Sahar Ghazi. Photo by Sam Stewart, used with permission. October 2013.
Holding the editorial reins of Global Voices has become, after 10 years, an increasingly complicated task. Past managing editors understood this well, and so does current managing editor Sahar Habib Ghazi.
But unlike those who came before her, the Global Voices community doesn't know Sahar very well, so the idea emerged to talk with her to learn more about her, her goals and her concerns for the site. Through a small crowdsourcing process, various members of the community submitted questions. Not all questions reached the final stage due to space constraints, but the interview was thorough nonetheless. Read for yourself!
Global Voices (GV) : Can you tell us about yourself and what you did before joining Global Voices?
Sahar Ghazi (SG): I’m the managing editor at Global Voices. I experiment with strategies and think of ways to facilitate and support our unique, borderless community and completely virtual newsroom. I also help craft editorial and social media policies, plan special coverage and manage partnerships. Before joining this amazing community in 2012, I worked as a journalist in Pakistan where I covered war, elections, earthquakes, floods, human smuggling, and kidney tourism, always searching for hope in my storytelling. In 2006, I helped launch the country's first English-language TV station. I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work at DawnNews, breaking news and running live broadcasts. In 2009, I produced a TV series on US-Pakistan relations, called the Disposable Ally. I was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in 2011; there I explored creating citizen-generated content for mainstream media in Pakistan through Hosh media.
When I’m not sitting in my GV portal overlooking San Francisco, I’m cooking a few feet away in our kitchen, running on a trail close to our place, or playing with my 2-year-old daughter Nava at a park.
GV: Your work at GV until some weeks ago has been mostly behind the scenes. Can you tell us a bit about it?
SG: Whenever someone asks me what Global Voices is like, I say it is the kindest place in the world. I joined this wonderful community as the deputy editor in June 2012, while I was almost 8-months pregnant. How many organizations do you know that would hire someone that is pregnant?
My first formal interaction with the community was during an interview with Georgia, Ivan and Solana on Skype. Before they could launch into any questions, I said I wanted to tell them about something important that I couldn’t fit on my resume – my swollen belly. I told them that if this was an in-person interview, that would be the first thing they would notice about me, but since this is a virtual process, I felt compelled to let them know that I was 6-months pregnant. They started laughing and said Solana’s pregnant too! After I was hired they told me that my immediate honesty, and concern about their time before myself, was one of the reasons they thought I’d be a good fit for the community.
Since joining GV I have tried to facilitate our community of writers and editors by launching discussions about reporting, sourcing and writing practices and have tried to create tools for them to use. Along with our news editor Lauren Finch, I’ve worked on revamping our Style Guide (GV Style Wiki) and tried to streamline our newsroom workflow to focus more on story structure and news writing standards.
Through community participation and endorsement, I also helped put together GV’s first editorial code. Even though we made a name for ourselves as a credible news source many years ago, we never had a formal code until 2013. I thought it was important to have something in writing — for transparency and for our authors and editors to refer to. Some of our community members and authors are at the forefront of freedom of speech, minority rights and Internet freedom movements in their countries. This gives us great access to underreported issues and stories within those communities, but it can also raise some conflict of interest concerns. So we needed to find a way to tailor existing editorial codes for our unique circumstances. It took a few months of back and forth with our community and editors, but I think we reached a sweet spot in the final code that everyone endorsed in August.
When I joined GV, I was soon manning most of our social media accounts on my own. It was exciting to see our social media followers and traffic grow, but it was also overwhelming. (We currently have 74K+ followers on Twitter and 61K+ on Facebook.) So I asked our community for help, we crafted some guidelines and now we have an awesome team led by Asteris, Rami Al Hames, Rayna, Kevin Rennie, Mohamed Adel, Chris Moya amongst others on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Google + accounts.
Last year, I helped kickstart a weekly video hangout series called GV Face. We use Google Hangouts on Air to delve deeper into trending topics with our authors and editors around the world. We have covered dozens of stories with our contributors in Brazil, Bahrain, Bulgaria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Philippines, Pakistan, Serbia South Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Taiwan and Ukraine.
Sahar with the core team in Essex, Massachusetts. April 2014. Photo credit: Jeremy Clarke
GV: What were some of the things that you had in mind when you accepted the managing editor position?
