Daraj: A new step for Arab media

By Gerd Kieffer/IMS

The newly launched pan-Arab news site Daraj aims to be big. Through independent journalism, videos and a new approach to partnerships, the team behind Daraj wants to present to its audience with ‘the third story’, which is not either-or, but rather in-between

Al-Jazeera be aware. The new site Daraj went online 1 November 2017 and plans to take over the role as the leading pan-Arab news site with its keen focus on video and an extensive social media strategy – even before the launch, Daraj had almost 14,000 followers on Facebook. Daraj is also one of 95 media partners who, along with ICIJ, on 5 November contributed to the release of The Paradise Papers, a global investigation that reveals the offshore activities of some of the world’s most powerful people and companies. Read Daraj’s first story in a series on the papers (in Arabic).

For 43-year old Alia Ibrahim, one of the three Lebanese co-founders of Daraj, it’s make or break.

“We aim to be big – it won’t work unless it is big,” she bluntly says.

“At the beginning our goal was not big, but we figured that a lot of great journalism is already being done on a small scale across the region – so instead of repeating what they do, we are creating a platform to which all the likeminded platforms can come and share their content.”

A new breed of influencers

This is in essence the idea of Daraj.

The platform, which is in Arabic, will present unique content, but will also provide a space where media partners, as well as private ‘influencers’ – these could for instance be professionals from the cultural world – can receive assistance to upgrade their content with graphics, video, photos etc. before it is published on Daraj.

“There is so much talent out there, and people are very good at what they do, but they don’t know how to handle social media or are not even online. So, what we do is package their content and put it online. Basically, we want to create a new breed of influencers,” says Alia Ibrahim.

Daraj’s signature is impact journalism, but Daraj will also focus on lifestyle, where stories on e.g. parenting and sex can have an enormous impact in the region.

“Stories like that don’t even exist in Arabic at the level we work, because lifestyle stories in the big mainstream media are political money and often limited by religious or cultural ceilings. So, we are in a playing field where we  fill a gap because the people with money, who produce high quality content do not have the freedom we have.”

The third story

Preparations have been going on since spring 2016 and at some point, the tagline ‘The third story’ came up.

“It refers to a tendency in the region for news to be either or, explains Alia Ibrahim,” who along with the two other founders, Hazem al Amin and Diana Moukalled, have worked in the media industry for decades.

“In the Arabic media, the story is either funded by Iran or Saudi Arabia, it is either Sunni or Shia, it is either Assad or Isis – it is never the impartial, objectively reported story. So, the third story is one that will be based upon facts and upon professional objectives.”

To present this third story requires journalistic independence – and this, in turn, requires financial independence. This has been clear to the founders from the beginning.

“We’re not an NGO. We said right from the beginning, that we are a profit-making company. The argument was that we have to make our own money. We have to be a profitable business to be financially independent,” says Alia Ibrahim.

New steps

Capture of Daraj’s website on 1 November 2017. Click for large image.

Right now, European Endowment for Democracy and IMS support the start-up phase allowing Daraj to sustain eight entities a day for the first couple of months. These entities will be made up of opinions, translations, reportages, investigations, news stories, re-publications of partners’ material and videos.

The support gives Daraj the time and space to prove that their model works which can prompt investors to put money into the platform and sustain the continuation of the project.

“Daraj means ‘steps’ in Arabic and if the project succeeds, it can indeed be a new step for Arab media,” explains Michael Irving Jensen, Head of the MENA-department in IMS.

“There is no regional platform coming from Arabs which is independent, innovative and with such extensive planning behind,” says Michael Irving Jensen. The potential for Daraj to become the pan-Arab independent digital platform and the professionalism of the three founders was initially what led IMS to engage in the 6-months start-up partnership.

Room for more

Pan-Arab online platforms are not entirely new; the biggest being HuffPost Arabic, Raseef22, and of course, Al-Jazeera. Alia Ibrahim estimates that Raseef22 will be Daraj’s biggest competitor, but nevertheless, she is convinced that Daraj will attract readers.

“There is room for us and Raseef22 and more competitors still. There is a huge demand for Arabic content – right now, it represents only one per cent of digital content, while Arabic readership is six per cent. And we are not only talking about Arabic speakers in the Arabic world – we are talking about Arabic speakers everywhere. We are addressing Arabic speakers in Europe, the US and beyond.”

With extensive use of video (the aim within the first year is that 80 percent of the content will be video) and a keen focus on using Social Media, Daraj target a young audience: millennials and the under thirties.

Furthermore, Daraj holds another advantage in terms of its independence – and therefore gains credibility.

“We benefit from the fact that trust in mainstream media is at its lowest ever, so in that sense we have an edge even over the big mainstream media organisations,” says Alia Ibrahim.

Beirut as the obvious base

The set-up of Daraj at the moment is a core team of 7-8 persons supported by various freelancers and partners spread across the world. For instance, they already have agreements with Arab journalists in places like Montreal, Berlin, London and Stockholm, who also help spread the word and thereby increase the global reach of the platform.

Where to base the headquarters was an object of discussion, but at the end of the day there was no doubt that Beirut was the ideal choice. Partly because the three co-founders all have extensive networks in the Lebanese capital, but also because moving the heart of Daraj outside of the region would take away credibility.

“If we were based elsewhere, we would lose the touch with our story,” Alia Ibrahim says and continues:

“Is it sometimes dangerous? There is a small risk, but it is not major. Beirut is by far the best capital city in the Arab world in which to practice the journalism trade, as the culture of journalism is better founded. We have had 20 years of civil war, 15 years of occupation and 15 years of hell with war all around us, and in that time not one entity has been forced to close down.”

This is a good sign for Alia Ibrahim and the rest of Daraj’s team. The coming months will prove whether their ideas and approach will bear fruit and whether they, from their relatively secure base in Beirut, will be able to change the online media scene in the Arab region by taking a step in a new direction.

Daraj is one of 95 media partners who on 5 November 2017, along with ICIJ, released The Paradise Papers, a global investigation that reveals the offshore activities of some of the world’s most powerful people and companies. Read Daraj’s first story in a series on the papers (in Arabic).