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With News Deeply Lara Setrakian has created a new model of impact journalism

TechCrunch TechCrunch 3/05/2016 Jonathan Shieber

In 2013 Lara Setrakian was fed up with the news business.

A longtime correspondent for both ABC News and Bloomberg Television, Setrakian had reported in and on the Middle East for years.

From the Iran election crisis in 2009 to the Arab Spring uprisings throughout 2011, Setrakian spent her days witnessing events whose aftershocks are still felt throughout the geopolitical landscape.

But Setrakian noticed something in the beats between the political cataclysms that would grab the headlines and shake the news cycle. No one noticed the aftershocks.

“The linear model of covering news and moving on to the next story meant we were leaving lots of great stories behind,” Setrakian said.

Over the course of her reporting, Setrakian began to recognize communities of readers that came for her coverage… and stuck with it.

These weren’t headline hounds sniffing around in the daily detritus that washes over a casual consumer over the course of a daily news cycle. Rather, they were passionate, engaged readers that “create an underserved audience of people who want to hear about issues.”

Now armed with $2.5 million in venture funding from some of the best names in impact investment (Omidyar Network) and journalism (North Base Media — a media investment shop led by storied Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli), Setrakian launched News Deeply as a way to transform media coverage of the biological, environmental, political, and social earthquakes that shape the news… and their aftershocks.

Five years ago, the topic that this audience wanted to hear about was Syria, but U.S. news outlets were strangely silent.

Setrakian saw this as a mistake… And an opportunity.

“I could see that it was extremely significant and no one was paying attention to it,” she said.

The problem, for Setrakian, was one of focus. “For an individual reporter, you get pulled in 12 different directions, so how do you create a more focused model? How do you create some consistency and some clarity around what is otherwise a very complicated situation?,” she asked (already knowing the answer).

In December 2012, Setrakian launched Syria Deeply, the first of a now large (and growing) network of news sites dedicated to expert, in-depth coverage of subjects that have a passionate following, and lack consistent media coverage.

Syria Deeply launched one year and nine months after the Civil War in Syria began and the response, from the beginning was overwhelming, according to Setrakian.

In a 2013 article on the NiemanLab news site, published in the months after Syria Deeply first launched, Setrakian examined the response to the launch of this first site.

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).

That response encouraged Setrakian, but overwhelmed her small team. A year later, Setrakian took her next foray into minor media mogul-dum with the launch of Ebola Deeply (now archived).

“These were people who really cared about the Ebola crisis in the way I cared about the Syria crisis,” Setrakian said of the people who reached out to her. And there was a similar profile to the two stories.

“This was the summer of 2014… No one was paying attention to what’s happening in Africa and people were dying,” Setrakian said.

In some ways that’s become the equation for the launch of new topics that run under the News Deeply umbrella.

Take a complicated and life-threatening situation developing in a region where most media outlets won’t commit resources; add a passionate and engaged community of experts who need a forum where they can share information and a small band of writers who are dedicated to the subject and you’ve got the makings of a Deeply site (or community).

Setrakian calls this “impact publishing” and the subjects that the News Deeply network tackles all may have a huge impact on the world.

“I started to understand that we cover niche news,” Setrakian said. “Over time it became clear to us that we were building media platforms for specialized communities.”

Indeed, the fact that these communities are so specialized are one of the ways in which News Deeply and its predecessors were able to be profitable nearly from their inception.

By engaging with a community of specialists it’s easy to find willing contributors who will publish to the community in order to engage with it. In that way, Setrakian can supplement the journalism coming from her dedicated staff with pieces from outsiders with a deep understanding of the subject that’s being covered.

Beyond that bit of economizing, the News Deeply sites depend on sponsors from the the philanthropic, strategic and corporate worlds to underwrite a lot of the journalism that’s being done.

Making money will also happen the old fashioned way, according to Setrakian. Which, for journalists and ex-journalists means in-depth reports, white papers, and special coverage on the topics that comprise the News Deeply network.

Currently, that’s Syria Deeply, a new(ish) site that launched in December called Arctic Deeply, Water Deeply, and Refugees Deeply.

“There was a moment when I was watching Al Jazeera in 2012… I called it the idea that wouldn’t let me go… as soon as I saw that Syria wasn’t getting the attention (frankly because it came last in the order of uprisings). I thought it was messed up,” said Setrakian.

“Syria was always this important, but we weren’t treating it as something that deserved our attention,” she said. “It’s happening more [with news coverage]. It’s happening in Libya; it’s happening in public health topics. We have really big issues to deal with as a species… and we look at them as species level issues and I think we need a better way to tackle them.”

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