‘‘Journalism Will Always be a Public Service” - Coda Story Co-Founder Natalia Antelava
10 August, 2019

In the 21st century, journalism keeps getting new challenges to tackle. Natalia Antelava, the co-founder of Coda Story, is well aware of that. She thinks that working for mainstream media today can be discouraging.

"When I interview a woman whose whole family was killed in a massacre – what I to do is to help her. But for a story I’m going to write it’s she who helps me – not my story helps her. On the human level, it is very discouraging and you start thinking it’s useless," she told Hromadske.

Antelava, who previously worked as the BBC's foreign correspondent in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, reported undercover from Burma, Uzbekistan and Yemen, has worked as a journalist in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia, and West Africa. 

She discussed with Hromadske public service journalism, difficulties of covering humanitarian issues, motivation for doing journalism, the future of the news industry, social media and journalists’ identity crisis, and monetization models for new media platforms.

To start, could you tell us the story behind Coda Story?

Coda Story is a non-profit media newsroom. We are based in the U.S. with teams in Tbilisi and European cities, and we use a lot of freelance. Our mission is to serve as public service journalism, which I think journalism should be in the first place, and to bring continuity and context to big events that affect all of us. With my colleague Ilan Greenberg, we created Coda because we saw that context is really missing from covering big events. You can’t tell the context without the continuity, without explaining what happened over time. We came up with this very simple model and then pick one story and put a team of journalists on it. We cover one story from different angles over extended period of time.

A big story happens – it can be a war in Libya or Ukraine, Iran or Ebola. You get such rated coverage of this event for three days, or two weeks, maybe three, and then it disappears. We hear nothing until something again gets to the news. The good case is Libya. We had a NATO campaign, and the death of Qaddafi was on all television screens and headlines, and then about six months – it was nothing at all. So, when the killing of the U.S. ambassador happened, we could not understand what it was because nothing was covered for six months. But this killing really affected so many things that came afterward: Hillary Clinton, presidential elections, and Trump. I’m not saying it’s the only reason for that, but it had consequences.

It was another story when the sister of my friend who was based in Ukraine called him during the Euromaidan Revolution and said: ‘‘I’m watching Ukraine’s story on the BBC, but could you explain me what’s really going on’’. As media we are all bad at explaining the context and that’s the vacuum that Coda wants to fill. We basically want to be a news organization that connects the dots and gives a context using storytelling in very engaging and interesting ways.

Was the idea of Coda Story motivated by your previous workplace? Working as a BBC reporter, did you feel discouraged, covering news in a traditional way? 

I wasn’t discouraged as a BBC reporter, I was discouraged as a journalist and human. It doesn’t matter who you work for – I could work for the Kyiv Post or Novaya Gazeta or the New York Times. A journalist who covers humanitarian [issues] – disasters, wars, massacres – comes across extreme human conditions and pain. You can lose a little bit of faith in what you are doing. You go back on camera but you don’t see the impact of these things. When I interview a woman whose whole family was killed in a massacre – what I to do is help her. And for a story I’m going to write it’s she who helps me – not my story helps her. On the human level, it is very discouraging and you start thinking it’s useless.

I think the answer for this question every journalist who works in extreme media asks is not influence, but putting events on a record. We are writing the first draft of history and it’s very important. Frankly, in many ways it still runs and motivates me for doing journalism, for I think it’s very important to get fruitful and balanced information into the public space.

Beside putting on record, do you think journalists should also motivate for action? If you give them context and continuity, they feel more connection to the story.

Yes, storytelling is powerful. And for us it’s very important to tell human stories, narratives, to explain to people not what someone says but what really happened. We all want to hear stories; what really differentiates us from animals is the ability to tell a story. That’s why I will always have faith in journalism. In some ways, we don’t need to reinvent things, but to find capturing ways to tell a story. Young people are not interested in sitting near a TV, waiting for the 10 o’clock correspondent to tell them what’s happening in the world. It worked in the 1960-70s – not anymore. But it’s our task as journalists to find an exciting and interesting way to tell the story.

Of course, my desire – as is the best feeling one may get in journalism – is to have an impact. But frankly, in my 20-year journalism career I can count on one hand when my story had real impact: when legislation changed, humanitarian aid was brought. But I hope they were numerous times when I had an impact on one or several individuals, just made them think.

But Coda may have a strategic influence in terms of the model, for it proposes an alternative for journalism. Storytelling definitely helps solving the balance problem but, applying to longer texts, it doesn’t seem to work for news...

