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Lara Setrakian: Single-story sites like Syria Deeply have lessons to offer the rest of the news business

“The story-specific platform is a relief: profound by the nature of our content, calm by the focus of our mandate.”

I’m not the first person to launch a single-story website. But I may be the first person who left a cushy TV job to do it.

Six months ago, I was a correspondent for ABC News and Bloomberg Television, covering the Middle East from our base in Dubai. It is a job I loved, and still love. But most of my time now is spent focused on the Syria story, in a digital redesign of the foreign news experience.

As the months of 2012 rolled on, Syria’s Arab Spring uprising descended into all-out civil war. The story was excruciatingly opaque (foreign journalists were heavily censored) and fundamentally complex (it drew on decades of Baath party politics and centuries-old sectarian rifts). It was asking a lot of our news users to grasp it, especially in a mainstream news cycle that doesn’t afford us the chance to provide context, history, or much depth. That is particularly true on foreign stories.

I saw an audience of people thirsty to understand more. It was a niche audience, perhaps, but it was there. And it was vastly underserved.

From that, I was driven by a deep consumer need and a profound personal mission to build Syria Deeply, a platform that fuses journalism and technology to better cover a complex story. It is part news aggregator, part interactive backgrounder, part original reporting space. Most importantly, it aims to fuse all of the kinds of content that have become critical to this crisis: professional reporting, citizen journalism, and social media. We wanted to visualize more, convey greater nuance, and focus on civilian stories, rather than just emphasize the big shots and the battle action that normally lead our headlines.

As I was building the model, from a hand sketch in my notebook through to a working prototype, it was clear this was a platform that could grow. I imagined that as we continued to hone the model, we could apply it to other complex issues. We launched, gratefully, to reviews that we had outsmarted the news and redesigned crisis coverage. In the weeks that followed, we saw a movement of people interested in expanding our model, to new geographies (Iran Deeply, North Korea Deeply, Pakistan Deeply) and broader complex issues (Cancer Deeply, Drug War Deeply, Euro Debt Deeply).

Since the launch of Syria Deeply a little over a month ago, Syria Deeply has had a steady flow of visitors, 80 percent of whom are English speakers and who are predominately from the U.S and Europe. We have had a 48 percent return rate with an average visit duration of 2:10 minutes, which shows that our readers consistently find value in our site and return to stay up with the crisis. Naturally, being part of the social media age, the large majority of our new visits have been referred through our Facebook and Twitter pages rather than through search, with a good amount of those new visits directed to the conflict timeline and our infographics, which serve as introductory tools to people wanting to learn more about the fundamentals of the Syrian crisis.

In the future, we’ll expand the single-story model, essentially serving as news R&D, toward optimizing more sophisticated delivery for sophisticated content. As with all startups, it’s on us to mange our growth — choosing how to scale at the right time, with the right partners, on the right subjects. Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve learned so far from the single-story model and what I think it says about the future of news, in 2013 and beyond.

It’s collaborative.

Single-topic platforms, such as Syria Deeply, are not made up of a team of journalists and editors reporting to a passive audience. Instead, they embrace participatory journalism in which civilian journalists can collaborate and contribute to the news process with personal stories and firsthand accounts. As a platform, we are then able to aggregate and curate the most useful content on that topic into one space.

That does call on the journalist to serve a stronger curatorial function. Columbia’s “Post-Industrial Journalism” report summarized it nicely: “The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.” That is what we’ll aim to do, issue by issue.

It’s educational.

Single-topic platforms can serve the deep domain expert and capture the interest of the topical dilettante. The idea is to capture people at their level of knowledge and help lift them to a greater understanding. Background can be made interesting. Historical content can be made engaging. Personal stories — civilian stories — can add texture and enhance interest in the macro picture of what’s going on. At Syria Deeply, we put background elements like a Conflict Timeline and Regime Map alongside news of the day which, as previously mentioned, is drawing readers who are perhaps unfamiliar and new to the Syria crisis. Those background elements add context to content, and adds value to the news user’s overall experience.

