Lara Setrakian is a foreign correspondent and the founder of Syria Deeply. She’s covered the Middle East and US foreign policy for the past five years, filing for ABC News, Bloomberg Television, the International Herald Tribune, and Monocle Magazine. She pioneered the use of social media in covering Iran’s election crisis in 2009 and lives on Twitter as @lara.
Six months ago I was living in Dubai, reporting for ABC News and Bloomberg Television. I was sent there five years ago to cover the Islamic Republic of Iran with a backpack and a camera, as part of ABC’s first group of digital reporters. By the time we were covering the Arab Spring I was on air up to twelve times a day.
But then an idea wrapped in urgency demanded my attention, and my action.
It was clear that the Syria story, a crisis unfolding into civil war, had become too complicated for people to understand. Why was it happening? Why was Assad killing his own people? Why was the international response so tame? The user experience of the story was abysmal: a lot of noise and competing narratives, not enough context, history, and background. The global news audience was underserved.
My job as a reporter is to explain what’s happening in ways the public can understand. With the Syria story it was clear we’re no longer doing that as well as we can, because we’re not innovating at the outer reaches of technology in journalism. There are better ways to design information, to build a conversation, to enhance digital storytelling. While my fellow foreign correspondents and I were out covering the Arab Spring, our friends in the digital world were building all sorts of new tools we can use. It’s time to pause and put the two together, to redesign the user experience of the Syria story, and to start exploring new ways to cover foreign news for our time.
But that’s not why Syria Deeply really had to happen. It’s not why I put aside a day job I love and started to spend my savings on a website. I did it for people on both sides of the story: people around the world who want to better understand Syria, and people inside Syria who long to be better understood.
And like all passion projects, there’s an element of Syria Deeply that is personal. My family is from the Middle East, Armenians who were displaced from their homes a hundred years ago. Back then, scores of Armenian refugees walked barefoot across the border into Syria – the opposite direction they’re moving in now. And back then, it was the people of Syria who took them in.
After a few more decades of moving around the region, my family made it to America. But I imagine that in a parallel universe, we might still be living in the old country. I might have been born in Aleppo.
We all have episodes of hardship in our history, when we were vulnerable to violence or desperate need. Some of us just need to look further back in time than others. But no doubt, all of us would have wanted the world to pay attention when we needed it most.
The Syria Deeply you see today is just the start of our innovation journey. It’s a platform that will evolve and respond to your feedback. Our team of journalists and technologists has a powerful mandate: to engage, inform, and delight you with information, to empower you with knowledge and share the best of what we know. We’re cracking open our collective rolodex of experts and sources to piece together what’s really happening behind the headlines.
This is a creative news experiment, a new media model that you can help build. We’re ready to iterate, to try our way forward. And I hope you’ll join us in the adventure.