I don’t think it works well on the network television when they put someone from the left and someone from the right and give them space to talk. I don’t want to watch them – I want to know about life of someone who voted for Trump and understand why. And I want to understand why someone doesn’t vote for Trump.

Do you think broadcast journalism will disappear? 

I think the 24-hour news industry of today is in itself a fake news because news doesn’t happen that fast. We can’t tell our audience so quickly what really happened, we need to be able to step back. We need to stop throwing opinions.

There are too many people talking without knowing what they are talking about. There is enough noise and it’s the responsibility of journalists to not add to that noise. We always were filters – information filters – and now our role is more important than ever. Our responsibility is to select the news. That means delivering news not so often as we did. I don’t want to completely discount for it. When a big blast is happening in Paris or London or New York you want to turn on CNN and watch what’s going on. But that doesn’t happen every day.  

I think journalism as an industry should rethink itself. There were so many stories in my career when I would land in a country that I’ve never been in. I was asked if I can fly and I said ‘‘No, I’ve never been there. What am I supposed to cover?’’. This is how we need to regain trust of the audience when we start doing stories… People are complicated and have different shades, and as journalists, we need not to be scared of that complexity.

Do you think that technocentrism and journalists’ faith in social media affects this situation?

I don’t think that Facebook or any other social media will ever be a filter. That’s not their business model. They are created for something else. I think it’s important that [Mark] Zuckerberg questioned whether they need to behave as publishers, but we need to come up with a different category for them... News industry should adapt to [the new] reality. I don’t know how to change Facebook and that’s not my job. My job is to be the best journalist I could be in the era I’m working in. The principles of what I do are exactly the same as when I started working in journalism, but I need to adjust to different realities. I mean, journalism is fine – we just need to figure out how we apply the principles of journalism to the new reality. The solution is not Facebook or Twitter. We need to work on these platforms, but we don’t need to have this self-imposed identity crisis.

What can journalists do to cope with noise and filtration?

In Coda, we got with a simple solution and it is that we don’t create breaking news. We want to be a platform that you can come to if you want to know about Syria and you read about the stuff which matters not necessarily tomorrow or today. We don’t want to add to people who are doing breaking news absolutely well. Then we are not adding to the market.

Having made this decision, it’s still very difficult for us as a team of journalists to say ‘‘We are not going to do it but wait and see how it places out’’. That’s really hard.  

It’s a solution that fits us – not the BBC or CNN. However, I think we can still do something. It’s like washing your hands – we do not need to retweet all things. It makes me very angry when people are just sharing without thinking of it. I’ve been guilty of this too as everyone had. But I think people will become smarter in deciding on what’s true and what’s not.

As a small media, how do you cope with reaching the audience?

In Coda Story, it’s all about collaboration and finding your audience. We have all sorts of partnership and media outlets – we publish the same story, which different media republish too.

How do you think such collaborative public journalism models can be established instead of competitive market journalism?

I think we can be public industry and still market. But I think that advertising model is dead. Clickbait stuff has made a lot of damage to journalism and trust of the audience. It was a moment when journalism made money but it won’t be like this later. I think it’s good we are circling back – journalism will always be a public service. 

Media is the reflection of wider social problems. I think that the days of public broadcasting are finished, although there are many people who disagree with me. I think it can’t be one authority and voice, but many voices. When it comes to public service it’ll work differently in different countries. In Ukraine and Moldova, independent voices should rely on external help, and in the U.S. they can be supported inside the country. There are systems like the Washington Post where there are oligarchs who are funding several media outlets. The general problem with oligarch media is that it serves the agenda but in America it’s more about giving money to a free space. I love the BBC and I think it will survive, but in a different form. But it’s not the future. I think more fragmentation is the future and there is power in it as well.

Do you think that donation model would work?

Yes, I think it works for a lot of people. I don’t think it’s going to work for Coda Story because it’s not local. For donation model to work it should be for a community – for example, the one of Paddington in London and for people interested in what’s happening there. Donation model doesn’t work for global issues. 

Membership worked well in the U.S., but this model is in trouble. We have to look for other things. The journalists who are truly brave are the ones doing local news. I covered Georgia, and it’s so much easier to report it to an outside organization. I do think that the global is becoming more local. In terms of audience the local is issues. LGBT is a new local, animal rights is a new local.

/By Orysia Hrudka for Hromadske International