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Incubator for independent media

Independent journalism in Turkey can survive - here's why I have hope

A visit to the Guardian convinced magazine founder Baha Okar that a close and interactive relationship with readers is the key to success.

When I received an invitation to visit the Guardian for The Guardian Foundation’s “knowledge exchange” programme among journalists, I must admit I was a bit anxious. As a journalist publishing a local magazine in a small town in Turkey, I wondered whether I could really benefit from the experiences of the Guardian, a well-established and institutional media organisation that operates on a national, and even international, scale. After all, in terms of scale, resources, and the challenges we face, the Guardian and my magazine are quite different. You're all familiar with the Guardian of course, but let me introduce myself first.

I have been publishing a magazine on culture and life for more than five years in Seferihisar, a small town in Izmir, one of Turkey’s major cities. When I say culture, I mean something broader in concept than an entertainment-oriented publication: I mean the elements of our community that are unique and passed on to future generations. When I say life, I don’t mean a light “lifestyle” magazine that focuses on where to eat and have fun, but rather a magazine that covers all aspects of daily life with its problems.

When you define culture and life in this broad sense, Seferihisar offers a rich variety of stories for a journalist. The town’s population has more than doubled in 10 years. While it was once an agricultural area producing mostly tangerines and olives, apartment buildings have now risen in place of tangerine groves. Its many newcomers have helped it evolve from having a closed-off and stagnant society to becoming more cosmopolitan. As a result of this transformation, its traditional culture has been compelled to change too, which has brought both positive and negative consequences. There are so many conflicts and stories to report on…

The covers of some previous issues of Seferi Keçi. The topics are mostly on ecology, climate crisis, green energy, food sovereignty and small family farming.

The main motivation for publishing my magazine, Seferi Keçi, was to tell these stories. By the way, people find the name of my magazine quite intriguing, so let me explain its meaning in a few words. "Keçi" means “goat” and Seferihisar is one of the leading places for goat farming in Turkey. “Keçi” is also a symbol for the magazine, because we’re as stubborn as a goat when it comes to defending the natural and cultural assets of our town and also the independence of media. And “Seferi” means travelling, wandering, being always on the road. It refers to the name of the area, but also to a kind of journalism produced not by sitting in a newsroom following the stories from agencies on the wires, but going after stories wherever they are, journalism on the streets, chasing the story.

So, that’s what we do. From the beginning Seferi Keçi has pursued the kind of stories that its name suggests. It has reported on the town's cultural heritage and defended the blue sea against large fish farms, olive trees against energy power plants, tangerine groves against large buildings, and small-scale farming against industrial agriculture. It told stories of people who are not in power but have something to say...

Such journalism has drawn attention in Seferihisar and developed a loyal community of readers. We have also launched a website, started producing video content through a YouTube channel and published podcasts.

The annual brunch organized by Seferi Keçi to come together with the readers.

So far, so good. In terms of its quality, relationship with readers and impact, Seferi Keçi is a unique and successful example of local media in Turkey. However, ensuring the sustainability of local independent media is very challenging. The printing and distribution costs of magazines are very high and rising day by day, while to generate revenue from digital publications there is constant pressure to get clicks, which can deter organisations from producing quality journalism. As a result, many publications depend on advertising revenue from local government and other official sources.

Amid these and other challenges, Seferi Keçi is also trying to find new ways to fund quality and independent journalism. For the local media, is it possible to rely mainly on a community of readers, both in terms of content and financially? Is it possible to make the whole community heard and empower the media itself by the power of this community to bring about positive change in town?

Guardian visit

My mind was full of these questions when I visited the Guardian for the knowledge exchange week. You may know the great Seneca quote: “There is no favourable wind for the sailor who doesn't know where to go.” Conversely, for a sailor who knows what to look for, any wind can be favourable.

My destination became clear when I visited the Guardian: I aim to develop and sustain an independent local magazine based on a community of readers. Indeed, the visit could be the most favourable wind for me, even though the Guardian is very different in terms of its size, organisation and resources, and is not a local but an international media organisation. I was inspired by the knowledge that, contrary to the general trend in the media, the Guardian still generates two-thirds of total revenue from readers. Moreover, half of this comes from readers' support for quality and independent journalism, without resorting to a digital paywall.

First and foremost, this is the result of the Guardian’s quality journalism. It has established a lively and interactive relationship with its readers and doesn’t hesitate to ask them to contribute to its independent journalism. Why can’t Seferi Keçi, a local news organisation that has direct relationships with its readers,  do this?  

At the Guardian during The Guardian Foundation's knowledge exchange week.

The Guardian also strives to be the voice of its readers, developing community journalism, enriching articles through callouts and inviting people from little-heard parts of society to tell their own stories. As a local publisher organically related to its community, why can’t Seferi Keçi do this?

Meeting local media organisations during our visit was also a source of inspiration, particularly the Bristol Cable's cooperatively organised membership model and its understanding of local media as an asset of the community. This could apply to Seferi Keçi too.

The media has various sources of income: the audience, of course, and commercial advertising revenue, as well as revenue from ads and notices from local or central government. Funding organisations may be a third source of income. Among these, only the first can guarantee independent and quality journalism. Unfortunately, in today's media ecosystem, it is this audience income that is diminishing and sometimes even disappearing.

However, media based on a community, making people’s voices heard, remains the most effective tool for bringing about positive change. So this is the port to which we have set sail - and my visit to the Guardian made me feel we will eventually get there.

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