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Incubator for independent media

The big question for independent Turkish media: how do we cross the divide?

Murat Baykara of Voys Media on reaching audiences beyond a devoted leadership.

It is no secret that the vast majority of media outlets in Turkey are under the direct or indirect control of the Turkish government. Although the remaining, tiny pockets of independent journalism are trying their best to carry on with free, unbiased reporting and commentary, press freedom is still being suffocated by government censorship, lawsuits and criminal investigations.

On top of this (now almost structural) issue, there is the problem of independent media struggling to widen its reach beyond a devoted audience that describes itself as anti-government. Sadly, its excuse is the same one used by Turkey's opposition parties every time they lose an election: “What choice do we have under such oppression?”

For me, the urgent question is: after years of urging the political opposition to find new ways to reach and attract a wider audience, is it time Turkey’s independent media did the same?

Where to start?

A week in September gave me new inspiration. The Guardian Foundation organised a training week in London for independent media, in partnership with NewsLabTurkey and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). 

The Foundation hosted 10 journalists from Turkey's independent media. Sessions presented by Guardian journalists covered a wide variety of topics; human rights reporting, community reporting, documentaries, investigative journalism, reader revenue models, data journalism and social media, to name a few.

Also included in the programme were meetings with colleagues from outside the Guardian. Social Streets (constructive community journalism), Message Heard (podcasts), Bristol Cable (local journalism), Tortoise Media (slow journalism podcasts) and Unbias The News (cross-border collaborative journalism).

Message Heard speaking to the group of Turkish media professionals about their work.

They were all very fruitful, but most important of all was how they really made me reflect on how new and alternative formats could be a remedy for the ills of the independent media in Turkey, particularly the failure to reach out to a wider audience.

Because of the high level of political polarisation in Turkey, independent journalists are finding it increasingly hard to access the communities that are natural supporters of the ruling party.

Clearly, the old-fashioned method of parachuting yourself into a neighbourhood you don’t know and understand is not working. At the end of the day, journalism is a lot about gaining access to places and lives in order to understand and narrate.

I was astonished to find that gaining greater access/better understanding was also an issue for colleagues both at the Guardian and at the other independent outlets visited. This was the case despite the fact that these organisations had been operating under a much different and better media environment in terms of their rights and freedoms.

Anywhere but a studio

One example of how the Guardian has been trying to reach new audiences is its Anywhere but Westminster series, in which a reporter and video producer spent time in the kind of local communities whose stories are often ignored by the national media, and who are not natural Guardian readers. This series was followed by Made in Britain, a collaborative video journalism series reporting on the inequalities and challenges faced by communities in the wake of the pandemic.

I believe their tried and tested model of training or mentoring and co-producing with local journalists or ordinary citizens in communities could prove useful for the independent media in Turkey in finding a “new way”. 

Or take the inspiring story of Tabitha Stapely, the founder of Social Streets, a not-for-profit news organisation that works to increase participation in communities and local democracy. Having worked for big, shiny brands such as Elle, Esquire and Harper’s, she wanted to get to know her community in the London borough of Tower Hamlets and to empower its people. Her endeavour sets a fine example of constructive journalism. 

The overarching principle is the same for all these news organisations: audiences should not be taken for granted. That was also the message from Seân Clarke, the Guardian’s head of interactives: the opinions of the reader matter. It was inspiring to learn about the “soft screenings” Clarke’s team conducted with sample groups in order to better grasp what they want to see explained. 

Two ends of a session

Many of the journalists on the training week began their presentations with a kind of disclaimer: we know journalism is hard in Turkey nowadays and you may dismiss our ideas as coming from armchair critics.

I don’t think so. But to be honest this criticism did resonate in our discussions at the end of the sessions, with some people suggesting these ideas are too lofty to be implemented in Turkey's current media landscape.

I understand and even share my colleagues' pessimism, but not their reluctance. As we say in Turkish: it is free to try.

I believe we have both the resolve and the means (although modest) to try to adapt the methods we learned in London to gain a deeper understanding of our audience and reach out to new communities back home in Turkey.

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