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140journos: we´ll do it ourselves, then

How the story of one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Turkey began and kept ahead of the game. Part one.

Valentin Ihßen Till Gentzsch
8 February 2017
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Police raid on Taksim Gezi Park triggers night of rioting, July 2013. ABACA ABACA/Press Association. All rights reserved.“The circumstances in Turkey could not be better for the creation of a news start-up. Here, we have the challenge of developing new models of reporting in a tense political context”, says Engin Önder, one of the founders of “140journos”. Engin and his team do not employ any journalists, and they don´t need press cards or permissions to report. All of the information they use is provided by their readers. Anyone who has a smartphone can message news to the 140journos team via WhatsApp and Twitter.

The idea was born four and a half years ago, after a Turkish military attack killed several civilians and the media remained silent. Users began taking things into their own hands, and reporting over the Twitter account, “140journos”. They soon had several million followers.

Now, over 500 people message news to them on a regular basis. Journalists use the portal to publicize news that would otherwise be censored. The Twitter statistics are enough to demonstrate the concept’s success: a year ago, the start-up´s news was shared two million times a month on twitter. Now, 140journos has reached a monthly rate of around 50 million Twitter impressions.

“This is our form of activism in response to the censored mainstream media in Turkey”

Four and a half years ago, 34 civilians were killed in a military air raid, when, according to official statements, they had been mistaken for followers of the PKK. Engin couldn´t believe it – the next day, social media was flooded with the news, but it wasn´t mentioned once on television. “We thought: If the TV and newspapers don´t report what interests us, we’ll just have to do it ourselves”.

So, together with two fellow students, Engin created 140journos - to collect and verify information via social media, and to publish it as news. “This is our form of activism in response to the censored mainstream media in Turkey”. Jürgen Gottschlich, foreign correspondent for the German newspaper “taz“ in Turkey, attests to the lack of critical journalism in the country: “by now, the state controls about 90 percent of the media either directly or indirectly”.

In the first few months the team rarely received any information, but that changed with the Gezi protests in the spring of 2013. “Everyone turned into ‘citizen journalists‘ over night“. Today, the staff at 140journos spend the majority of their time verifying tip-offs. “With time, we have built up relationships with our collaborators. Experience tells us whom we can and can´t trust – no technology can manage that yet”.

“Everybody wants to know what is really happening in this country”. Until a year ago, 140journos stood out by reporting on subjects that nobody else would touch, such as beauty competitions for transsexuals or the destruction of the Armenian cultural heritage. Now, 140journos has set itself the higher goal of becoming the most reliable news source in the country. The target audience is not just the modern, urbanised middle class – the goal is to reach everyone. According to Engin, the platform is used by both conservative Muslims and those from the radical left wing. Because: “Everybody wants to know what is really happening in this country”.

By using neutral language, the platform avoids being put in any political boxes. Engin supposes this to be the reason they have not encountered any problems with the authorities. As long as the government doesn´t block twitter, 140journos can continue to work unimpeded. They want to allow their readers to create their own opinions, to prevent the further polarisation of an already divided society.

Tinder – a news App?

“We are the voice of Generation Y”, says Engin. The readers of 140journos have grown up with social media. If you want to reach them, you have to meet them where they are: on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. That means Infographics and Emojis instead of long articles, interviews recorded on WhatsApp and uploaded on SoundCloud.

Longer stories are publicized on the social journalism website. For a year, the group even experimented with Tinder, making current news the central topic of conversation in chats. Their Tinder-Matches had no idea that they were chatting to the editors of 140journos. During protests against a presidential visit to the university, for instance, they would message their matches: “Sorry I can´t meet up today, there are demonstrations at uni against the president´s visit. I can´t get out just now”.

140journos tries everything that is hip and happening. Initially nobody thought news could be sent over WhatsApp: now, the broadcast has 10,000 subscriptions. “We are the research department for future journalism in Turkey”, says Engin.

Finances?

The biggest difficulty for 140journos is not the political sitution in Turkey, but financial sustainability. For their readers it goes without saying that news on the internet is free. Currently the project isn´t self-financed – its funding comes from the “Insitute for Creative Minds”, a marketing agency co-founded by Engin Önder. The team is currently experimenting with a variety of long-term financial models. “Native Advertising” is one of their main tools. This disguised form of advertising has been widely criticised in Germany for blurring the lines between advertisement and journalism. By now, Native Advertising is not only used in online media, such as Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post, but also in traditional newspapers, such as the Washington Post. 140journos´ independence is central to their credibility and success, so their financial model is a critical topic ­– and we are on the edges of our seats to see what they do next.

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