SG: I think more engagement and conversation with the community is essential. We have over 1,200 members on the internal community mailing list now. Having engaging and participatory conversations there can be challenging, but I want community members to feel like I am approachable on the list, and off the list. I want our community to know that their opinions and feelings matter to me, and my role as managing editor is first and foremost to facilitate them, their work and help deepen their ties to GV’s mission.
Our storytelling and editorial process has evolved organically over the years. Ever since I joined the community there have been a series of words I’ve been hearing from editors and community members about what was important to them: building bridges, having impact, being true to our mission.
To that end, I’ve been trying to engage in a dialogue with the community about writing with purpose, clarity and impact the last few months. You might have seen a few threads on our mailing list or heard the discussions in a few hangout sessions.
Global Voices has always been a mission-driven organization. We are still focusing on writing about the most underreported stories in the world. I do think, however, the “online” part of our original name, Global Voices Online, has undergone a massive transformation in the last 10 years, and any editorial experimenting we are doing is to address just that.
In 2014, it is a lot harder to find well-written trusted blogs, there is much more propaganda on the Internet to sift through, and the most trusted netizens are using social media to write, which can be a polarizing echo chamber.
To top it off, mainstream media has evolved. Many mainstream media organizations did not understand the “web” 10 years ago; now they have become much more social media and Internet savvy. Their voice is loud on the Internet — sometimes louder than us. We have an even bigger responsibility to take on the single-focused news agendas that mainstream media pushes in most regions of the world.
So to me, our role in this new online ecosystem is still about bringing the most unheard voices to the forefront, but it also has to be about correcting all the injustices that exist in mainstream media's representation of stories. We have to also speak for the most “misrepresented” voices.
Because of the mainstream media's invasion (!) of the Internet, there is an urgency for us to clean the online information space by writing for deeper impact, and take on the agendas that they push.
We also want more people reading our stories because we want to continue building bridges. When I look at traffic to our site, I am only thinking about the number of people we are building bridges for. If we want the whole world to look like GV, we have to build bridges for them to hop on over to our side, in a way that they can understand, that's why lately we have been focusing on writing with impact, clarity and purpose.
Paula asked: What are your inspirations in terms of media and news websites? What are the coolest things out there in your opinion, and how do they compare to Global Voices?
SG: I am inspired by anything that challenges the existing narrative of a country and people, or provides an alternative to the dominant news angle of a particular story. Today, anyone can be a news producer, but that does not mean the most authentic or disempowered voices will rise up. We live in an era of massive misinformation and disinformation.
Sahar at a TV shoot in a village outside Islamabad, Pakistan. January 2008. Photo credit: Amber Shamsi.
Mainstream news organizations are increasingly shaping the narrative online, and they push news agendas according to their bottom lines or their home country's foreign policy agendas. Governments are increasingly corrupting the online space with their own propaganda and trolls. I am inspired by all initiatives that challenge the status quo or keep the online information space in check; whether that is Vox.com or AJ-plus with their cutting-edge design and agenda-challenging explainers, Radio Ambulante with their simple radio format that focuses on telling Latin America's most important untold stories, Syria Deeply which goes in depth into the lives of the people of war-torn Syria or viral portraits by Brandon from Humans of New York, which offers intimate glimpses of humanity beyond the latest headline. At Global Voices we try not to reinvent the wheel and go for amplifying good work done by like-minded organisations. We often cite Vox, AJ-plus, Radio Ambulante and have republishing partnerships with Syria Deeply.
Estefanía asked: Do you see innovations such as transmedia features and data journalism coming to Global Voices in the short-term future?
SG: I would love to see more multimedia features and data journalism on GV. Visual communication can be effective and quick way of telling complex stories that resonate. Last month GV contributor Gilad Lotan, who is also a data journalist, produced this in-depth data report, “Israel, Gaza, War & Data – The Art of Personalizing Propaganda.” The data was eye-opening and this important angle was under-explored in a story that is often over-reported or misreported. Gilad's piece did extremely well, attracting lots of new visitors to the site with an average reading time of eight minutes.
Sana asked: While there are a thousand things that can make a journalist feel depressed, what really motivates you?
