What does it mean to be a progressive media outlet?

Ejeilat considers what it means to be ‘progressive, professional, and critical,’ and how through self-regulation 7iber can ‘walk the walk’.

This article by Lina Ejeilat first appeared in The Ethical Journalism Network’s magazine, published April 2019.

It was early December 2006, and I was on a bus heading from the Dead Sea to Amman after attending some tech conference that I got invited to in my capacity as a “blogger”. The person sitting next to me was this guy I had met only once before when he interviewed me for a story about the Jordanian blogging community. His name was Ramsey Tesdell, and he was freelancing for the Jordan Times back then and maintaining a low-key personal blog on the side.

“I have this idea for a website,” he said, “that combines the authenticity of blogs and the standards of journalism to produce alternative narratives about Jordan”.

We spoke with excitement about this idea on the 45-minute drive to Amman.

Less than six months later, along with fellow blogger Naseem Tarawnah, we launched 7iber.com with the tagline “people-powered journalism”.

I smile when I look back at our 23-year-old selves in those days. I doubt we had any idea what we meant by these “standards of journalism” that we wanted to combine with the “authenticity of blogs”.

Our tagline soon changed to “What’s your story?”, and 7iber (pronounced Hiber, meaning Ink in Arabic), remained a volunteer-run “citizen-media platform” for almost five years before turning in 2012 into a professional online magazine with full-time staff that produces “in-depth multimedia journalism and critical analysis on Jordan and the region”.

That transformation was not easy. Our team today includes 14 full-time staff members, and the challenges we faced reminded us time and again that building a trusted and progressive media organisation is as much about the journalism we produce as it is about the internal governance practices we institute and the team culture we create.

We’ve had many introspective conversations about our core mission and our values, about what kind of journalism we are working to produce, and about the controversial lines between “journalism” and “activism”. And while this latter issue sparks heated debate in our editorial team from time to time, we have made peace with it in our daily practice.

A visualisation of 7iber’s editorial team. Credit: 7iber.com

When you work in undemocratic contexts that lack proper systems of checks and balances, where rulers rule with total impunity and where basic rights are constantly violated, practising credible journalism is in itself an act of activism; bearing witness, digging deeper, telling stories that those in power do not want told, and questioning dominant narratives.

In these contexts, “balance” cannot be achieved by giving equal space to two opposing views. Thorny questions on ethical practice cannot be resolved through a straightforward code, but through ongoing conversations that help navigate difficult terrains.

Press cards of 7iber journalists. Credit 7iber.com

This is why when our long-time partner and supporter International Media Support came to us last year with a proposition to work with the Ethical Journalism Network on an “Ethical Audit” of our organisation and our work, we were sceptical at the beginning. We definitely were not keen on someone coming in with a textbook checklist by which to assess what we do.

But as our team gathered for a presentation and discussion of what is meant by this “ethical audit”, we quickly realised that this is actually a “self-audit” based on the criteria that we agree upon, rather than an audit where some external evaluator comes in to assess the adherence to certain agreed-upon standards.

The Ethical Audit turned out to be a tool for us to help frame some of our own internal evaluation and to address questions that had already started coming up inside our team; what does it really mean to be a “progressive” media organisation, as we often like to define ourselves? Are we a truly progressive space? And how is this reflected in our HR policies and work environment, not just in the content we publish?

A couple of years after 7iber made the transition to a professional media in 2012, one of the key strategic issues that we started thinking about was sustainability and reducing dependency on grant funding. This is obviously a challenge faced by many similar media outlets in the region and around the world, and while we haven’t yet found the right formula or business model, we were very conscious from the start of the need to push back against the “NGOization” of media that often results from dependency on grant funding.

One example of that is our employee contracts. Even though we were only able to grow the team and create new positions when we secured funding for them through a specific grant, the employee contracts were always regular long-term contracts as opposed to short-term project contracts that end when the project period ends. We believed that once we hire a journalist or editor, it becomes management’s responsibility to secure continued funding for that position.

I bring up this example in the context of the ethical audit because at the time we started the audit we happened to be working with an external financial consultant to upgrade our financial management system.

His first advice was to change all contracts to short-term contracts. He said that it makes it easier to let people go when funding for their positions runs out, without having to incur any extra cost. Perhaps this is the “business-savvy” approach, but because we were doing the ethical audit at the same time, we pushed back against this advice.

Although this is something we had done all along, we had never consciously framed it as a practice of ethical governance. Seeing it from this angle, we realised that job security is a key catalyst for independent journalism, as it protects journalists from the pressures that arise from not knowing whether or not they will still have a job in six months. It also gives them the security to hold me to account as their editor and to work towards our long-term goals, not just focusing on short-term deliverables attached to projects.

Another example is internal budget transparency.

Conversations about governance brought up the question of why the detailed budget reports are not shared with the entire team every year.

“How can we demand government transparency and accountability when we don’t implement this in our own organisation?”, one journalist asked. And so, in our end-of- year team meeting where we usually share numbers and highlights related to editorial performance, we added a section about the organisation’s budget. As simple and self-evident as it sounds, we hadn’t thought about it before, and it really felt like a big step towards more trust and accountability.

The audit also helped challenge our assumptions about our editorial output. For example, we had long assumed that we have a good gender balance of writers, but we were surprised to find that only 38 per cent of our content was produced by women. Knowing this means we are now working to reverse this disconnect between our progressive and inclusive mission and what were actually doing in this and other areas.

This internal reflection is an ongoing process and we still have so much work to do. But it’s also exciting in the possibilities it opens. We plan to share much of this reflection with our audience this year. And as we, like many other media outlets, are considering launching a membership programme (where content remains free but where loyal readers who believe in our work support it), this process feels more timely and important than ever.

To build a more a trusted relationship with a loyal and engaged audience we have to show them that when we say that 7iber’s core values are to be progressive, professional, and critical, we really walk the walk.

Lina Ejeilat is a co-founder and Executive Editor of 7iber, an award-winning online magazine that publishes in-depth multimedia content and critical analysis on Jordan and the Arab region. She holds an M.S in Journalism from Columbia University in New York. Ejeilat teaches Digital Media at the Jordan Media Institute and regularly leads workshops and training programs on multimedia journalism in Jordan and across the Arab region. From 2009-2011, Lina worked as a reporter with Thomson Reuters in Amman, Jordan.