28 January 2016
Natalia Antelava worked as a correspondent for the BBC in Central Asia, Middle East and the U.S. for many years. In 2014 she won the Startups for News competition organised by GEN with her non-profit startup Coda, a single subject reporting platform.
Together with co-founder Ilan Greenberg (The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times) and Abigail Fielding-Smith (Financial Times) they launched Coda’s pilot project Russia’s War on LGBTQ Rights in January 2016.
In this longform interview, Natalia discusses the current state of global news reporting, editorial innovation, crowdfunding journalism and the genesis of Coda.
What do you think are the limitations of global news reporting today?
There was a particular trip to Yemen during which I realised that after leaving that particular assignment there would be no more coverage of that story. I was, at the time, the only foreign journalist there, everyone else had left and the BBC was not replacing me.
That story falling off the editorial agenda, is a perfect example of the limitations of global news reporting today. One of the reasons why editors, reporters, media don’t stay on stories is not just because of short attention span, or because we don’t want to, but also because the format that we know, the platforms that we know are simply not designed to stay on the story. They are not designed for continuity.
Traditionally, we all get news from disposable platforms such as newspapers or television. When you put a piece on, you watch it once and then it disappears. So every time the media tell a story they have to tell it from scratch and mostly, all they do is give a superficial update.
If I had to describe global news reporting today in three words I would say: short attention-span, erratic and superficial. And that is not to say that there aren’t people who do it well. There are fantastic pieces of journalism that appear all the time from legacy media publications such as BuzzFeed and Vice, or even newer websites. There is more great journalism than there’s ever been.
I think the problem is if I’m interested in Syria and I go on holiday, turn my phone off and stop watching the news for two weeks, it’s very hard, when I do come back, to find a place where I can go to really know what has happened, and know the context of what has happened.
Codastory.com launched in January 2016
Coda’s motto is “Stay on the story”. Tell us more about the genesis of your project and how you address the issues you just mentioned.
With Coda we wanted to create a platform that allows for continuity of coverage.
A platform that is not disposable, where stories can have a much longer shelf life, where we can use the content in a different way. Ilan, Abby and I had a conversation where we asked ourselves, “How is it possible to stay on the story?” And it’s out of that conversation that Coda was born.
All of us felt that there was a weakness in the way that most news organisations cover big international stories.
All of us have experience working on breaking news and the simple truth is, as far as I am concerned, that news doesn’t break as often as news journalists want it to break. I have been that person standing in front of the camera repeating the same thing again and again because there was just nothing new to say. We want to move away from that culture of constant updates.
So we used our common background of working with big legacy media organisations to build Coda, a single subject reporting platform that puts a team of journalists on one crisis at a time and stays with it.
What can we expect from Coda’s pilot project: Russia’s War on LGBTQ Rights?
We thought long and high about what we would do as the first project for Coda. I think, because we are very young, we couldn’t really be sending people into war zones. We felt that we had to test it out first. So we needed a story that would allow us to showcase the rigour of our editorial approach, demonstrate the strength of our concept and at the same time would be relatively safe and wouldn’t require too much insurance money or training of reporters.
So the issue of LGBT or gay rights in Russia and in the former Soviet Union as a whole seemed like a perfect fit. It is a story we all heard of during the Olympics, but it completely fell off the radar even though things have gotten worse since. It’s also a story that is always covered purely from the prism of gay rights, violence and abuse, which is hugely important and will be a very big part of our coverage, but the reality of it is much more complex as there is also a lot of politics fitting into it.
So we want to create a narrative that does justice to the complexity of the gay rights crisis in the former Soviet Union, that explains the underlying issues, that explains what role the Church plays, what role the Kremlin plays and how the media behave in this crisis.
It is divided as every Coda story would be, thematically, and we will be working on a whole range of stories from business, to cultural, to political, to investigations, not just in Russia but also in other former Soviet republics.
Transmoskva, a mini documentary series, is part of Coda Story's coverage of LGBT Crisis in Russia and former Soviet Union. It follows the lives of trans* people in Russia as they try to live as their true selves in midst of the growing anti-LGBT propaganda
This pilot project is a way of testing the concept, and testing some of our ideas. One of the things that we want to make sure that we do is giving an arbitrary end to every crisis that we cover. The pilot project for example, will last three months. We hope to carry on for longer on future projects.
