20 January 2016
Startups For News is an international competition organised by the Global Editors Network that rewards the best startups bringing novel solutions to newsroom challenges. Caroline Avakian, founder of SourceRise, won the SFN competition in June 2015 and has had a whirlwind year in preparation for its official launch.
In this interview, she discusses the current state of crisis reporting, what challenges journalists and NGOs face as well as her own journey creating a social enterprise which connects reporters with sources on the ground.
What do you think are the biggest problems with the way big news organisations report on crises today? How dysfunctional do you think the relationship between NGOs and journalists has been for the past few years?
I think the dysfunction lies in the way many crises are reported (or go unreported), because much of the time we are not getting a complete picture of what’s actually happening on the ground. As news organisations continue to cut budgets for international reporting, and many foreign news desks shut down completely, the quality of crisis and humanitarian news reporting is suffering. This can result in reporting that excludes local knowledge and context as well as lacks depth. It is also increasingly limited to coverage of major wars.
I don’t necessarily see the relationship between NGOs and journalists as dysfunctional at all. I think they both need each other now more than ever. Mainstream media and NGOs have had a longstanding relationship. Journalists often reach out to NGO expert sources for access to remote parts of the world — they rely on them for quotes, to bring context to political, social and cultural issues on the ground, to give them fact sheets and statistics they can reference in their stories. As we are seeing a shift in the international reporting landscape that has led to the shutdown of many foreign bureaus, we have seen NGOs sharing sources, data and analysis, providing journalists with travel logistics, safety procedures, guides and even housing. In short, without the help of NGOs, many foreign news stories would simply never be told. I think now there is an even greater opportunity to expand on the potential of these relationships.
Can you briefly introduce the idea behind SourceRise as a matchmaking platform for NGOs and journalists?
SourceRise connects journalists to on-the-ground NGO sources, so we can bridge the information gap in humanitarian and crisis news reporting. SourceRise’s digital matchmaking platform allows our network of journalists and expert global NGO sources to directly connect via source and information requests, as well as digital media briefings on breaking global hot topics that aren’t getting the attention they deserve. SourceRise also matches journalists and other media makers with NGOs able to host them on the ground. As a result, we aim to improve the quality of news and information, increase coverage of vital issues and expand access to information.
What makes SourceRise different from other sites trying to connect journalists and sources, such as Help a Reporter Out or Source Bottle?
SourceRise is different than these sites in that our focus is on humanitarian and crisis news reporting. Unlike other sites focused on softer news like lifestyle, sports, business, etc., SourceRise aims to elevate important global stories and bring attention to humanitarian crises. That is how we’re different.
Are there already projects taking shape on SourceRise? What can you tell us about them?
There’s a great example of a journalist reaching out to me to find sources or case workers who are working with resettled Syrian refugees. The writer was looking to write a Q and A about misconceptions on Syrian refugees in an effort to really showcase their plight, intentions and hopes for the future. I think this is a great example of the potential of a platform like SourceRise.
What response have you gotten so far from both the news industry and people working in NGOs on the ground?
I’ve been both pleased and relieved that it has been overwhelmingly positive! NGOs have an obvious interest in bringing more attention to humanitarian issues and crises all over the world, and journalists really understand and have a strong desire to focus more on these stories. The idea that a platform like SourceRise can help them bridge that information gap much more simply and easily, is very compelling.
Screenshot of the SourceRise Corkboard
You took part in and won the Startup for News programme organised by GEN last year. What was the experience like? What did you take away from it?
Being at the GEN Summit was a wonderful experience for me in that it allowed me to really understand the pressing interests and concerns for editors, journalists and media professionals from all around the world. It allowed me to introduce the idea of SourceRise and get immediate face-to-face feedback on it. Winning the Startups for News competition was really unexpected and the icing on the cake. There were so many other wonderful news startups in the competition. SourceRise winning the award was a real validation from the journalism community that we are a much needed entity and resource, whose time has come.
As a social enterprise, what are the challenges you faced?
The first challenge was making sure we had validated and proven our concept. We did numerous interviews with both media professionals and with members of the international development community to further understand what we were doing right and what could be potential pitfalls in the future. Finding the right funding model for a social enterprise is also a process as social enterprises have a double bottom line of people and profits.
What advice would you give to other innovators thinking of creating a media or journalism startup?
My advice would be to really understand the people or community you are innovating for. Spend time learning about what their lives are like, what their pain points are, what they struggle with, and what comes easily to them. There’s no tool out there better than actually understanding who you’re trying to serve.
What tools have really helped you along the way (any specific softwares, applications, etc.)?
Some of our favorite tools have included SurveyMonkey for surveying our audiences in an effort to better understand their needs, Wordpress to establish our first website, MailChimp for email outreach and collecting our first beta users. We’ve recently migrated our Wordpress SourceRise beta site to NationBuilder, which is a more robust content management and community organising system.
How do you see SourceRise evolving over the next five years?
We want to keep building our network of NGO professionals as well as our network of media professionals, journalists, producers and news bloggers. In the next five years, I see SourceRise building those large networks, and also partnering with other media and NGO umbrella organisations, that will enable us to expand our reach. We created SourceRise to elevate and bring greater understanding to important global news stories and humanitarian crises, so we can inform the public and influence policy change. In five years time, I also expect to see a positive shift in the way media organisations approach humanitarian news and see a marked increase in published news stories that provide readers with a much deeper level of context and understanding of global issues. We expect this incremental knowledge over time to have a positive effect on how we as a global society view and interact with the world and each other.
News innovators and tech entrepreneurs have until 7 February 2016 to apply to the Startups for News programme. Find all the information about this year's competition, as well as the list of previous winners, on the SFN website.