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Oct. 20, 2014, 1:50 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Ebola Deeply builds on the lessons of single-subject news sites: A news operation with an expiration date

Following the blueprint of Syria Deeply, the new Ebola-focused site hopes to deliver context and coherence in covering the spread and treatment of the virus.

A contagious disease outbreak seems like a good time for some explanatory journalism.

News outlets are scrambling to cover the latest developments in the Ebola outbreak with reporting that can provide background on the spread — and any potential risks — of the disease. It’s a balancing act, made more difficult by the worry and fear that surrounds the potentially deadly virus. When Fox News’ Shepard Smith is telling viewers “do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online,” it’s possible there’s a misinformation problem.

That’s why Lara Setrakian launched Ebola Deeply, the latest entry in her pop-up news business, designed to collect the most recent news and provide context in the coverage of the disease. “There’s a lot of reporting, but the space could use coherence, and that’s what we hope to provide,” said Setrakian, founder of parent News Deeply. “We’re not really here to replace anything — we’re here to support the ecosystem.”

This is the second site in the Deeply family, following Syria Deeply, launched in 2012 to deliver news focused entirely on the conflict within the country. The idea behind the Deeply franchise is explanation through simplification — cut out the clutter of a general news site and the noise and repetition of social media to find the best resources on an issue. That single-topic focus also comes with a kind of built-in expiration as the sites are only meant to last as long as a story or subject remains relevant. “We’re ready to retire the site when the crisis is over, and that’s a good thing,” Setrakian said. “We need dedicated coverage of flashpoints, if they are six months or six years.”

Ebola Deeply follows the blueprint (and design) of Syria Deeply through a mix of aggregation and original reporting, with analysis from experts and locals. The site also has a handful of media partners like the Associated Press, which is sharing wire stories with Ebola Deeply. Similar to Syria Deeply, Setrakian said they want to build an audience for the new site through social media as well as content distribution agreements. For example, Syria Deeply provided a news feed of stories for ABC News and the Christian Science Monitor.

The team behind Ebola Deeply includes foreign correspondents with experience covering Africa, data scientists, and software developers. Most important, says Setrakian, the site is using a handful of journalists in affected countries, including Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. It’s similar to the network of local writers who reported for Syria Deeply, but Setrakian said they’re making sure contributors stay up to date on the latest safety precautions.

Jon Gosier, the founder of information analysis company D8A, is collaborating with Setrakian on Ebola Deeply to help increase access to information in and outside of Africa. The founder of Appfrica and a former director of Swift River at Ushahidi, Gosier said over email his biggest goal is making sure reliable public health information reaches people.

“For me the equation is simple, misinformation is causing hysteria in Western nations and hysteria leads to mistakes (as was recently the case in Texas), which in some cases leads to the loss of life. In Africa fear, mistrust, and misunderstandings are leading to a similar outcome (with much greater consequence),” he said.

Gosier is also a former Knight News Challenge winner for his work on projects like Abayima, which aimed to make it easier to share information through simple modifications to feature phones. As part of Ebola Deeply, they plan to set up a mobile network to deliver news on Ebola and other public health information to people in West Africa. Gosier told me he envisions the network working both ways; people on the ground will also be able to share first-hand updates on the response to the disease. That way, the site has the potential to have an affect on the real world on top of being a single-focus news provider, he said.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4,400 people have died from Ebola worldwide. The disease has been largely concentrated in West Africa, though cases have been reported in Europe and now the United States. As cases pop up around the globe, it increases the need for clear and concise information, Setrakian said. “Someone has to offer coherence amid the noise,” she said. “Are we the only ones that can do it? No. But we feel it’s needed.”

Browsing Ebola Deeply gives users a glance at the latest stories being reported on the virus, a map showing the spread of reported cases around the world, and a series of background pieces on everything from the history of Ebola to the science behind treatment. Similar to the coverage of Syria, Setrakian said reporting on Ebola can lead to distortions and hype in the face of facts or analysis. “Just because there’s a lot of reporting doesn’t mean it’s easy to digest,” she said.

Setrakian financed the launch of the site through revenue News Deeply has raised by developing white-label sites for places like the World Economic Forum and the Global Ocean Commission. Syria Deeply was sponsored by foundation funding and digital design services.

Bringing the Ebola site online in time to cover the spread of the disease meant putting plans for Arctic Deeply, a site focusing on climate change and the melting ice caps, on the back burner. But Setrakian says they have several events and workshop discussions on climate issues planned for this fall that will help segue into a planned launch of Arctic Deeply next year.

In theory, Ebola Deeply could be rolled up and closed for business by the time its Arctic counterpart launches. But that will depend on how health officials around the world contain and treat the disease, which the WHO recently predicted could reach 10,000 new cases per week by December.

When the lifespan of your news site is tied to the news cycle, you have to be prepared for both the short and long game. A good example? Syria Deeply is now almost two years old. But Setrakian, who researched single-serving news sites at Columbia’s Tow Center, said topic-sites are a way for media company to think strategically about their coverage and how they serve the needs of the audience.

“By allowing for things to live for six months or four months — or a hurricane season — and allowing for pop-up news pages to exist and retire, it opens up a whole new realm of what we can do,” she said.

Photo of health workers in Guinea from the European Commission used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 20, 2014, 1:50 p.m.
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