Syria Deeply and the ongoing unbundling of the news

We’re so used to the way that newspapers and other traditional publications approach the news — as something to be aggregated for a broad audience, meaning as many different stories on as many different topics as possible. But what if you could have a site devoted to a single topic? In a lot of ways, that’s how blogs emerged, with a single writer or a small group focused on a specific market or even a specific company. Now a site called Syria Deeply is trying to take that same approach and apply it to the conflict in Syria: it is essentially a digital newspaper/community about a single topic, and it says a lot about the ongoing trend towards the unbundling of the news business.

As Fast Company described in a recent piece about the venture, which launched earlier this week, Syria Deeply began when founder Lara Setrakian — a foreign correspondent who had worked for outlets like ABC News and Bloomberg covering the conflict for the past several years — decided that telling the story of Syria required more than just filing occasional reports to TV or newspapers. In a sense, she told the magazine, the story was almost too large to fit into the typical packages or rhetorical devices used by the mainstream media. As Setrakian describes it:

“The user experience of the Syria story sucked. It was just abysmal. It was bits and pieces, very hard for the end user (being the news consumer) to take it and process it and come to any kind of synthesis.”

A technology platform dedicated to a specific story

After seeing the crowdsourced-information tool Ushahidi, which was built during the turmoil in Kenya in 2008 as a way of collecting data from ordinary citizens as well as emergency personnel, Setrakian convinced the builders of the service to help her design what became the Syria Deeply site. In many ways, it looks like a typical online news site: it has headlines about recent stories, it has a video unit, it has related messages from Twitter and it has links to opinion pieces — but instead of it being about all the news in a specific town or city, it is all about Syria.

So one recent item is what amounts to a transcript of a phone call with a Syrian university student, a woman from a conservative Sunni family in Aleppo who has journeyed from that city to her family’s home in Idleb, and who simply describes what she encountered on the road — the “liberated” villages and Islamic jihadist checkpoints she had to go through, the lack of food in Aleppo, and other details. It’s not a traditional news story by any means, but it is very revealing.

The site also has audio reports and interviews uploaded with SoundCloud, which is one of the technology providers that Setrakian has partnered with — a group that also includes Google+ for Hangouts and the presentation tool Prezi. According to Fast Company, about 75 percent of the content is aggregated or automated in some way, but the other 25 percent is original content, whether based on interviews or reports from sources that Setrakian and her team have in the region.

Syria Deeply screenshot

Topic niches are what the internet does best

In a sense, what Setrakian — who is funding the site herself, along with a crowdfunding effort through Indiegogo — has done with Syria Deeply is similar to what technology bloggers like John Gruber of Daring Fireball have done: namely, focus on a single niche and try to dominate that topic. It’s a little like taking a section of a newspaper or a column or feature from a magazine and ripping it out and making it a separate website. I think it’s part of the same trend that designer Craig Mod recently described as “sub-compact media,” which strips down content to its component parts.

And why not do that? Aggregating news about hundreds of different topics for a broad, mainstream audience is something that was invented to fit the publication model of a newspaper, not the internet. There’s an argument to be made that focusing on a specific niche actually makes it easier to attract revenue opportunities — although a site about Syria might be more difficult than a blog about Apple (Setrakian says she is hoping to sell the insight the site develops to companies and other organizations).

What other topics might deserve a dedicated site or service like Syria Deeply? Instead of trying to aggregate as much content as possible, maybe some newspapers and other traditional publishers should be thinking about how to create similar topic-specific sites that can stand on their own. As Setrakian puts it in a piece at the Huffington Post:

“Consider Syria Deeply the open source R&D. What we learn and hone we hope to apply to a range of global issues: think Iran Deeply, Pakistan Deeply, Drug War Deeply, Debt Crisis Deeply. If we do that, we can get a whole lot smarter, together. Then the good we all have in us will have better information to go on, shrinking wicked problems down to size.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Yan-Arief Purwanto