories and change things.

Slack, Facebook groups, WhatsApp and Google Plus are all viable forums for newsrooms to collaborate in real-time and contribute our individual expertise, contacts and context to bear in developing stories. It doesn’t matter if it’s an international or a hyperlocal story anymore — the tools and communities are available.

Digital distribution also allows us to publish collaboratively rather than competitively — to acknowledge and share the solid work of others — instead of paraphrasing and resharing to “our readers” under “our brand.” To build on good work, instead of copying it. By embracing open, collaborative journalism, we can rejuvenate its founding principles — to inform, to hold people and institutions of power to account, to foster debate, to challenge and change mindsets, to tell stories that delight us and move us.

To quote Kath Viner before she took up editorship of The Guardian: “Being open has many advantages. But to do it, you need to be part of the web’s ecosystem, not just plonked on top of it. You need to submit to the web’s architecture, psychology, mores, rather than imposing a newspaper’s structure over the top. When you put the reader at the heart of what you’re doing, then you learn from them how the web works at that moment. We work together.”

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