'Alive in Baghdad' uses Web to report the everyday dangers in Iraq

Brian Conley visited Iraq in October 2005 and spent three weeks filming a documentary about the life of Iraqis in a war zone. Accompanied by a translator and no security detail, he interviewed Iraqis about their lives at a time when the United States was struggling to shape some semblance of stability out of the growing chaos.

But instead of creating a documentary that screens at film festivals, he decided to create a website that “airs” short videos weekly. The site, Alive in Baghdad, has seen its traffic rise to well beyond film festival capacity.

“We’ve grown to actually become a small organization,” said Conley. “We have two Iraqi correspondents producing stories about daily life in Baghdad.”

Conley, 26, spoke to OJR about the challenges of running an independent Web operation that focuses on the lives of Iraqi struggling to survive in a war zone.

OJR: When I Google the word “Baghdad” and “video,” Alive in Baghdad comes up as the No. 1 result — above CNN, MSNBC, the BBC or Al Jazeera. What does this mean to you?

Conley: I think one thing is that we’ve got a niche. Alive in Baghdad is video only about Iraq and at this point still primarily about Baghdad. I think that if you look up “news” and “video,” you’ll likely get CNN much higher. But if you are looking for something about Baghdad specifically with video, there we are. It is really great for us because it means that we are really getting our message out that we have video about life in Baghdad.

OJR: The Alive in Baghdad correspondents… are they shooting and editing the video or does it come back to you?

Conley: They edit the video to the degree that they select tapes, but as of right now we do the editing here in the States. We try to take pains to do the editing in a way that it captures the story that they are interested in telling. And so far we haven’t had anybody say that ‘you took it out of context’ or ‘that is not what I was trying to get at.’

We try to produce stories in collaboration, where I’ll pitch some story ideas to the guys over there, and they’ll pitch story ideas to me. Then we come up with what’s do-able and what makes sense.

OJR: Do consider yourself a news organization?

Conley: Well, we take pains to be somewhat objective and unbiased.

OJR: What does “objectivity” mean to an independent Web-based organization?

Conley: I think being objective means that we always say that this is the story, these are the limitations of the story, and these are limitations for us get the story. Depending on the story, we try three to five sources but sometimes it is difficult. We did a piece about young people in Baghdad and what do they do for entertainment. We ended up airing it with only one interview because after trying for three months, we just couldn’t get the young people to even talk on camera about something as basic as “what do you do for fun?” Everyone is just so scared. Those were the limitations in that piece.

We also take really great pains to educate the correspondents. One correspondent very often would ask leading questions. So we told him to be more general. Don’t say, “Tell me about your son who was killed by the Americans,” say, “Tell me what happened to your son.”

OJR: And what are some of the challenges of running Alive in Baghdad?

Conley: Iraq and Baghdad have gotten more and more dangerous. We are realizing we have to branch out and find correspondents in different neighborhoods because somebody in one area doesn’t feel safe covering another area. But if we want to maintain balance and objectivity, we need to get stories from different parts of Baghdad instead of just one or two neighborhoods. That’s particularly challenging.

Tied to that is the issue of translations. I’m trying to get translations done in time to produce a story for every Monday. We have correspondents from one part of the Baghdad ship the video to us by DHL, which provides some level of security. Then in Boston, we capture the video as highly compressed QuickTime movies and then send the files by email or FTP to a translator in another part of Baghdad. The correspondent who shot the video from one part of Baghdad doesn’t feel safe traveling to another part of the city to hand the tapes to the translator.

OJR: You have actually interviewed an insurgent and a mother of a suicide bomber. Do you sometimes have to defend Alive in Baghdad from people accusing it of giving terrorists a platform?

Conley: Yeah, it’s definitely been a huge issue. Do I think that larger news organizations should be reporting on the military issues and interviewing politicians, and government officials? Yes, I certainly do. Right now CNN does that, MSNBC and other organizations do that fairly well.

I think that we are doing something very different. We are trying very hard to have a mixture of stories about the direct impact of the war, whether it’s about someone whose son was killed fighting the Americans, or a family whose home was smashed up during a raid by the U.S. forces. We are producing pieces that are just daily life in wartime stories. We try to get a variety of stories–from a piece about a house that was hit by a rocket to a story about a guy trying to figure out how to get electricity.

OJR: Do you have a sense of who is watching these videos globally?

Conley: It’s primarily the coastal areas of the United States, with some from the middle of the country. And Europe. There are some dedicated viewers in Japan with a surprisingly large upsurge in Brazil.

OJR: Specifically Brazil?

Conley: Yeah. We didn’t have a very big penetration in South America until some an article came out the press in Brazil in January or February. Since then the audience in Brazil has ballooned.

OJR: What about from Iraq itself?

Conley: Some, but not a lot.

OJR: Do you see a time when traditional media might rely on Alive in Baghdad to get the type coverage that they are currently not getting… somewhat of a symbiotic relationship in which you provide content and they funnel their massive following to your site?

Conley: I think a large part of this is just having more people be aware that the project exists and that they can find alternative coverage from Iraq. The larger media corporations won’t be able to get away with just saying, “sorry but this is the best coverage we can do,” because people can see the coverage we are doing.

The BBC and Sky News as well other media companies have approached us about doing work with them. I will pretty soon have a short documentary for BBC News and the licensing of five of our stories from Alive in Baghdad to Sky News for use during the anniversary of the war.

We are hoping to create a relationship where one of these media companies would air each week a weekly episode or one episode a month or something. And it still remains to be seen how we are going to work it out.

