Rassd was a media production company that operated between 2012 and 2013, it provided coverage of political events in Egypt, through videos, photographs, news stories, short message services(SMSs), and provided training materials on media literacy and advanced training for professionals. But how did a Facebook account produce journalistic content that was widely distributed? In her thesis, titled When a Facebook Page Becomes an Actual Newsroom, What Can Journalists Learn? Noha Atef, a postdoctoral media researcher interrogated how Rassd became the primary contributor of Egyptian revolution-related news.

The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests, pro-democracy protests, uprisings and rebellions that began in 2010 and spread across parts of the Middle East. During this time, citizens were documenting events and providing alternative narratives to the mainstream media. Against the backdrop of these protests and uprisings, Rassd, which was run by a group of young people, encouraged Egyptians to upload videos, photographs and any other material that captured violations or forgery that was happening in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections planned for October 2010.

“For many events, the Rassd Facebook group achieved news immediacy, even outperforming mainstream media on some occasions,” said Atef.

Keeping the lights on

The co-founders at Rassd covered the 2011 protests and operated a hotline for updates from protesters and contributors. Even during the internet blackout, the group managed to keep their Facebook page updated by using landlines to communicate with members of the team that were based abroad. Rassd did not want to lose their biggest advantage which was immediacy, however “they sacrificed the verification of news to maintain their updates in real-time”.

The group used three different types of bylines: confirmed – these were updates sent in by their team members, semi-confirmed – updates sent in by active members, and unconfirmed – sent in by outside sources. In just 18 days, Rassd’s audience grew to 500,000, with an average of 6,500 visits daily, and its Facebook page attracted an average of 40,000 new followers every day.

The group worked with major news outlets such as Al Jazeera which provided the Rassd team with cellphones to stay in contact with the news organisation. By February 2011, Rassd had 50 reporters across Egypt and the team continued to grow by renting out an office space and registering Rassd as a company.

“The Facebook group had the ambition to become a news network, which would combine the characteristics of a traditional media service alongside the use of social media tools,” said Atef. The group had a learning centre, which provided free workshops that taught people how to make content – these centered audiences from different parts of Egypt who were seen as potential contributors.

The institutionalisation of citizen media

When Rassd first started, it relied on the information given to them by citizens, however, over time the organisation hired more journalists with traditional journalism training – Rassd became a blend of citizen journalism and traditional journalistic practices. For example, it had a structural hierarchal structure for management but for content management, Rassd did not have written editorial policies, it only had generic news values.

According to the editor-in-chief of the newsroom, “the shift managers ran news stories according to their personal assessment of whether they maintained these values or not”. Rassd’s “managers paid more attention to structure and managerial development than to editorial development,” said Atef.

What can the media learn from Rassd

  • Firstly, “the possibility of using social media beyond content marketing and engagement with readers,” said Atef. Rassd used social media for administrative purposes, staff members used social media to communicate with each other. Meetings were scheduled on Facebook messenger and because it was an app that was available on smartphones it meant that people could attend anywhere and anytime particularly members who lived abroad. The platform was also used to recruit people such as students and journalists early in their careers.
  • Secondly, “Rassd proved that the more unusual sources of fundraising could support a newsroom financially”. The co-founders did not want funders to interfere in editorial policies in order to preserve the autonomy of their content.
  • Thirdly, “Rassd supported its readers to contribute news in their communities in a productive way”. For example, contributors were incentivised through the free training that they received.
  • Fourthly, “the newsroom would include different types of content makers other than professional journalists, thereby enriching the working environment”. People that checked and verified the information sent in were journalists, however, people who would contribute were citizen journalists.
  • Lastly, “the organisation of citizen journalism offers employment opportunities for graduates fresh out of media schools and a place where they can pursue their journalism career in less time than the traditional mainstream media”.

Rassd used social media platforms to build an audience and continued to use the platform to build a network of contributors which meant that Rassd had a competitive edge with mainstream media because they consistently had content that was produced and distributed at a faster rate.

To read Noha Atef’s full thesis, click here. 

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