Q&A with the Humanitarian News Outlet formerly known as IRIN

By Carolina Are

The New Humanitarian

The New Humanitarian reports from the heart of conflicts and disasters to inform prevention and response, putting quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world.  Founded by the United Nations in 1995 (as IRIN News) in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, The New Humanitarian stems from the belief that objective, on-the-ground reporting of humanitarian crises could help mitigate or even prevent future disasters.

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“We want the price of goods to go down and for the possibility to find work,” says, Kessia Madocher, 31, of the current situation in Haiti. ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ The country is currently in the grip of a political and economic crisis that has resulted in a shortage of water and other necessities while the prices of food and fuel have risen.⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ A friend of Madocher’s was killed last week in anti-government demonstrations, and she says she’s afraid to leave her home to look for food and can’t send her daughter to school.⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ She wants the country to change, but in a way that all Haitians feel the impact. “We just want the country to function well.”⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ To read the whole story, go to the link in our bio.⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #Haiti #humanitarian

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Almost twenty years later, the outlet has become TNH – and aims to provide news and analysis, as well as critically investigate the one-billion-dollar emergency aid industry and draw attention to its failures at a time of unprecedented humanitarian need. As their bio writes,

“As digital disinformation went global, and mainstream media retreated from many international crisis zones, our field-based, high-quality journalism filled even more of a gap. Today, we are one of only a handful of newsrooms world-wide specialized in covering crises and disasters – and in holding the aid industry accountable.”

The New Humanitarian’s work has become increasingly important in the last decade, with the number of people to whom the UN delivers aid more than tripling. International emergencies such as climate change, population growth, volatile markets, water scarcity, sectarianism and the burgeoning of armed groups and extremists have exposed serious weaknesses in the current aid apparatus, and discussing these emergencies and the response to them has become essential.


You recently rebranded from IRIN to The New Humanitarian. Can you tell us more about the reason for this rebrand?

The name “IRIN” (Inter-Regional Information Networks) worked well within the UN, where we began a quarter century ago as an in-house information center. In the broader media landscape, as an independent non-profit newsroom covering humanitarian response and prevention, it didn’t work so well. The rebrand is the next step in our evolution since spinning off from the UN in 2015, and the name change helps place us within that wider media landscape of which we are now a part. It also gives readers a much better sense of what we cover and suggests a relevancy and timeliness in this era when humanitarian crises make headlines around the world, every day (though plenty of them don’t, and we are especially dedicated to covering those under-covered stories).

By taking the title of The New Humanitarian, we are recognizing that the humanitarian sector is in the midst of great change as the crises it deals with are more protracted and wider ranging than in the past – from migration to the impact of climate change – and require new approaches, from rethinking alliances with the development sector (take a look at our recent collaboration with the Fragile States Index) to working with the private sector (check out our roundtable from the World Economic Forum in Davos).

What changes will your readers see after the rebrand?

The most obvious is of course our website. (And thank you to our readers, who have shown tremendous patience during our revamp and been so helpful in guiding us as we work out the inevitable kinks.) It’s mobile-first, reflecting the growing number of people who check in with us not only while at work, on their laptop or desktop, but on their phones throughout the day. We very much want to be a part of our readers’ days, a want-to-read as well as a have-to-read-for-work, a daily habit (the good kind of habit, of course).  The design is intended to be more engaging, more interactive; our site metrics tell us that many of you are already using the click-through carousel of articles at the top of the homepage, for instance.

Our mission remains the same: to inform the prevention of and response to humanitarian crises, and to amplify the voices of people at the heart of those crises. So you’ll still see the in-depth, thoughtful, and on-the-ground-reporting that have long been hallmarks of our work. You’ll also see – and have begun to notice, I hope – a wider variety of voices represented, both in opinion pieces like op-eds and First Person essays (submissions always welcome) as well as throughout our reporting. And you’ll find more timely coverage, offering the humanitarian perspective on breaking news from political unrest to emerging conflicts and environmental hazards. Plus, our coverage is now more conscious of your time – in-depth, timely journalism doesn’t  have to be long journalism. Watch also for more investigative journalism — our first investigative editor is now on board – and more collaborations, such as the project with the Fragile States Index, and wide-ranging series, such as our Destination Europe series on migration.

