April 17, 2009
The Electronic Intifada and the Challenges of Online Journalism (Part 1 of 2)

With the recent announcement that the Boston Globe might fold if it can't cut $20 million in union costs, the state of print journalism seems to be in a state of flux. The print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer also folded to budget concerns, but the paper has continued to publish as an online-only news source. Are online editions the future of journalism? And how does online publishing differ from print journalism? As part of an assignment for Henry Jenkins's Theories and Methods class, I recently interviewed the managing editor of The Electronic Intifada, an online-only news source dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to get her opinion on the state of online journalism. Below, you'll find portion of my report.

Maureen Murphy is the Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada (EI), a nonprofit online publication--found at electronicintifada.net-- that features news, opinion, and analysis about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Disclosure: Maureen Murphy is also my cousin.) EI was founded in early 2001 by Ali Abunimah, Nigel Parry, Arjan El Fassed, and Laurie King--four activists who had never met in person. Murphy explains: "The Electronic Intifada project started as a reaction to the corporate media narration of the second Palestinian Intifada. It was started by a bunch of activists who didn't know each other, but who were able to find each other through the internet." EI was originally conceived as a supplement to the mainstream news media's coverage of the conflict, but it has quickly grown to a news source in its own right. EI averages 3000-5000 unique visitors daily, and they got as many as 30,000 visitors a day during the recent crisis in Gaza.

One of EI's main principles is to make the conflict understandable and accessible to everyone. As the managing editor, Murphy's evaluation of content submissions is key to supporting EI's educational goals. She says, "Sometimes it's a challenge because we get submissions that are for an audience that is intensely interested in the conflict, but a lot of our audience are people who come across us in a Google search. They just want to know what's happening because they can't make sense of what they read in the newspaper. Making our content accessible is a priority for us." Though the website strives to be accessible, Murphy has to balance the educational mission with EI's established position as one of the leading English-language publications devoted to the conflict. According to Murphy, "EI is where a lot of debates are held--Where does the solidarity movement go next? Where do Palestinian Politics go next? Those tend to be more advanced discussions."

When I ask Murphy how she knows whether EI is achieving its mission to educate people about the conflict, she replies, "We did a readership survey a couple years ago and a lot of our readers were university instructors and students, so it seems we're getting the audience we hope to get. But it's not just about educating people who are in education...We want average people to be reading EI and to have a stake in the conflict and work towards its resolution." Murphy must then read submissions with an eye not only for good writing and relevant material, but also for stories that can educate readers and maybe, just maybe, make them care enough to take action.

EI is also a product of its medium. Murphy explains that EI's cofounders "were amongst the first to realize the possibility of the internet as a medium for activists. One of the cofounders created what is thought to be the first blog from a war zone. He was basically doing daily diaries from the West Bank during the clashes that were happening there in the 90s. The cofounders were people tired with traditional ways of doing things and they wanted to use the internet to present an alternative narration."

The combination of compelling alternative narration and the affordances of the internet has allowed for a specialized publication like EI to thrive. Production costs are low and distribution costs are nil. Further, EI is able to reach interested audiences all over the world. Most readers access EI from North American and Europe since it is an English-language site, but Murphy says that people frequently translate EI's articles and distribute them in other language communities. The accessibility of EI's content has also become important to the mainstream media as Murphy explains, "During the recent Gaza War, the media were not allowed by Israel to enter the Gaza strip, [so they] were coming to us for contacts because their journalists weren't able to get in."