SG: To me, the human condition is inherently multifaceted. I tend to question everything and believe that nothing in the world is black and white. So I am not demotivated by difficult or ugly stories of war or death. If anything they motivate me to look deeper for the grey areas that are missing from the story being told. While bad news tends to dominate headlines, even in times of war, there are always stories that can make you see the wonders of everyday life and celebrate the resilience of people. War reporters on the ground tend to see this and experience it more. In mass media outlets, as stories make their way down the supply chain to copy editors and editors the contradictions and complexity of life in the saddest of times become less tangible, but I think the key is to have more eyes and ears on the ground in these difficult spots to capture the story beyond the sadness and ugliness. Initiatives like Syria Untold and Syria Deeply are crucial. This year we've been trying to lift the veil on life in Aleppo, Syria, beyond the conflict with a moving first-hand account by Marcell Shehwaro. Marcell’s stories are from a war zone but she herself stands out as a character of resilience and hope.
Elizabeth asked: Can you name the challenges and opportunities of running a newsroom with citizen journalists as opposed to professional ones?
SG: The industry is rapidly changing. There is a lot of cross-pollination between citizen media and traditional newsrooms in methods of reporting, packaging news and distribution. Lines are increasingly getting blurred. To me, the opportunities and challenges are essentially the same.
The challenges of every newsroom is to get the facts right, link to trusted sources, make deadlines, and write stories that will inform people.
With GV, we try to take it a step further. We write stories with a mission: We want a more equitable world, we want to build bridges between people, and we want our readers to think and feel for people and places the mainstream media doesn't tell them about.
And within that, I think our biggest opportunity lies: working with a team of dedicated, trusted and caring volunteers who are singularly motivated by making this world a better place by telling stories from their communities with authenticity, from an angle that is often under-explored or unknown.
That said, I think the GV newsroom treats editing as a process of facilitation. Our goal is to support and be of service to our volunteers, who by virtue of our global community have varied perspectives, skills, and availability. We start our editorial support with the understanding that we need to be sensitive to these dynamics, and that we're here to serve the community, rather than command it.
Elizabeth: What can mass media outlets learn from Global Voices?
SG: We spend a lot of time at Global Voices thinking about existing news frames and the impact our reporting has on the narrative of a particular region or people. The truth is mass media is guilty of reducing many different, complex countries to one single tainted angle. There are so many countries that mass media has trained us to only see through the lens of terrorism, war, drugs, or disempowered women. At Global Voices, we focus on the exact opposite, if a country is known for drugs or rape, we try to raise the voices telling a different story. Because a different story always exists.
In the last 10 years, mass media outlets have already learned a lot from Global Voices and community-driven organizations like us. They’ve learned how to curate and use social media and blogs as a source of news stories. We have also played a role in shifting the news industry’s understanding that there does not need to be a concrete wall between the news producer and their audience; when engagement takes place, beautiful things happen, important voices and stories get reported. In fact, if you look at masthead of most mass media outlets now, they have senior editors in their newsroom focusing on engagement and audiences.
Funny GVer asked: What makes GV different from mainstream news websites, as now we are also linking a report's success with the number of clicks and visits it receives?
SG: Our goal is to empower people who value justice, equality and empathy around the world with tools to tell their stories. We want more people reading these stories because building bridges to promote global understand is central to our mission. The community we empower, the motivation behind empowering them, is what makes us different.
Whenever I look up our site’s traffic, I look at time on site. Did 1,000 readers spend three minutes reading an 800-word story? If they did, to me that is success, because that metric is an indicator of the people we have connected with, the people we have shown another perspective, the people we are building bridges for.
That said, this is not something new. We've been paying attention to traffic as a measure of our impact since 2007. We care about it because the goal of Global Voices is to amplify alternative voices and stories. Measuring visits is a way of understanding our success in amplification. The only thing that's changed is an increased effort to demonstrate that our content is interesting and useful — in order to honor both our mission and our contributors — but that change took place as a result of the Nairobi Summit meetings.
Finally, as much as we like to criticize mass media, it is important to remember that most mainstream journalism sites don't produce content just because it's likely to garner traffic. That's true for some digital-first publications, but it's rarely the only value for mainstream media either.
Sahar with her family, Mo, the monkey, her husband Tabriz, and Nava on Eid at their home in California. October 2014.
Funny GVer: What is the future of GV? Do you see it turning into a mainstream news organisation?
SG: No, but I do hope the exact opposite happens. I think a non-profit, community-driven news organization with a mission to increase global understanding like Global Voices should be the model that everyone within the media industry should aspire to. I’d like to live in a world where everyone was a GVer.
Many thanks for your time, Sahar!