Shabina Khatri and Omar Chatriwala in Evanston, Ill., in 2011. Their website, Doha News, grew from a Twitter account to a Tumblr site to a group of 10,000 people. Joe Grimm photo
By Joe Grimm
With smoke rising from a shopping mall and nearby streets closed, people in Doha wanted answers. They watched the story develop through the lens of a website created by two American journalists who have built a news site there.
Less than a year ago, Shabina Khatri and Omar Chatriwala were in Evanston, Ill., where Khatri was earning a journalism master’s in media leadership and strategy as a McCormick scholar. They talked about committing themselves more completely to their news site for Doha, Qatar, where they were living.
Khatri had previously earned degrees in business administration and Spanish at the University of Michigan, and we worked together at the Detroit Free Press. Chatriwala had earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where he specialized in digital media.
They met through the Muslim American Journalists Association, which Khatri helped found, and married in 2007. They moved to Qatar for Chatriwala’s job with Al Jazeera, which he has since left, and now have two children. Both have lectured for the Medill School of Journalism’s campus in Qatar.
Chatriwala wrote to me through Facebook that the Doha News is designed to engage its readers and that they frequently send in tips.
About 11 a.m. Monday, Doha time, the Doha News began receiving messages and then pictures from a fire at the Villaggio Mall. When Khatri and Chatriwala felt the information was credible, they posted a photo and wrote “hearing reports of a fire, anyone know more.”
Phone calls to the mall and to stores were not answered, so they stayed at their computers, vetting and reposting tweets.
Reports were contradictory, as they often are early in a breaking news event. Khatri and Chatriwala began to receive reports of casualties, but held them back until a government-run hospital confirmed that someone had been sent there.
More reports of deaths followed, and then the Interior Ministry announced that it would hold a news conference to clarify the casualties. Doha News then reported that people had died, without giving a number, Chatriwala wrote.
He added, “The deaths of 19 people — 13 of them children — is a huge tragedy in Qatar, that sort of thing is extremely uncommon. And the mall itself is very popular, so there was a tremendous amount of interest in what was going on. Additionally, there isn’t much of a culture of real-time news coverage in Qatar, and everyone seemed to be turning to us to get the facts — so we really felt quite pressured to share what we knew without being sensational.”
He wrote that it was difficult for them to live-blog the news conference, as neither is fluent in Arabic, but real-time translation helped.
Doha News coverage has been recognized for being out in front. The Peninsula, the English-language daily in Qatar, wrote:
“Independent online media initiative Dohanews became the first to break the news. Pictures of smoke billowing from Villaggio were posted online by visitors who were present inside the mall.
“‘Citizen journalism’, carried out by residents on social media websites, helped to report cases of missing family members.
“Traditional media, such as local television and radio channels in particular, came under flak for failing to cover one of the biggest tragedies to strike the country in recent times.”
Readers praised the crowd-sourced coverage:
@dohanews only source with real info on #VillaggioFire. Huge lack of local media coverage after public safety failure in massive mall blaze.
@shabinakhatri and @dohanews brought real local journalism to #Doha. Thank you for today
seriously impressed by @dohanews and others who have tried to bring clarity amidst confusion and grief.
Chatriwala wrote, “overall, Doha News has been growing in fits and starts. We’ve published some 2,000 posts in the 15 months since launch, and have found that every “big” story (namely, about sports, pork, alcohol, women’s and worker’s rights) have caused spikes in traffic and then an overall growth after the stories were reported.”
Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at www.jobspage.com since 1996. Questions about careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.