Syria’s civil war is a story that goes in and out of the mainstream news media, but at Syria Deeply, it’s the only story.

Lara Setrakian

Founder of Syria Deeply

Lara Setrakian was a foreign correspondent for ABC News and Bloomberg Television before she decided to strike out on her own and create Syria Deeply, a news site devoted exclusively to coverage of the conflict in Syria. Now, three years into it, Setrakian shares how the site has evolved and what she has learned from building and sustaining a single-subject news site.

Now, Setrakian is also fellow at the Tow-Knight Center at Columbia University studying the single-subject news trend. She will be writing a larger report on the startup newsroom as a whole, documenting the choices, challenges, and lessons learned for new publishers creating digital news from scratch.

We talked to Setrakian about how “single-subject news” serves audiences, how focusing on a niche can lead to higher quality information, and how Syria Deeply’s unique approach could be applied to other topics.

What is the core concept behind Syria Deeply and the idea of what some now call “single subject news?”

The core concept is that every story needs the ultimate story page – a location where you can see aggregated news feeds, social media feeds, current reporting, past developments, background and history. It is the notion of building an all-in-one destination for a story that continues over time, as a way to enhance our reporting and our delivery to the news user.

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Can you describe how and why the idea came about?

I was covering the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for ABC News and Bloomberg Television. During the heady days of the Arab Awakening we were all focused on the next country in turmoil – it was like running after a soccer ball. In the newsroom, the primary focus was first on Egypt, then Bahrain, then Yemen, then Libya. Syria came last in the order of uprisings, and because of that it got the least attention. We were all focused on the battle to oust Muammar Qaddafi. Meanwhile, Syria’s story was getting lost in the shuffle.

It was clear from the early days that Syria’s protests, which then escalated into conflict, was a highly consequential story – with implications well beyond the Middle East. Because we weren’t covering it day to day, it was terribly difficult for readers to understand what was happening and why.

I wanted to build a platform that could change the user experience of a foreign news story – help it make sense to new users and readers.

I had experienced the power of digital journalism, as a digital reporter for ABC News and as someone who had been deep in the Twitter conversation for years. I wanted to build a platform that could change the user experience of a foreign news story – help it make sense to new users and readers. I brought together friends in design and technology to help make it happen. My co-founder, Azeo Fables, really built the idea to fruition. From there, we took it forward.

Who are the reporters? What kind of partnerships do you have? How does the reporting happen?

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 9.49.02 PMOur reporters are a mix of American and Syrian journalists. We also have partnership with indigenous Syrian news outlets, sharing our content across English and Arabic domains.

Most importantly, we let our Syrian reporters pitch great stories from their communities, write them in Arabic, then have them translated and polished for a global audience. Those pieces then get shared with global platforms like ABC News, the Christian Science Monitor, and Global Voices.

What does “single subject news” mean for audiences? Is it mainly for people really passionate about this one story? Isn’t it easier for most people to come to sites that cover lots of topics?

There are two types of readers who benefit from the single-subject approach: die-hard fans of a topic who want more regular and more robust content, and newcomers to the topic who want an all-in-one explainer site. We have been very happy to serve both.

For general news intake it is easier for readers to stick to a general interest site, spanning multiple beats and many stories. The single-subject sites serve as a supplement, giving readers (and reporters) the opportunity to consistency follow a story as it unfolds.

Who comes to Syria Deeply and how do they behave on the site?

We have seen an extremely dedicated audience on Syria Deeply, with a peak 60 percent rate of return and 8 minutes spent on site. In other words, our readers come back, and they hang out for a while reading up on what’s happening in the conflict.

Our audience is a mix of key influencers in Syria policy and humanitarian affairs – diplomats, UN agencies, and the like – and a broader mix of those interested in the Middle East at large. They exhibit what the Knight Foundation calls “topic love,” an intense motivation to keep current with a specific story.

What do you see as the different public service value provided by your narrow, deep site on just one topic, versus the mainstream news outlets that reach more people but only cover Syria when major events occur? Does the public need both types of coverage?