It puts the user experience first.

Working on a fundamental redesign of the news, at the story level, gives us the opportunity to put the user experience first. We design for it and we program for it, as we look for ways to engage, inform, and delight people. Since we’re building on the mandate to serve the niche, those interested in getting smart on an issue, we can stay within that mission and still innovate wildly, in service of the end user.

While we iterate toward the best possible user interface, we already know we are providing a experience that is fundamentally different that what’s in the news marketplace. Our audience, like our reporters, gets pulled left, right, and center across a flurry headlines ranging from troops leaving Afghanistan to the latest move toward a fiscal cliff.

The story-specific platform is a relief: profound by the nature of our content, calm by the focus of our mandate. Do one story well and filter out the noise. Spread knowledge and build a relationship with the user, based on how well you serve them. We have had the luxury of starting from scratch. But there are lessons even the big guys can learn from our model. For the sake of an informed public, I hope they do.

Lara Setrakian is co-founder and managing editor of Syria Deeply. She has been a foreign correspondent for ABC News, Bloomberg Television, the International Herald Tribune, and other outlets.

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  • Matt

    Thanks for this. Are these other “Deeply” websites you mention already up? I did a web search for a couple of them but did not turn out anything.

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Lara, I have been steadily visiting the Syria Deeply site for a few weeks now and I think it a great resource of information. I am of syrian descent so naturally, I am interested in following the story at a deep level but I find the site is also useful for those who are interested in learning more about the conflict. Also, it helps filter the noisy nature of many social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and in most cases does a better job than other news sites. Overall, great job for the team at Syria Deeply!

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    great question. I also tried searching for these sites and couldn’t find any of them. It would be great to know whether they are up.

  • Caroline

    Thanks for dissecting your work — these are great lessons for us as we think about strategy for the next few years. 

  • Subscription Central

    This is a truly innovative idea that has the ability to preserve international news coverage in an Internet-friendly way. But I’m curious…how to you plan to monetize the site? Will it just be ad supported or will you seek syndication in more passive-form news sites?

  • NK News

    North Korea Deeply – not quite, but you can find something very similar here :

    We are fans of the Deeply model and single story reporting definitely allows for expert writing that you won’t find on generic news sites….

  • Braulio García Jaén

    I would just like to specify that this experiment it could hardly be considered a world first. I also left my job at ‘Hoy por Hoy’, the radio show with the largest audience in Spain, in order to build a single-plattform story in 2007.
    ‘Justicia poetica’ (Seix Barral, 2010) It’s a non-fiction book for which I was awarded the Premio Cronicas Planeta, granted by the Fundacion para el Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (a Colombian association presided by the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
    Because It was written live, it’s a non-fiction story and I also published the investigative work during more than three years, as an ‘open research’, I called it “reportaje abierto” (something like “reporting in progress”). I created a single-plattaform investigative story for this: in october 2007.It wasn’t a commercial strategy. It was an experiment on open journalism: What can the readers make to improve our work? How interaction works when we are reporting on a cold case? Etc…
    Finally, let me tell you that thanks to one of my weblog’s reader, a spanish judge reviewed the files of a rape case committed 20 years ago in Catalonia, as it was reported by El Pais last year. 
    (The book, first distributed in Latin America with a different title (Falsos testigos del porvenir), was published in Spain also by Seix Barral in january 2010).Thanks a lot and congratulations for your work.Braulio García Jaén.

  •ürgen-Gundlach/100000587451728 Jürgen Gundlach

    This is a huge step out of the prison of
    printmedia-thinking. Most news apps are pouring old media into the digital
    world -  so fanciless, so poor on ideas.
    Your experiment is a fully fledged step towards the future landscape of news.
    It will have a great impact on other attempts. Congratulation. And your heart
    is with the brave syrian people. Thank you.

  • Craig McGill

    A good read but misses out one key point: is the site making money and paying contributors? What’s the funding model? (I’m not knocking the site but funding is a critical issue for news sites.)