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Getting the News — Mohamed Nanabhay

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Chris DixonZach Seward, and danah boydhere.)

For this week’s interview we decided to look for a completely different perspective. It’s easy to get stuck in the New York media landscape when you’re headquartered in Manhattan, but there’s a big world out there, and some of the most important innovations in media and journalism are happening outside our city, not in it. With that in mind, we spoke to Mohamed Nanabhay, Head of Online at Al-Jazeera English, the leading news source for information on the Middle East, and a rapidly growing media empire. Mohamed’s take on journalism today was invaluable. Like other media businesses, Al-Jazeera is worried about monetizing its business model — but it’s also worried about its signal being jammed, its journalists being deported, and getting into the countries it’s trying to cover. As the Arab world has changed dramatically over the last year, so has Al-Jazeera’s coverage strategies. Mohamed and the rest of his newsroom seem to effortlessly straddle the line between traditional reporting and new media. We made a long-distance call to Doha to find out how he gets his news.

 How do you get your news throughout the day?

Normally, if there’s any significant news, something big enough to warrant actually waking me up, I should get a call in the middle of the night from the Al-Jazeera newsroom. Otherwise I usually wake up in the middle of the night at some point and I’ll quickly scan my phone to see if anything crazy is happening. Typically I check Twitter just to see what’s going on. I think I have a nice diverse bunch of people, so when stuff’s happening in the Middle East, it’s generally on my news feed and I learn that stuff pretty quickly.

When I wake up in the morning, I pick up my phone again and check my email, look through Path to see if anything interesting has happened with my friends, and then I look at Twitter just to get a sense of what’s going on, and to see if anything major has happened. Once I get to work I get on my computer and start going through our website. I move at some point from consuming news on my iPhone to consuming news on my computer.

Who do you find particularly valuable on Twitter?

Sultan Al Qassemi is great. He’s from the United Arab Emirates, but during the Arab Spring, he was live-tweeting the revolution — to the extent that we would be playing out something on air and he would tweet it before we were able to tweet it. “Al-Jazeera said this thing.” Two seconds later, our tweet, saying that thing.

The other person who’s always interesting for me is Andy Carvin from NPR. Andy as well did some really amazing work during the Arab Spring. He was this one-man curator of the revolution. I always joke that after Al-Jazeera, the best source of news coming out of the Middle East is Andy Carvin.

How does your newsroom stay on top of what’s happening?

Most of our coverage is through our correspondent network, as well as people in our newsroom monitoring what’s going on via wire services or other news organizations. So we’re keeping an eye on everything, through the region and through the world. In a way we operate like other newsrooms, but particularly in the last few years we’re relying more and more on social media for picking up signals from what’s happening out there on the Internet.

Social media became a primary source, during the Arab Spring, especially for places we couldn’t get into — Libya, and Egypt at times, though of course there we also had a whole crew of reporters on the ground, but it supplemented their coverage. Now Syria is the prime example. Syria’s difficult at the moment just because they’re not letting anyone in. You don’t have journalists who are on the ground long enough to really give you a good idea of what’s going on. So we have to rely on social media and activist networks to get information out. We’ve built up strong networks of people in the country, Syrian citizens who are in there producing media, and get news out — whether it’s on the phone, or through the Internet. But it’s a very a complex environment to be operating in.

The type of reporting that has to be done in Syria, like the more traditional networks of sources and on-the-ground reporting, is rarer in Western countries because we’re just not in that kind of in environment — Syria is basically a war zone. But it’s interesting to see that you use both those traditional and new ones, through social media. It puts Al-Jazeera in a unique position.

And it’s not an easy one, right? So one of our web reporters went missing in Syria when we went in to report. She was imprisoned by the Syrians and then deported to Iran. We didn’t know where she was for weeks before we got her back. There are definitely risks reporting in these countries, during these revolutions. These are volatile and dangerous situations, not just for citizens, but also for journalists. So you can imagine for citizen-journalists, what it’s like.

Are you blocked in any countries?

Not English-language at the moment. Occasionally we do get blocked — often our reporters get thrown out of places. But it’s especially been a problem for our Arabic channel. Their signal gets jammed. During the Arab Spring their signal was jammed many times, and that impacted us as well. It’s technically sophisticated, some of the jamming tools. But things like that have been done in the past. But we’ve survived it pretty well, and we’re generally widely available.

