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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.

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