How microsites are covering global news

March 18, 2015

Lara Setrakian, the founder of the news site Syria Deeply, says she saw ISIS coming before it seized global headlines.

“Because Syria Deeply was there, we watched, reported, documented, alerted, sketched, month by month, how ISIS became what it is now,” she said in a recent interview. “Anyone who was watching, anyone who was reading, wouldn’t have been surprised.”

True to its name, Syria Deeply covers one country with depth and dedication. Founded in 2012, the site is sort of a catchall, with reports from journalists on the ground in Syria along with curated content from think tanks, mainstream and social media, as well as a set of explanatory background pages, a sort of ‘Syria 101.’

The project is one of a wide range of so-called “single-story” sites covering one country or issue in-depth. An incomplete list of such sites might include Iraq’s Niqash, Egypt’s Mada Masr, and Tehran Bureau, now hosted by The Guardian. Setrakian’s News Deeply team also rolled out a site called Ebola Deeply last year, with plans for an Arctic Deeply in the works.

The rationale for single-story sites is to fill gaps in international media coverage of a place or issue. In some cases, this is a similar role to national newspapers with English websites (Israel’s Haaretz, for example, or Egypt’s Ahram Online) provide a similar service by offering a larger cut of local news than the international media might capture.

In Syria, where the land itself is fragmented and foreign and local journalists face barriers to frontline reporting, sites dedicated to continuous and detailed reporting fill a specific need in terms of making sense of a complex crisis.

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There is evidence that such sites offer more than just granular, humanistic stories from crisis zones. Comprehensive daily coverage also helps us understand the military and geopolitical events that drive major news coverage.

Setrakian isn’t saying she predicted the details of ISIS’ takeover of a huge slice of territory in Syria and Iraq last year. After all, in any violent political conflict, both explanation and prediction are a dangerous exercise. She’s saying that anyone who was closely tracking the story over the last four years would have a better grasp of the conditions that spawned ISIS as we now know it.

“The fundamental dynamics behind ISIS are perfectly clear when you understand the broader context of Syria,” she says. That’s not to say she is claiming a monopoly on wisdom. By any measure, the people following the crisis included many ordinary Syrians, and some journalists working for the mainstream media, or what Setrakian calls the “linear media.”

But her comments will resonate with journalists reporting daily on the roiling crises in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa who sense that coverage of the jihadists has eclipsed the political backdrop from which they emerged.

“When we get so obsessed with one thing and we fail to see it in the context of the Middle East, we miss the truth of it. We miss what’s real,” she says. “What’s real about ISIS includes the dynamics in Syria, includes the dynamics in Iraq.”

“It’s not a videogame. You can’t just cover it like it popped up and we’re shooting it down,” she said.

Syria Deeply appears to be directed at an English-speaking audience in the West. Another site, Syria Untold, focuses on highlighting the voices of Syria’s political opposition, activists, artists, and ordinary people, in a deliberate attempt to challenge international media coverage that focuses on battlefield developments.

“It was an attempt to create a counter-flow of information,” says Yazan Badran, the English editor of the dual-language site. “We’re looking to try and give Syrian agents a voice, regardless of what the audience wants to hear. It comes to a different product in the end. It’s a bit more political.”

Whereas Syria Deeply is a hub for a huge range of content, Syria Untold has a more selective focus, featuring stories about hunger-striking political prisoners and graffiti art in rebel-held areas. One of the site’s breakout pieces was about Suad Nofal, a schoolteacher in the Syrian city of Raqqa who staged a one-woman protest against ISIS.

Badran, a Syrian media researcher living in Brussels, says the website is facing a problem in part because the civilian social movements in Syria that are the site’s inspiration have been squeezed on all sides by armed conflict. Less activity on the ground means less to document and write about. “It’s much more difficult to find stories, to be honest. And there is much less interest. But this is why we feel it’s important,” he said.

Both sites share a commitment to covering Syria in detail over the long term. Although News Deeply is expanding, Setrakian said none of the editorial staff has shifted away from the Syria site. And that, indeed, is the point of reporting on an issue deeply.

“Ironically enough, when we ignore these things for so long, they become catastrophes that are impossible not to cover,” says Setrakian. “The catastrophe we cannot ignore makes all the headlines.”

Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo