Defending the middle ground of online journalism

It’s easy to use polarizing descriptions of online news-gathering. It’s the domain of citizen journalists, blogging without pay and institutional support, or it’s a sector filled with the digital works of “mainstream media” facing financial worries and struggling to offer employees the protection they once provided. But there is a growing middle ground: trained reporters and editors who work exclusively online on projects born independent of traditional media. They share many of the practices of an older generation of reporters, but their work draws from the decentralized and agile practices of the digital world. 

It’s a sector found everywhere, but one that has special significance in countries where the two extremes cannot maintain a foothold, where the political climate makes individual blogging too risky, and where the institutions of a free press have been repressed or were never established.

At the launch of Columbia University’s new Global Center in Istanbul this month, I joined some of the brightest and bravest bloggers, editors, and producers in this sector. Journalists building news institutions for the Middle East, the former Soviet states, China, and across Africa discussed this fragile third wave and how to protect its growth. Representatives of Nigeria’s SaharaReporters, Angola’s Maka Angola, Iran’s Tehran Bureau, China Digital Times, Kavkazsky Uzel, and others took part.

Some have faced the kinds of attacks that CPJ has fought for years: state censorship, denial-of-service attacks, detention, and threats. But other attacks are unique to journalists in this group. Frequently, they have the equivalent of a newsroom, a central backroom environment in which editors and frontline reporters collaborate closely. But these newsrooms are virtual. Many are based in exile, cooperating with in-country reporters via email or messaging. The online communications between colleagues are extremely vulnerable to attack, and quite valuable to the attackers. Unlike citizen journalists, journalists in this sector cannot (and don’t want to) protect the identities of all participants.

Online news services often operate unofficially, without state recognition or registration. They don’t get press passes or invitations to press conferences, but they can still pore over official documents and act on whistleblower tips. That makes protecting sources even more important. Intimidation of sources can be the easiest way to threaten or limit the impact of these sites. Exclusion of unofficial press organizations from official data is another, less obvious method.

Often, these journalists find themselves becoming sources themselves. They frequently act not just as publishers of news, but as trusted sources for larger media concerns. The relationship between PBS and Tehran Bureau is the most direct connection, but all have informal ties with other, bigger news services.

That means success can be unpredictable. A news site may have a few hundred dedicated readers, but if one of its stories is picked up and magnified on larger news services or social media, viewership can spike into many thousands overnight. As the thoughtful Zeynep Tufekci noted, being widely read can offer vulnerable news sites a degree of protection. “The most dangerous place you can be,” she told the group, “is when you are writing regime-shaking stories that no one reads.” Kelly Niknejad spoke of going from a few dozen Twitter followers to 19,000 overnight. That brought a wider audience and some financial support. At the same time, it can bring unwanted attention.

Istanbul itself has often played the part of middle ground, between Europe and Asia, between Islam and the West. Our meeting place overlooked the Bosphorus, as symbolic of such a crossroads as you might want. But middle ground does not always mean moderate. Turkey’s judiciary regularly orders ISPs to block entire websites (including, most notoriously, YouTube) for violations that may include only a single page or video. As CPJ’s mission to Turkey this year showed, many reporters fear legal harassment.

To be in the middle of things isn’t always safe. But it’s where the most interesting reporting is found and where journalists frequently need the most protection.