In terms of format, there will be written stories, videos and photography. We also have a thing called "annotation" where we want to take documents and just annotate them. For example, in Kurdistan, they are about to pass an anti-gay law which is very similar to the one that they passed in Russia. We talk about it in our coverage but what we also do is we take the document, as a separate piece of content, and we have a lawyer annotate it and explain different passages, what they mean, why this is bad, why this is different, what implications this law will have and so on. And that's something we want to be doing for documents, speeches or even treaties.
How difficult is it today to create engaging content that stands out, especially while reporting on difficult subjects such as LGBTQ rights in Russia?
I think if you have a good storyteller who is allowed to invest time in a story that needs coverage, it is not difficult at all. The difference is whether you give a good reporter time to report on that story or not.
I see big media organisations looking for solutions, such as Reuters and their investigative unit. But I can also see how big media organisations dig themselves into a hole of "good viral content". They want good journalistic content and they want it fast. And you just can't get it fast. It's simple.
I talked to Simon Ostrovsky some time ago, the journalist who's done this series “Russian Roulette” for Vice from Eastern Ukraine.
I remember working with him. We were in Crimea at the same time, in Donetsk during the war. The difference between me reporting for the BBC and him reporting for Vice was that he was given all the time he needed. He was told to go out and get the story and not worry about getting it out straight away. That is the thing. Give a reporter time.
News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky produced the series Russian Roulette for VICE
If you constantly have to give live updates from the crisis, you just can't create engaging storytelling. Editors know that and they are in a difficult position in the sense that they need to feed the beast and the beast is large but when you have two news channels to run and a website to run and then two reporters on the ground feeding all of them you know you end up just producing “noise” most of the time.
Of course there is a place for the news business, it will always be there, there will be events like the Paris attacks where all we want to do is turn on CNN and watch what's happening for a day. But then everyone packs up and leaves and we don't hear from it again. It's a real problem. You need to take time with stories in order to make them good. I think it is possible and I do think from my own experience that people really respond to high quality content.
There are many single-subject websites on the web today such as Syriadeeply.org, which specifically tackles the Syrian crisis. How do you build your user journey so that Coda stands out from other platforms?
Single subject websites are a bit of a trend, and it is very understandable because “niche” is now the new “local”. We used to read local newspapers, now we immerse ourselves in things that we are interested in, in the “niches”.
I think the trend of single subject websites or platforms will only grow because we are all interested in particular things and we want places that provide depth on them. Syriadeeply.org is certainly in that trend. And there are lots of parallels between Coda and Syriadeeply.org in terms of the belief of what it should be and how crises should be covered.
Syriadeeply.org, a single subject news site, focuses on the Syrian crisis
The difference is our editorial approach. What we are planning to do on Coda is all original storytelling. Our focus is very much on the ground, for an old-fashioned reportage, as opposed to aggregated material. Our goal is to take a very complex story and not just cover it and dedicate ourselves to it but also to break it down into understandable stories without dumbing it down.
We don’t want to shy away from grey, we don’t want black and white stories, we want to have stories that are not necessarily anywhere else in the media, that are challenging reporting stories. In order to do that, in order to dissect a crisis, to make it understandable, what we do at the very beginning of a project, is we break down the story into themes, into what we call “currents”.
Coda's currents help users understand the crisis's underlying issues
Those currents are the main navigation tool of Coda. So when our user looks at a story he immediately knows which theme he is in.
This gives us, I think, a very different user experience from anything that’s on offer at the moment.
We also want to move away from the idea, which is very much dictated by the disposable platforms of the past, that the latest is the most important thing. One of the things in our user experience is that it is not reverse chronological, it is not the latest that’s the first thing on the platform. The introductory piece to the theme that is always the first item.
Do you plan on collaborating with big news organisations, offer some of your content to them, or will Coda stand on its own?
