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A 360° View of the World, Thanks to Crowdsourcing

By Hanna Valerie Wolf

One could call it a ‘truly global journal’: The US-based nonprofit journal Fair Observer aims to inform and educate citizens by means of unique 360° analyses, offering a variety of perspectives from all over the world. While it has successfully built up a large international community of contributors, one major problem remains: money.

In many ways, Fair Observer is an answer to the shortcomings of mainstream media. Over the course of many years, Atul Singh, the journal’s charismatic founder and editor-in-chief, has been observing a – what he calls – ‘race-to-the-bottom’ across media outlets. He deplores the decreasing quality of content and the one-sided reporting on complex global issues, which would in fact deserve a plurality of perspectives.

Since 2011, he made it his and Fair Observer’s mission to provide this plurality. Although at first glance this mission seems phenomenally idealistic, today, four years after its birth, Fair Observer has come very close to fulfill its great expectations. How? Through its unique 360° analysis feature.

Collage for Fair Observer's Kickstarter Campaign. © Fair Observer; fairobserver.com
Collage for Fair Observer’s Kickstarter campaign. © Fair Observer; fairobserver.com

Analysis, not Breaking News

But what’s behind this 360° analysis? As the name suggests, it’s not about breaking news, but about delving deep into an issue. A 360° analysis consists of a so-called context piece, which provides core information on the subject, and is supplemented by a number of in-depth articles written by experts from all over the world.

Topics range from presidential elections to philosophical questions and pressing issues like climate change. In the climate change 360°, for instance, readers can choose between articles on the under-representation of women in climate talks, the importance of fighting climate change in the war on terror, or questionable corporate sponsors of the climate conference in Paris. Together, this set-up offers a variety of angles hard to find in a mainstream media outlet. Fair Observer’s reasoning behind this set-up is that “everyone has a bias and all of us have blindsides, but when we come together, we have a better approximation of the truth”.

The Power of Many: Crowdsourcing

And indeed, it’s the coming together, in which Fair Observer’s real power lies. Counting more than 1500 contributors from 40 different countries, Fair Observer operates on the same business model that has made companies like Kickstarter, Uber and AirBnB the successes they are today: Crowdsourcing.

In Fair Observer’s case, the crowd does not contribute money, but expertise. While an international team of volunteer editors ensures that the content adheres to the quality standards on the site, in principle everybody can contribute. The long list of contributors includes famous politicians like John Bruton, academics and students. And variety is not limited to people with different backgrounds, but stretches to different forms of content: Besides articles, contributors can submit videos, photo features, cartoons and infographics.

Of course, one could argue that a journal like Fair Observer, despite its honorable mission, really only attracts a small, elitist audience. Atul, however, rejects this idea of an elite audience: “It’s not an elitist, but an interested audience. An audience, which cares about what is going on in the world. Fair Observer is for people who are not satisfied with the limited perspectives they get to see every day.”

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Fair Observer: Atul Singh. © Fair Observer, fairobserver.com
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Fair Observer: Atul Singh. © Fair Observer, fairobserver.com

Overcome Challenges and Remaining Difficulties

Having been part of the Fair Observer team myself in 2012, the journey it has taken since is impressive. From the small, somewhat chaotic start-up, where the founders slept in a garage in a San Francisco suburb, it has developed into a non-profit organization with influential partners such as the United Nations Foundation and think tanks all over the world. Struggles with the website’s layout, assembling a determined team of volunteers and ensuring a constant inflow of high-quality content are largely overcome.

Yet, one major struggle keeps impeding Fair Observer from making big steps at a time, says Atul: money. Relying mainly on donations and sponsors, it rejects advertising to ensure editorial independence, thereby missing out on one of the main sources of financing. While a successful Kickstarter campaign helped the journal on a short-term basis, long-term maintenance of the site requires a continuous flow of money.

What about the Journalists?

Although Fair Observer is an innovation in journalism, journalists actually don’t play a big role in it. The content is created by experts in the field, not by professional journalists. If models like Fair Observer continue to succeed – would that mean the end of journalism as we know it? “No”, says Atul, “the world will always need journalists to break the news and report from the sites. It’s the analysis of issues where experts’ insights are important to make sense of the world.”