What was the mission behind Al-Jazeera English?

Our Arabic news channel launched in 1996, had been running for a few years when the Arabic-language website was launched. The English-language website was launched in 2004 — before the English station was conceived. The first version was quite rudimentary and basic, very much focused on Middle East news. But when we launched our English television station, we relaunched the website.

It’s fun being the cosmopolitan channel, with a truly global outlook, and working with a staff that is truly global as well. Trying to program news online for a worldwide audience that is always awake means you’re constantly up, producing 24/7 for different timezones. All day, all the time. When you go to our website, you see news from every part of the world. We’re serving so many audiences you have to be awake all the time.

We’re the new kid on the block — you’ve got CNN International and the BBC, which are well-established in the 24-hour international news market. So we try to go to the audience, get them interested in international news, and get them watching us. One of the big things that we’ve been pushing is trying to push our own content to various social media networks. To make sure that our content reaches people day in and day out, without forcing them to come back to our website. So we’ve become big on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter — reaching out to people who might never have otherwise gotten to our website.

There is a lot of demand for our content, but we feel a lot of duty to create that demand as well. When you look English news here, it’s kind of a race to the bottom, where people are chasing pageviews. Often that content is celebrity-driven. And if you keep chasing numbers, that’s where you’re going to end up. But that’s not necessarily what’s going to be valuable to society as a whole. Part of wanting to do news right is to be out there and to have unique appeal.

What was the last great article you read?

Not so much a news story, but an article in Foreign Policy by Stephen Walt: Top Ten Media Failures in the Iran War Debate. Just made me stop because it was so topical — this is now a major issue that could cause all sorts of chaos just as everybody’s trying to recover from Iraq and Afghanistan. So I thought it was prescient ? I find what FP’s doing with their blogs and with their expert writers quite interesting. They’ve got a bunch of people who are clearly not journalists — Stephen’s Walt’s an academic — and have them commenting very quickly on major news stories in the media. It’s quite refreshing to see people stepping back and taking the best look at what’s going on in the world, and I think we can learn a lot from this as well.

What other publications do you find yourself going to?

Foreign Policy, regularly, The Economist, regularly. I read TechCrunch all the time, pretty much to make sure what’s going on in the startup/online world. But it’s very rare that I would hit the front page of any website. I rely more on recommendations from Twitter and email. I’ve increasingly started using Flipboard as a way to consume my news. Not for breaking news, just for “I’ve got five minutes while waiting.”

I should add — I find myself, because of my job, constantly looking at news and articles. But a lot of my reading is also done on my Kindle. I constantly have four or five books that I’m reading at one time. That’s my real deep reading. I read longer magazine articles less often, because I’d just prefer to read a book. I say this because the debates around the future of books constantly rage. It’s one of my indulgences to be able to read a bunch of books, and to find time to read them, and make time to read them.

One of the things about news, especially coming from someone like me, who runs a newsroom: The news is fast-paced, it’s changing all the time, you get it in these incremental updates that are great, and interesting, and useful. But often, if you miss the news for two or three days, for most people, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. Some conversations might be less interesting. But sharing a good idea from a book, that can take you a long way.

Where do you think journalism is heading? Are you optimistic?

Journalism is a function of society. And depending on how society develops, it’s going to be variable. I think we’re going to go through some pain as we figure out what these business models are. Especially these early transitions to digital. There’s the transition from paper and television screens to online content, but there’s also this transition from competing with a few people to competing with the world. It’s not just New York papers with New York papers, or international broadcasters with international broadcasters. My colleagues who work on the broadcast side of the business can easily say our competitors are CNNi and the BBC. But I don’t get that luxury, because we’re competing with everybody who puts up a webpage on the internet. And everybody who tweets, or posts on Facebook, or anything.

But that brings up huge opportunities, because our sources of information expand rapidly. So it’s about being able to sort through the information that’s being generated. We see this rush towards, you know, “let’s use the crowd,” or “let’s mine all this big data that we have,” which is all important and useful and should be done. But there’s a lot to be said for on-the-ground, investigative journalism where people go out and see something and report on it, too. So it’s variable. But I’m generally optimistic. We don’t know what the right business or financial model is right now, but we’re going to figure it out.

Find Mohamed at his personal website and on TwitterPhoto courtesy Joi Ito

(Interview conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)

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