Business of News

Freed from UN, a 20-year-old news network embraces independence

October 12, 2016
Syrian refugees strike on September 3

Three years ago, United Nations officials told editors of its in-house news service to stop covering the Syrian war. The UN office, which controlled the $11 million budget for IRIN, worried that detailed coverage by the service could derail Syria-related talks involving the UN.

The ban on IRIN’s Syria reporting added fire to a longstanding debate over the 20 year-old news agency’s role inside the UN, says Heba Aly, IRIN’s director. “There was always a tension to operating an independent news service from within an organization funded by member states, which may be involved in sensitive negotiations with each other.” Calls to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs, which oversaw IRIN, were not returned by press time.

The Syria incident helped push the relationship between the UN and IRIN beyond repair. Beginning in 2014, the UN announced it would defund IRIN at the end of that year, and in January 2015, IRIN, which stands for Integrated Regional Information Networks, declared itself an independent news organization. Earlier this year, it reconstituted itself as a Swiss nonprofit headquartered in Geneva, and looked ahead to life without its $8 million to $11 million annual UN budget. In IRIN’s first year as an independent media organization, it raised $2 million, mostly from foundations. (Disclosure: Columbia Journalism School Professor Howard W. French, who is president of IRIN’s board of directors, is also a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.)

The harsh cut was the price of independence at an organization covering one of the world’s most complex, urgent beats: humanitarian crises. As IRIN establishes itself as an independent entity, international crisis response is becoming a growing story. A May briefing paper by the Overseas Development Institute claimed that in the past decade, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance each year has grown from 30 million to 125 million, and funding needs rose 600 percent over the same period, from $4 billion to $24 billion.

Mainstream coverage of the alphabet-soup humanitarian agencies that administer those funds, including UNHCR, WFP, WHO, and charities like the Red Cross, is nevertheless spottier than coverage of local government budgets and programs. “The aid industry is a billion-dollar industry with essentially no oversight at all,” says Obinna Anyadike, IRIN’s Africa editor, who has been with the organization since 1997. “There is increasing humanitarian coverage by some of the mainstream media. But it is episodic and not very detailed.”

IRIN’s hope is to provide more consistency, relying on a staff of 12 and network of about 200 stringers who focus on humanitarian issues in 70 countries. Since breaking with the UN, IRIN has been attempting to expand its stringer network, which is mostly journalists based long-term in the regions they cover, says Aly. 

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“The press corps here in Geneva, it’s shocking,” she says. “Most of the correspondents are freelancers, and they’re being pulled in several directions. One day they’re doing the drop in the Swiss Franc, the next day ebola.”

Aly praises the loyalty of IRIN’s stringers, but covering the entire humanitarian crisis beat is a stretch for the organization, particularly as it relaunches. “I struggle to cover some holes in my network,” says Anyadike, the Africa editor. “Central African Republic is one, Sudan is another.” In breaking news situations where he doesn’t have someone in place, he sometimes has to bet on people who don’t fit IRIN’s preferred model of local correspondents deeply tied to their regions. “For me the biggest problem, what I lament, is it’s easier to take the foreign correspondent who is just parachuting in.”

Editors have taken on additional reporting and production roles as budgets shrink. “I’m learning mapmaking, a little audio,” he adds.

Besides trying to stay closer to the ground, for longer, than most organizations, IRIN is banking in part on its editors’ intimate understanding of the international aid system and the UN, honed through long association with the world body. With most crisis coverage focused on spot news, a large gap exists in terms of reporting on the months and years of international aid and development work that will follow Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in Haiti or migration pressures in lesser-covered places like Morocco. Mainstream coverage is often limited to occasional attention from foreign media outlets, which naturally focus on their own home governments’ roles.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘lumpy,” says Martin Scott, who researches media and international development at the University of East Anglia, and has been studying IRIN’s transition from the UN for the past two years. “News organizations have incentives to expose wrongdoing. But I think, because of the nature of the international context, [crisis reporting] becomes more of a UN beat.”