The public absolutely needs both: the general interest news site and the niche, in-depth, subject specific offering. News startups can serve best when they serve to bring more domain knowledge and deep expertise to light.

News startups can serve best when they serve to bring more domain knowledge and deep expertise to light.

You see this not just with Syria Deeply, but also with independent publishers like Chalkbeat in education, Tehran Bureau in Iran coverage, and Deep Sea News, a website run by Ph.D.s in marine biology. If “content is king,” then knowledge rules – it is the best way to create content that informs, in times of crisis and while a future crisis is brewing.

You said that your audiences are from two ends of a spectrum: those who don’t know and use Syria Deeply as an all-in-one explainer, and those who know everything and want to stay up-to-date. What about people who don’t know and aren’t actively seeking? 

We are here to serve the people who are most interested in Syria – readers who are passionate about keeping track of Syria’s story and have few other places to go on a daily basis. We focus on that niche, which then helps us produce content that is valuable to anyone who wants quality information.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 9.48.54 PMThe best we can do, which we strive to do, is provide engaging backgrounders on this very complex issue – interactive maps of who’s who, how we got here, and how to understand the key dynamics that are fueling the fight. Those backgrounders help educated a broader pool of readers on the subject. That creates a wider potential audience, equipped and empowered to follow day-to-day events, and it helps the individual reader climb the learning curve, to a more sophisticated point of understanding.

How has the site evolved in three years, and what have you learned from approaching news in this way?

The most important lessons we learned were about news design, how to iterate our look and feel for greater ease and navigability. We baked those lessons into the relaunch of our site, away from WordPress and onto a custom-built platform.

When you’re dedicated to serving a single beat, the readers become your community.

As a journalist, the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of community. When you’re dedicated to serving a single beat, the readers become your community. You have more points of contact and feedback. You get to know the people you serve and the beneficiaries of your hard work in newsgathering. As a result you build credibility with sources, which opens new doors and enhances your reporting.

What are the lessons for journalism in your mind?

The most important lesson is that a prototype can be built on very little resources. We started out self-funded – the R&D was very minimal, it simply took creative energy and a willingness to try. Very often in our industry we miss major opportunities for new product development, simply because we don’t give ourselves the sandbox to play in and try things out.

Can you talk a bit more about how it’s not only Syria Deeply’s topic choice that is unique, but also News Deeply’s approach to covering a topic that is unique?

What makes us distinct is the choice to continually focus on one thing – the war in Syria – with a dedicated team bringing together information of different types from different sources. The same will apply to any new topic we do; it would have a dedicated team, focused on a different complex issue (we look at everything from Brain Deeply, Congo Deeply).

This is simply the 21st century manifestation of the beat reporter.

But from another angle, this is simply the 21st century manifestation of the beat reporter, the slice of the newsroom that is assigned to cover and stick with the story. Mainstream newsrooms can’t afford to play host to too much of that anymore. So we’ve had to reinvent it – fusing the beat reporter with the “lean startup” approach to creating something new. It has made all of us, all of the independent digital publishers, into a fusion of journalists and new media entrepreneurs.

You’ve been contacted about applying this approach to other conflicts, other issues. What can you share about that?

At the moment we are focused on incubating Arctic Deeply, a platform that covers Arctic issues. It’s another case of a complex global issue that needs greater clarity and much more media attention.

Beyond that we’re looking at Congo Deeply and Myanmar Deeply next. Ideally, we’d like to scale the model to cover a wide range of conflict zones and states in transition, all of which need consistent new coverage.

What are the biggest strengths and limitations of this approach?

The biggest strengths are the opportunity to focus on a single beat (which reaps dividends in the quality of reporting) and the ability to mine content that is often overlooked. We engage think tanks and experts to “go long” on what they have to say. We engage local Syrian reporters as equals.

The limitations of the approach are that it often requires some startup capital – which can be an investment of time, more than money – as the topic itself builds an audience. Early sponsorship or foundation grants can provide seed funding, but that requires an upfront sales cycle that journalists often feel unequipped to take on.

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