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A News Service for Aid Workers: Mark Goldberg, Tom Murphy & the DAWNS Digest

PDT: I’m here with Mark Goldberg and Tom Murphy, editor and deputy editor of PSI Healthy Lives, respectively. Mark is also the editor of the United Nations’ UN Dispatch and Tom is better known as the blogger of A View from the Cave. Recently, the pair co-founded the Development and Aid Workers News Service, also known as the DAWNS Digest, which is a daily e-mail of news for individuals who work in the international humanitarian sector.

Today I’m just going to focus on the DAWNS Digest, so thanks again for chatting with me today. My first question is: Where did the idea come from and what news gap were you trying to fill, if any?

Tom: The idea for DAWNS Digest came from my personal experience having been in Kenya, wanting to access news and realizing that it was really hard to get it when you have limited bandwidth and limited Internet access. And then when you actually did have the access, it would take a lot of time to load Web pages, and it would cost a lot of money because every mega-bite counts. So that was something I had noticed awhile before.

The other part of it is that there’s a lot of really good reporting that exists all around the world and through many organizations that are in really disparate places. So if you want to know what’s happening in the humanitarian sector, you have to go to five, six, seven different sites and you’re going to find two or three stories on each of those. We hope we can fill that gap of humanitarian news reporting by putting it into a single space, and so with DAWNS Digest the idea was to pull it all together. So the gap is not so much that there isn’t reporting, it’s just that access to it and finding a way to then connect people who are interested in the humanitarian world – whether they work here in the United States at the headquarters, or in another part of the global North, or if they’re in the field, or if they’re a student – to give them a place where they can actually have all of this in one space.

Mark:  The idea of putting it in email in this easily digestible format that it comes in right now is born out of an experience Tom and I had working with PSI Healthy Lives, the blog. We put together a version of this; we call the Healthy Dose, which is a round up of global health news that’s of relevance to people at PSI, but also the broader global health community. We got really good response from that format, and so we decided to broaden the remit a bit and make it more global and focus on aid and development and humanitarian news more broadly.

PDT: How long does it take you to put together one of the emails?

Tom: Each day we usually start at about 3 o clock, and I will generally work on it from three to six, and then we send it out at about 11 p.m., which is roughly 4 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time. Towards the end of the night I’ll do another loop through to capture whatever else might have happened at that time, and then there’s another capture in the morning, when we send out the edition 9 o’clock Eastern Standard Time to get anything that was new that next morning. And then Mark also does his few hours of the schedule.

Mark: It’s one of those things where Tom and I both sort of live online. We are constantly keeping up on breaking news over Twitter, reading RSS feeds so it’s basically a matter of collecting all of this stuff and sitting down and putting it into the Digest format.

PDT: How much has it changed since you first came up with this idea, in terms of the format and what types of stories you’re including. It seems like it could be much longer but you kind of condensed it down to what actually matters. How do you choose what matters?

Mark: I think part of that is the value we add to this. There’s a fire-hose of information out there, and we just use our best editorial judgment to pick what we think subscribers in the humanitarian community might be interested in. I think we kind of have a good sense just from our daily work what folks are interested in and so it’s subjective, but it’s also I think kind of intuitive as well to us.

Tom: In terms of formatting, before we actually made our release, we published drafts on my blog. And we shared it through the UN Dispatch and all of our channels and our emails and just said, “hey this is something we’re trying to do. Give us your feedback, let us know what things you want to hear.” So for example, really minor changes that we think have actually made a big difference is… early on we had an extra section that we called the A1 section, which was not quite top stories but really important stories and the feedback we got was that that was a little bit cumbersome so we took that out. Now what we do is we use an asterisk to demarcate important stories that are not quite top stories.

Another thing is that we include where the source is; so for example, if the article comes from the BBC we include that with the link. And the reason we do that is for two reasons: first, then you actually know what site you are going to so then you can know – if we’re getting back to the idea of bandwidth – how big the site is or how long it might take to load, and second, you can know who the source is and actually be able to determine how trustworthy that is.

PDT: Are there any outlets that you discovered while doing this that were new that you hadn’t seen before that were very interesting or that you always tend to go to look for news?

Mark: I would say a lot of the local news sites come up in our searches, like local African papers or local papers in Asia, which I hadn’t been terribly familiar with before but are useful sources for sure.

Tom: And I think one great example is All Africa, which I think most people do know about, but All Africa is fantastic in terms of pulling together news sources that are from African newspapers, which is really great. Because some of the top reporting, for example – if we’re talking about Kenya – is going to come from the Nairobi Star, the Daily Nation and maybe the East African Standard and those kinds of places. Ghana and Nigeria both have really robust reporting and those are really fantastic sources and so those are great because then they’re in one place to pull it all together. The trick has been that there’s so much reporting from these places that range from humanitarian issues to local pop culture and then also international issues that that’s something to sort through. But those have been really fantastic places to get news.

