Interview Series: Fatima Syed and Carine Abouseif

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Carine Abouseif and Fatima Syed accepting their award at the 2017 DPA Soirée. Photo: Steven Goetz Storytelling.

In this instalment of our interview series, we catch up with Fatima Syed and Carine Abouseif, the co-creators of “Why Diversity,” a 2017 DPA-winning project. Throughout the creation of this project, Fatima and Carine talked with editors, reporters, and magazine leaders across the country who are examining, and attempting to remedy, the issue of diversity in Canadian journalism.

The result is an immersive, interactive feature that opens a space for conversation (you can join the conversation via Twitter, using #whydiversity) and calls for change in the newsroom.

The Ryerson Review of Journalism’s online special, “Why Diversity,” won Best Digital Initiative at the 2017 Digital Publishing Awards—congratulations! Pulling together this project was certainly a team effort, with two creators, an editor, a digital developer, designers, and 11 contributors credited for the win. Fatima and Carine, can you talk a bit about the collaboration process?

Fatima: We created this at the absolute peak of magazine production, so it’s a miracle that we published the project without any mistakes! While I worked on content creation, Carine oversaw the entire build, keeping tabs on everything. Together, we watched multimedia editors, Eternity Martis and Allison Baker, create visuals and video for us late at night; our fact-checkers, Erin Sylvester and Sydney Hamilton insisted that everything was verified and found an hour in everyone’s day to get it done; Lindsay Smith, our digital developer, exchanged emails with us at all times of the day; Jonah Brunet, our headline wizard, saved Carine and my brains from figuring out what to call every section; and Lauren McKeon stepped in on the last day to copy-edit one last time. Three days before publication, we had all these things happening at once. Good things are rarely created without some great teams, and we had the absolute best, who pulled this together in just over two weeks.

Carine: It was difficult because everyone on the team was also involved in other projects, writing their own stories and so on. So I think it’s very important to say that every single person on the team worked incredibly hard to balance all those responsibilities. I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I got a sense that a lot of people were invested in the conversations that we were having. One of the most memorable moments for me was seeing Fatima and Eternity discussing the introductory piece in the corner of the office, and workshopping it in writing on our big white board. I remember joining them, and that turning into a really passionate discussion about the issues we saw and found ourselves facing in the industry—conversations like that felt like a driving force for the project. diversity1

There are so many elements within this digital project: the interactive map alongside statements from various Canadian editors and editors-in-chief; a Youtube video on words that journalists get wrong; a list of links with the best journalism on diversity in the newsroom; voice clips from Ashante Infantry; and more. How did you decide on the placement of these elements within the project, and what was your process of organization like?

Carine: We started out wanting to build a completely interactive feature, so actually the idea to add bigger text pieces came later in the process. The format felt like the best way to get in as many voices and ideas as possible without the constraints of a traditional longform piece. The letters from the editors felt like a good secondary piece because it was a quick survey of how the decision makers in the industry were thinking about this topic, but then as you scroll down things get more intense like with the Paper Trolls piece, and then later you get to end with profiles of the people working hard to make change.

Fatima: We wanted it to be an immersive experience; a one-stop shop to get everyone’s brains thinking about the core of the problem. If readers recall, we added each element day by the day to literally “build” the conversation. Day 1 was the introduction by me and the snippets of conversations with Canadian editors (the full conversations are still in our google drive, and some were very long!)–a way to get all eyes and ears interested. Then we added new information everyday–the style guide, our podcast on Indigenous reporting, our list of Best Journalism on all diverse topics (which can seriously be updated with a whole ton of content now), and so on. I loved how Lindsay helped us design the page, because everyday, people would have to start at the beginning and go through all the old content to get to the new — an echo of what the conversation on diversity is like in some way.

In the above mentioned YouTube video, it’s noted that the “Ethnic Media and Diversity Style Guide” would be published in March. The text that prefaces the video—Fatima’s article “Out of Style”—mentions that “[t]he new diversity style guide’s effectiveness will depend on if and how it is used by newsrooms.” Since the guide’s publication, what changes (if any) have you noticed in Canadian reporting? Have journalists started to get more words right?

Carine: I think where I’ve seen the most change is in the effort. There seems to be more of an effort to try and get things right, an effort to listen to those who can offer a different perspective. That certainly doesn’t mean we’re getting everything right all the time, but it does feel like people are saying things like “I don’t know” or “maybe I’m not the right person to cover this” or “maybe we spend more time on this” a bit more these days.

Fatima: I think journalists have definitely become more cautious as the conversation on this has progressed and taken note. But, as noted in the piece on this, the conversation on diversity is ever-evolving and ever-changing, and we still need to carefully pay attention to it and double check everything, because mistakes do happen.

Fatima, your article “Paper Trolls” notes the transition from hate mail to online hate, which is “an unwritten tradition in journalism.” I’m wondering what the reaction to “Why Diversity” has been like? What types of conversations took place around the hashtag, #whydiversity?

Fatima: There were a lot of “me toos,” as expected, but, more surprisingly, there was some shock. The hate mail we featured was only the smallest insight into what people get, but it was so shocking. I remember the first time I shared it with everyone in our office; we put it all across our white board and stood there looking at it, completely horrified by the comments. And I got a bunch of messages expressing the same sentiment. “We didn’t know,” popped up a bunch too. And, unfortunately, since I’ve joined the industry myself, I now have my own collection to share, perhaps years from now.

The good thing is that people now talk about it, perhaps thanks to the advent of social media. At the same time, the frequency and nature of hate mail has also increased. I like to think #whydiversity helped spur more awareness of it.

diversity4How will the Ryerson Review of Journalism continue to talk about diversity in 2018? Does the publication have any upcoming digital projects in the works?

Fatima and Carine: Because it’s a student publication, the RRJ masthead changes annually. We hoped our legacy would help inspire the next round of journalists to think about digital as innovatively as possible, given the resources available to them. If there’s one thing we learned, its that people will listen if you have engaging, provocative, and honest conversations with them.

Lastly, what did winning a Digital Publishing Award mean to your digital team?

Carine: It felt incredibly rewarding. Like we said, everyone worked so, so hard on this, both in terms of execution, and in terms of the deep thought that went into approaching this subject and each element of the piece in a sensitive way. It felt great to know that the result of all those conversations was being heard and acknowledged.

Fatima: We had already won, even before the Digital Publishing Award. For over a month, the 20 of us on the masthead were having some of the most heated, most engaging, and most contentious discussions about diversity we’ll ever have in our life. We wanted to create an immersive project, and ended up immersing ourselves more than we ever expected. The award was a wonderful recognition of the issue and a recognition of the strong, careful way we had approached every facet of that issue we could of. It’s still a shock to recall some of the cheers and applause we received that day from some of the industry’s best people.

And to think, it all started with some hate tweets directed at me!


Fatima Syed is currently a reporter on the breaking news desk at the Toronto Star, focusing on diversity, social justice, and international issues. 

Carine Abouseif  is currently an editor at The Globe and Mail

Interview conducted by Leah Edwards. 

We are still accepting nominations for the Digital Publishing Leadership Award and Emerging Excellence Award until March 1, 2018. The nominees will be announced in April, and winners will be announced at the DPA Soirée on May 29.

 

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