I really think that gone are the days of exclusives. I think the trick these days is in sharing and co-publishing. It helps to get a bigger audience and get the story out to as many people as possible, which ultimately is our prime interest. So if we can do it by co-publishing it in a major European newspaper, or regional newspapers, that’s what we’ll do.
As a matter of fact, we have an editorial partner for this pilot project which is Eurasianet.org. They are based in New York and have a network of reporters and translations services that we can tap into. They care about the issue and want to explore it so they will be republishing the material that we do.
We are also very much interested in having regional partners, to do journalism that’s relevant locally as well as internationally.
You have a truly international team working from different parts of the world. How do you make it work?
One magic word: Slack. That’s how we make it work. I don’t think we could make it without it, it completely changed our lives. We all communicate via this teamwork application where we have an editorial channel, a fundraising channel, a video channel, to help us get organised.
The time difference, which was something we were concerned about, actually works in our favour. I am in the region now which helps, we have a person in Moscow, our social media editor is in New Delhi, the co-founder is in New York, our CCO is in London. Because at this point we are all doing everything, it actually helps to have the time difference so we can target different people at different times.
You took part in and won the Startup for News programme organised by GEN in 2014. What was the experience like?
Winning the SFN competition was the closest I've ever been to winning an Oscar. It was amazing and I'll never forget that day. It was great in terms of networking as we got to meet incredible people. Paul Steiger, Executive Chairman of ProPublica's board of directors, gave us our trophy at the ceremony and agreed to be on our board of advisors which is fantastic. We also got mentorship from Jim Roberts, CCO at Mashable in New York, as part of the prize which was great. The whole conference experience was a huge boost for us and it was amazing to have the recognition at such an early stage. Having a startup is about believing in your project and having faith. Having that award really helps you have faith.
What advice would you give to other innovators thinking of creating a media or journalism startup?
The advice would be to forget the money issue because unless you can fund it yourself, you'll have problems with it. I would tell them to find a support structure for their startup idea and build the institutional structure around it. They have to think very hard about what they want to do. Is it going to be a non-profit, is it going to be a for-profit, some mix of the two?
One of the first things that we did before we even had anything, was that we found a law firm to represent us pro-bono. And that's one of the reasons why we wanted to create a non-profit, so that we could get a free legal representation.
So it's really the boring stuff that is important. Doing all these things like putting the structures in place is paying off massively already for Coda. And I think that would be my big advice to anyone doing this sort of things. Don't rush into launching before you have that foundation.
How are you going to fund and monetise Coda in the long term?
That is the ten-million-dollar question. While we are a non-profit we want to be a real company that grows and brings a revenue that we can invest back into the journalism we do. So we have a whole bunch of revenue streams that we are developing, from premium subscription services and monetising the expertise that we develop, to sponsored advertisement, to creating the platform for others, conferences, possibly publishing as well. We are working on all sorts of ideas and revenue streams because the ambition is to grow, become a real voice and to be doing several crises at the same time.
You recently gave crowdfunding a try via a campaign on Indiegogo. What do you think about this method of funding journalism?
I think it is a great solution. I really hope I never have to do this again as I did not enjoy asking people for money. But I think it is a great solution because it creates community around your project, it generates interest from people. It was a great publicity exercise for us, because we had to push really hard. It is harder than I could ever imagined it to be, if I'm honest. Asking for money is hard. It also was wonderful in a way, to see how many people gave. When some stranger sends you $500, you think, “Wow, we're probably on to something”.
We got 63% of our target. They say that campaigns are considered successful when they get above 25%. Of course it would be nice to have 100% but we only ran it for three weeks. And now we wish we had run it for longer because we are still getting donations which can't go through Indiegogo anymore. But hey, it's a learning curve for everyone.
Finally, how do you see Coda evolving in the next five years?
I’d like Coda to be a proper big company that pays journalists well to do high quality reporting. We will strive to grow for sure, but I think a lot of it is going to be experimental.
In five years time, I would like Coda to be doing several crisis from different parts of the world, providing real quality storytelling and journalism about complex issues. And doing it in partnership with many media organisations, in native languages in places where we report as well as English. And be a real voice, a voice that matters. Be the place where people come to when they really want to understand something about a crisis.