'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.