Who do you see as your core audience and what relationship would you like to have with them?

We seek to build on our traditional loyal audience of decision-makers, aid practitioners, donors, and analysts in the humanitarian sector. The urgency and importance of the issues we cover resonate now with a much wider audience, we believe. That includes a broader swathe of readers within the aid sector, mirroring the growing diversity within aid response and prevention – from local responders and policy makers to readers in the private sector and civil society.  In many ways, humanitarianism has been democratised. It is no longer the exclusive domain of governments, the UN, and large INGOs– nor is it only about disaster relief and aid delivery.

The New Humanitarian’s audience

We believe that some of our coverage can find an audience among general readers interested in better understanding the millions around the globe whose lives have been upended by humanitarian crises – some of them their neighbors or family. Many of those general readers, we hope, will be within the countries we cover, so that we are reporting not only from a crisis but for those at its heart. Republication agreements with mainstream, regional and other media will help us reach them.

With all our readers – our loyal core audience as well as the newest readers (who, by the way, can subscribe to our newsletters so they are always up-to-date)- we hope to engage in a true conversation, via social media posts, Facebook chats, webinars, and even events IRL, as well as good ‘ole email (You can reach me at josephine@thenewhumanitarian.org). Good journalism is no longer a one-way street.  We’d like to be a hub for discussion around all issues emerging in the humanitarian space, a conduit for conversation as well as a source of impactful, in-depth and thought-provoking reporting. We really want to be a part of our readers’ lives, like a trusted, engaging, and witty (at least from time to time) colleague.

What are the main challenges to humanitarian journalism in 2019 and to the New Humanitarian specifically?

We are fortunate that our core audience understands the value of our reporting, and we believe others will, too. In terms of humanitarian reporting in general, the biggest hurdle is passing the ‘so what?’ test: so what does this mean to me? So what can I do about this? So what should I care about? It’s making that connection to readers, which often means appealing to their heart and head simultaneously. There’s so much information out there — news and entertainment and videos of your best friend’s kid and cool quizzes and  on and on — it’s easy to overlook ‘difficult’ news and analysis, especially if it seems to have no connection to your life. That’s why the best humanitarian journalism often focuses on the people on the ground, people whose lives have been upended and who, in the end, just want to send their kids to school, go to work and know they have a place to call home each night.

Picture from “Searching for Othman”, a series where TNH explored the past, present and future of millions of displaced Iraqis. Here, five-year-old Othman looks out the window of the room that had been his mom’s. She was killed in their home during the 2016 fight to liberate Fallujah so-called Islamic State. The same attack left Othman and his sister gravely injured, and killed his cousin and baby brother. Iraq, 2018. (Annie Slemrod/TNH)

Our challenges are shared by many other niche newsrooms dedicated to serious news and analysis about often difficult subjects: attracting and keeping readers’ attention in a saturated digital marketplace. Also, as a donor-funded organization, keeping the attention of our funders and attracting new funding sources is always a concern, though happily not a worry thanks to our very positive trend in that area. Reporting from often hard-to-reach locations around the globe, many of which can be risky in terms of security, and expensive in terms of both money and editorial time.

More About Josephine Schmidt

Josephine joined The New Humanitarian in 2018 as the site’s first executive editor. She has over 17 years of international newsroom, op-ed and editorial development experience at The New York Times. Josephine has lived and worked in Asia, Europe and North America, launching and managing multilingual websites, magazines, multimedia projects, breaking news coverage and special projects.

Josephine Schmidt – Picture courtesy of The New Humanitarian

Josephine began her career in non-profit media in post-communist Eastern Europe, where she helped establish the region’s first post-Soviet journalism training centre. There, she also played a key role in launching and leading Transitions, a website and magazine covering the politics, economy, and culture of 27 post-Soviet countries.

Research About The New Humanitarian

A recent report by media researchers Martin Scott, Kate Wright and Mel Bunce, called The State of Humanitarian Journalism highlights the differences between IRIN/ The New Humanitarian and other news outlets that report on humanitarian crises and issues. Among other findings, this research showed that IRIN was more likely to quote those affected by disaster; and their journalism addressed a wider range of issues than news agency reporting, including aid policy, disaster risk reduction and migration/internal displacement.

Watch The New Humanitarian’s launch event in Geneva: