How do you get ‘forgotten’ humanitarian stories seen in a world where so much news conflicts for attention?

For Julie Mollins, a senior journalist with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters which owns the Reuters news agency, it is by creating and nurturing communities-based ad-free news channels.

Julie is communities editor of two websites, the award-winning AlertNet, which covers humanitarian news, specifically wars, conflict, natural disasters, food and health emergencies and climate news, and TrustLaw, which focuses on governance and women’s rights.

The websites are complemented by a wide-ranging social media programme, including two papers: The Daily Humanitarian which takes news from the AlertNet website and The AlertNet Members’ Daily, broadcasting stories from the 500 international relief organisations that belong to the network.

We asked Julie to share her expertise on combining technology, social media and human interaction to tell the stories the mainstream media may not always cover in depth.

How did AlertNet come about?

The Thomson Reuters Foundation was set up in 1982 and AlertNet began in 1997 in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. It was in response to the fact that the genocide hadn’t been well covered, so AlertNet was founded to tell the ‘forgotten’ news stories. The website gets 12 million visitors a year.

Tell us about what you do day to day.

The great thing about my job is that it is so varied. I’m primarily a journalist but there’s also a social activist element because I’m always pushing to cover stories in new ways and with limited resources.Communities editor of AlertNet

My role as communities editor involves coming up with new ideas for how to cover news using social media and by reaching out to our community of NGOs, UN agencies, academic institutions, think tanks and researchers. They write for us, or I write about what they are working on. This has led to a range of collaborative live blogs and social media coverage of events like the Japan earthquake and tsunami and the Ivory Coast war.

As a journalist, the most important thing is getting our stories out and making them accessible. Part of that is having your message in as many places as possible and that takes a lot of work. But you really have to go out and find your audience to some degree.

Some people will come to a website every day and read all the articles, but others want the news in different formats. So providing the news in video form, text form, blog form, tweet form is all part of the online news service now.

And while there is a certain fatigue – how many more social media platforms can we handle? – we do continue to try to look at new things which is why I started using

What do you find useful about it?

The magical inner workings. It’s amazing how accurate it is – the stores it pulls in are almost 100% relevant.

Like social media it’s both interactive and a broadcast tool. So some people will just read the headlines and others will interact: it gets retweeted quite a lot.

Can you share some tactics to help other humanitarian groups get their untold stores seen?

Apart from, obviously, setting up a website or a blog to begin with, you need to define what your goal is and what type of message you want to get out.

I would build a diverse community of social-media-savvy (if possible) contributors from your sector. Create a list of the types of people to target who are already working in your sector to contribute. Contact them and explain what you’re working on and why you’d like them to participate. Find out if they’re willing to contribute and under what circumstances. Are they willing to work free? Many of our contributors share their news with us free of charge meaning that we can cover stories better.

Draw up detailed guidelines explaining what your goals are, and be prepared to spend a fair amount of time helping non-social-media-savvy participants (often at the last minute).

Be flexible about who you work with and how you work with them. Ask people how they would like to contribute – consider what would work best – if they or you should write something.

Then set up the other social platforms you want to use. I would say the basics are Facebook, a huge traffic-driver which attracts a younger audience, Twitter is a definite, and it seems that Google+ is growing. of course, YouTube and Vimeo. We also have a Posterous page and I’ve done a few interviews using Audioboo.

As the communities’ editor, is it also important to see what’s going on for yourself?

The triumvirate of tech, social media and human interaction is really just a sly way of saying old school meets new school. I publish stories on the website that may appear in different forms – video blogs, tweets, audio and written text – but my goal is to get out and talk to people to tell their stories, not to sit at a desk and pump out stories based on press releases. Although press releases have a valuable role and are worth writing up,  I’m driven by a passion to get away from my desk and find out what people are doing.

How do you judge the success of a communities-based news project?

For us, it’s when we have people contributing, not only our members who can publish directly to our site, but when other people are offering interesting and challenging pieces and contributing fresh views or expert views from the field, from their own perspective.

One example of that is to set up a live blog using outside contributors, like UN agencies. We had one with live tweeting from UNICEF, the UN Children’s agency, in Libya. It was an interesting way of getting someone on the scene to share the story, which in this case was about the children in the refugee camps.

Photo of a child refugee in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Julien Harneis on flickr

Liz Wilson
Liz Wilson writes copy in the Marketing Communications team at Orange Switzerland and used to edit this blog. She likes talking about content, copywriting and social media on her personal blog.

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