IRIN’s coverage of crisis tended to be more consistent and better informed, he says, for the same reason mainstream press often fails–the organization has no “local” readership to consider. “[Crisis coverage] is not commercially viable in most circumstances,” says Scott. “I wonder if that is because humanitarian work is inherently transnational.”

The focus on national readerships means senior officials in the international aid and development system are among the least-covered major politicians in the world.  “Where else have senior UN officials been held to account?” asks Aly. “Frankly, The Guardian has done it several times, and it’s clear the writer has never been exposed to the UN system, doesn’t know how it works, the statements are naive. With our familiarity with the UN, we don’t fall into these kinds of traps. We are able to ask questions that I can’t imagine AFP or Reuters asking.”

The ability to rely on a network of unusually well-informed stringers is paradoxically bolstered by the collapse in freelance pay rates and IRIN’s willingness to follow up on stories, rewarding  stringers with repeat work while building expertise. “You have ex-BBC, ex-Atlantic journalists popping up,” says Anyadike, “Back when they paid people [stringers] would do Reuters and BBC for breaking news, but they would give us the 1,000-word story and a bit of analysis. Now I’m finding we’re the first choice, because no one wants to do the stories we do. We’re competitive.”

Still, IRIN is still proposing to cover most of the world; even done efficiently, it’s an expensive task. The “value proposition” for funders, argues Aly, a former field correspondent in Sudan who now spends a lot of her time fundraising, is IRIN’s specialization, and the existence of both a growing humanitarian-aid community, and a body of journalists who want to write about it. “There’s a feeling we’re at a turning point, and if we just hold out long enough, we’ll get that conviction in a critical mass” of readers, she says.

A critical mass of funders is another matter. “You need to do the slow, hard work of finding funds, and not rely on just one donor. We learned that lesson.”

The site’s tone has changed since its break with the UN, becoming noticeably more critical of the organizations it covers, including its former bosses. At times, its coverage is biting. “Aleppo is Screwed. Thanks Everyone,” IRIN headlined a July op-ed on failures to deliver aid to the besieged Syrian city. “Plenty of Hype, No New Ideas at UN Migration Summit,” the agency reported in late September, a headline UN staff would have likely found controversial if published in-house.

Aly notes that on a few occasions, pointed coverage by IRIN had seemed to move mainstream coverage, though that isn’t a major goal, she says. “In DRC we’ll do some reporting out of Katanga, where everybody is focused on Kivu, and we’ll do it and then we’ll see others shift. We like to see a catalystic role toward the media.”

Focused IRIN reporting on a group Syrian refugees trapped near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders seemed to coincide with CNN shifting its coverage to that little-noticed population, she noted. Those kinds of wins help the organization’s profile to move past the still-lingering association with the UN, and the old stigma of being perceived as a house organ.

Its target audience is still professionals in the humanitarian field, even if the copy now reads more like a mainstream magazine. “Catchy ledes, good headlines, written with a kind of verve and panache,” says Anyadike. “But the kind of issues we’re writing about assume a familiarity. That doesn’t mean that a school project in Idaho isn’t going to see our story on South Sudan, and that is great. The nature of coverage on the internet is you don’t know where your story goes.”

Focusing on an audience of experts is a conscious choice. “I think it’s quite clear that we need to choose. We’re a specialized news service for decision makers and practitioners, but we produce it in a way that your mother could read it.”

Even focused narrowly, can a global news service covering some of the world’s most urgent, but often little-known events, and an audience of far-flung technocrats, survive on its own?

Martin Scott, the journalism and international development scholar, says he’s “optimistic, but would rather talk about this in a year.”

Aly, whose current goal is to more than double IRIN’s annual budget to $5 million in the next few years, claims the numbers are there. “If there’s a clear demand and a capacity to create supply, then it’s just a matter of connecting the dots,” says Aly. “I guess the reason we’re doing this is we’re strong-headed people.”

Marc Herman is a reporter based in Barcelona. He is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado, and a co-founder of Deca.