OJR: How are you financially supporting Alive in Baghdad?

Conley: We have pretty lucrative contracts with Sky News and BBC. We are also about to sign a contract with a company called Next News Network and that will finally let us pay a regular salary to Steve Wyshywaniuk, our editor and myself. Because of these deal, we can continue to produce for the next six or seven months as well as a probably hire a third correspondent.

OJR: If and when the U.S. forces leave Iraq, what role will Alive in Baghdad play?

Conley: That’s something I was thinking about a lot this summer when it was looking as though a withdrawal might even come sooner than first expected. What I realized is that once the American troops leave, so will the rest of the media. We have to scramble to get as much out of this as possible at that time so people will still keep their eyes on Iraq. That’s really important.

About Sandeep Junnarkar

SANDEEP JUNNARKAR is an associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (The City University of New York). He entered the online journalism world at its infancy in 1994 as part of a team gathered to present The New York Times on America Online, a service called @times. He later became a breaking news editor, writer and Web producer when the paper went live on the Internet as The New York Times on the Web. He served as a reporter and New York Bureau chief for News.com from 1998 to 2003.He received a Masters in Journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia in 1994. He completed his undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley.


  1. Breanne Smith says:

    I find it hopeful that online journalism is now being utilized to reach a broader audience than those at film festivals. It also allows for an ongoing story that can be updated, in this case weekly, instead of a one-time feature that can quickly become outdated.

  2. Brittany Yurick says:

    I think the more intimate and personal approach taken by “Alive in Baghdad” and its coverage of the Iraqi war is exactly what consumers are craving. And although I like the independent niche of the Web-based organization, I support its alignment with larger media corporations, such as BBC and Sky News, in its effort to achieve greater reach and financially support future projects.

  3. Molly O'Hare says:

    Brian Conley made a good decision to create a continuing series of short videos instead of a traditional documentary. The type of events and stories that he and his crew are trying to capture go on every day, and the format he chose helps get more angles and more information out over time as opposed to all at once. The collaboration with BBC, Sky News and Next News Network hopefully will bring more publicity and viewers to this worthy endeavor.

  4. Patrick Mayock says:

    I found the discussion of an independent Web-based organization incredibly interesting. On the one hand, Conley has the ability to work without the restraints of a parent company on the ever-present bottom line. On the other, he must constantly police himself to make sure he and his news series works within the realm of objective, accountable and accurate journalism. From what I

  5. First off, I think such an innovative means of international coverage is just what the doctor ordered. As a broadcast journalist, my greatest concern for my field these days is how quickly networks will feebly throw in the towel when challenged to provide relevant, meaningful footage on foreign affairs. I’m absolutely thrilled that Conley challenges the popularly-nicknamed “mainstream media” by finding a unique solution to this long-standing dilemma. He made the right decision to pass up the documentary in favor of a more enduring medium.

    His term

  6. Andrea Dessoffy says:

    Conley is producing the type of stories Americans should be hungry to see. I don’t think it will be long before other news organizations, like the BBC and Sky News, will be looking to collaborate with “Alive in Baghdad.” So often in covering this war the ordinary people have been lost in favor of officials and radicals. If we are to truly understand what is going on in Iraq we need to hear from the people we went in to “liberate.” While the danger of roaming the streets of Baghdad to interview Iraqis is clear, Conley is showing us that talking wit a diverse group of people is possible. Viewers need the standard coverage of Iraq that we’ve been getting from news organizations, but in order to get a complete picture of the Iraq situation, we also need an element of what Conley provides.

  7. Samantha Verdile says:

    The idea of breaking up a would-be documentary into smaller segments seems like it has much more potential to appeal to a larger audience, considering the attention span of the general public. The short videos are easier to digest and viewers will be more likely to retain the information shown.

  8. Elyse Ball says:

    I find it reassuring that the internet is providing a place where journalists are free to work without the constraints of news organizations and bottom lines. Conley’s decision to create a series is a very effective approach. A documentary might seem outdated by the time it was produced, but the Web site allows the story to continue as things change in Iraq. Now, I’m interested to see if mainstream news organizations will pick up some of the stories “Alive in Baghdad” has already covered.

  9. Emily Tudor says:

    I think it is a really good idea to break up a would-be documentary like this. I agree that it can reach more people in this form. I don’t want to give the idea too much credit though, because it follows the trend of reality tv in that it takes a much larger story and shows certain segments each week. Hopefully this Web report stays closer to documentary form than turning into another reality show.

  10. Rachael Brugger says:

    The way that “Alive in Baghdad” works particularly as news is interesting in that it’s not only a political watchdog, but a journailistic watchdog as well. It is reporting what mainstream media doesn’t. However, this makes me wonder where it draws the line between journalism and activism. While they are trying to give a voice to those who haven’t had it to this point, are they in the back of their minds actually fighting some sort of battle for these people?

  11. Holly Rathke says:

    I think it is great to see that professionals are establishing a niche for journalism online, and one that has potential for future growth. It is reassuring to some extent to know that others are interested in preserving journalism in its truest form as reader/viewer/user popularity carries over from print to the Web. There are tremendous advantages to using the Web for telling specific stories. Producers have an opportunity to captivate viewers’ attention and help them to better understand the bigger picture at work, by providing specific scenarios in real events. The techniques (like those used for “Alive in Baghdad”)used for Web reporting enable the producer to create a more powerful project by having access to unlimited space, audio, and photos. The tools used to create “Alive in Baghdad,” via the Web, helped to submerge the viewer into a depth of realness found from the story. This led to a story with a great capacity to influence its viewers.