Ask the editor of Reuters AlertNet, Martyn Broughton, if there are any examples of its weekly newsletters having given journalists the heads up on big stories around the world and his eyes light up: Reuters AlertNet sent out briefings with the top item focusing on Burma – three weeks before the pro-democracy protests made headlines.
On top of the weekly briefings highlighting crisis situations around the world and identifying trends, Reuters AlertNet provides resources, such as a directory of aid agencies showing who works where, and training tools including modules on reporting emergency situations and famines.
This aspect of the site has been developed since Columbia University Journalism school surveyed 300 journalists two years ago and
made recommendations in the Felix report for improving coverage of humanitarian emergencies.
‘The top thing journalists wanted was trustworthy, solid, accurate, balanced and up-to-date briefings in short form that would get them up to speed with what the hell was going on in these places,’Broughton says.
‘Some of them are incredibly complex emergencies, like the Congo or Chechnya – how the hell do you make sense of that when you are a reporter suddenly thrown on to a story?”
All this is very different from the original intention of Stephen Somerville, who set up the site 10 years ago in the belief that information sharing could help solve the ‘general chaos’that existed in the aid agency world in the mid-Nineties.
‘He was energised about what was happening – the aftermath of Rwanda, the mess in Congo, the refugees, the fact that aid agencies didn’t always respond very effectively, weren’t coordinating with each other and
didn’t know what the other agencies were doing,’says Broughton, a former BBC journalist who joined Reuters AlertNet from MÃ©decins Sans Frontieres. ‘It seemed then that the thing that was missing was the exchange of information.”
The original idea was that using the site would draw on Reuters’ information gathering resources and its web development and offer protected areas where the 400 member agencies could share operational information that would help other agencies in their work in the field.
That original aim proved difficult to fulfil. ‘It became apparent that the aid agencies were not able or willing to share as much of that information as was hoped,’says Broughton who believes competitiveness, lack of agreement among the agencies and security concerns were factors.
The site now provides news and information for aid workers who make up 90 per cent of its audience.
It comes from Reuters and a variety of content partners, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Global Voices – an online media project pulling together conversations, information and ideas appearing around the world in various forms
A one-stop shop has been created with ‘intelligent sorting, ordering and prioritising’that will provide aid workers with ‘everything they need to know’about a country in crisis.
‘When we identify a crisis, we automatically connect to all of the information that’s come in, and is coming in, to that page on the site so if you go there you can see everything that is going on,’says Broughton.
The next step, says Broughton, is to build up its services for potential activists and campaigners who are concerned with issues around the world.
‘I think there is a global community of people who care quite passionately about what’s happening in other parts of the world,’says Broughton.
‘People who see the world through the lens of wanting change. Those are the people who I want to attract to use it. They are the people who may ultimately be the solution to the problems because they’ve got political power. Some of them have got deep pockets or might get involved in campaigning.”
Broughton wants to draw in more people from around the world as contributors to Reuters AlertNet. ‘We often have Western contacts, but what we want is to recruit our own network around the world that we will encourage to link to our site and we will link to theirs,’he says.
‘I don’t know when this is going to happen, but the site will have to relocate. It should not be so London-centric.
‘There will always be a centre of gravity, but we need other centres in the South to give us the perspectives of people there.”