PDT: So the other thing I wanted to talk about was the fact that you’re charging a very minimal fee [$2.99/month or $29.99 per year], but you’ll be using that money to fund different reporting and storytelling projects. Can you be a little more specific about the types of projects you’re looking to fund?

Tom: One thing that we also identified is that there’s a gap in reporting that’s coming from the humanitarian sector. You have newspapers and organizations that are reporting based on their readership and based on their needs. So when the Horn of Africa crisis broke there were a lot of reporters that were then sent to southern Somalia and Kenya and Ethiopia that are reporting on those stories. But then now here we are. Its been since July, and there aren’t as many embedded reporters. They’re not providing that information and then what’s being met is through aid organizations and NGOs that are on the ground reporting what they are seeing. So what happens is that each of those two groups are trying to meet their own personal needs; so for newspapers they want to be able to sell their newspaper and for organizations they want to support their own work. And both are absolutely understandable and commendable for what they’re doing, but what we’re not getting are stories that might not fulfill those needs but are really important to find.

copyright Barry Malone

What we hope is that through money that we can raise via this service, we want to be able to finally insert into that middle and draw out the stories that are not being reported and show that there’s more going on in the heart of Africa than fighting between al-Shabaab and Kenya and starving children in southern Somalia. And the question is how can we get that? And if we can have this model that can then raise the money and fund those projects.

PDT: And when do you expect this process to begin, in terms of looking for whom you’re going to fund?

Mark: It will be sooner rather than later. Probably after the New Year at some point. At first we’re not talking about thousands of dollars. We haven’t generated enough revenue to put someone on the ground for a month in the Horn of Africa. What we’re talking about is a journalist, who has the bits and pieces in place to get somewhere. Say they’re a photo-journalist. Their lens broke. They need $500 for an extra camera lens to do the kind of reporting that we’re talking about. That’s where we can add value at this point. But we’d also really like to support citizen journalists as well. Tom and I both come out of blogging communities and we both are bloggers and so we’d like to be able to support our own.

PDT: Do you envision this as something where people can nominate themselves or get in touch with you about receiving funding or is it more–

Mark: Definitely. We’re looking for ideas. We’re looking for people to nominate themselves, to nominate their friends. And again, we probably won’t be able to pay the entire price of a plane ticket from halfway across the world, but we can help and we want to help and that’s what we’re here for. If all goes according to plan, if this thing takes off like we hope and expect it will then we’ll really be able to make a much deeper impact.

PDT: How popular is the service so far?

Tom: Our subscription base right now is pretty modest. We have a couple hundred people. In terms of popularity, I wouldn’t say it’s high in that respect. What we have been able to do is start having conversations with organizations and other news groups, which has actually been personally surprising. I figured we would get more individuals than we would get organizations. But for example, we’ve come to an agreement to provide the DAWNS Digest to the Overseas Development Institute for the next year, and there are a few other behind-the-scenes discussions with some really exciting organizations that we hope are going to work out. So this is where we’ve been able to really see our growth, and where we think is going to end up being our points of partnership. This does also mean it’s a bit of a slower process as opposed to people signing up individually.

We’re getting really strong feedback, which has really been valuable. Getting back to the idea of it changing is that one of the things we’ve been trying to do is intentionally ask people to tell us what ideas they have and if there are suggestions, if there are changes, if we’ve made a mistake to point them out. We’ve made small tweaks because of that feedback which has really been useful.

Mark: And to get to this point that Tom was making about organizations, I would just like to emphasize we’ve basically relied on our personal networks right now for individual subscribers, we haven’t made a huge push yet. We’re still waiting and testing the waters. But organizations have frankly come to us [saying] that someone had forwarded them a copy of the digest and they really liked it, and they’ve asked us how we can create customized versions for their organizations. Most of our subscribers right now are people with NGO email addresses, ICRC, CARE, USAID and the works.

PDT: What would you hope the DAWNS Digest is like in a year or two from now. Where do you see it heading – best case scenario?

Tom: In a year I think that what we would hope is that we have that strong base and that we’re able to provide a service that is useful to NGOs. By that point if we’re successful what we’re then going to be concentrating on are these grants. Because we’ll then have the capacity to do it, to the extent, in terms of the Digest itself, that reaches enough people and that brings in the revenue. At that point after a year – we’re getting to this point even now – where it’s becoming pretty easy and routine to pull it together, and so hopefully at that point, a year from now, we will be talking almost entirely about the fact that we’ve been initiating grants and organizations that we’re excited to partner with – as opposed to just the service.

Mark: That’s the goal: to create a sustainable model for supporting humanitarian journalism.

PDT: That’s so exciting. That’s all the questions I have for you, is there anything else you wanted to bring up and talk about? Or that I missed?

Mark: No. Thanks for the opportunity. We love Peace Dividend Trust, so power to you guys.

PDT: Thanks. And thanks again for speaking with me. 

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