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How Chai Khana uses its commissioning strategy to empower its…

How Chai Khana uses its commissioning strategy to empower its freelance contributors

The issues-driven platform from the South Caucasus is providing mentorship and bespoke training to contribute to a new generation of media professionals

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This case study was first published in Engagement Explained, a newsletter that brings you in-depth and practical engaged journalism case studies from news organisations across Europe. Sign up here to receive the next edition in your inbox.

In a nutshell

Chai Khana is investing in a new generation of media professionals in the South Caucasus by providing ongoing mentorship and tailored training for journalists and filmmakers who are selected through an open call and rigorous commissioning process.

Background

  • Launched in 2015, Chai Khana is an online platform covering the South Caucasus. It is led by women and publishes articles, videos and photography which give a voice to underrepresented groups across the region, in particular to women, rural communities, minorities, and conflict-affected groups.
  • Against the backdrop of ongoing conflict in the South Caucasus, Chai Khana aims to foster cross-border understanding by publishing stories from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and translating content into the five most commonly spoken languages in the region: Georgian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Russian and English.
  • Chai Khana is an issues-driven platform which publishes in bi-monthly editions. Each edition is centred around a theme or issue which is relevant to people living across the South Caucasus. Recent themes have been isolation and protest, informed by the global pandemic and the recent parliamentary elections in Georgia.
  • Documentary films form a significant part of Chai Khana’s content. As well publishing them on the Chai Khana website, the team also enters the films into festivals and competitions so that they can be seen by a larger audience. This raises the profile of both Chai Khana and the filmmakers.
  • Over the last few months, Chai Khana has not only had to adapt to the limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also had to rethink its work processes and strategy in light of the recent outbreak of war in the region. The team has had to deal with last minute changes such as postponing their rebrand and shifting the focus of their content to maintain relevance and continue to deliver Chai Khana's mission in light of fast-paced change.
  • Currently, Chai Khana is entirely grant funded. Its key funders are The British Embassy in Georgia through their Conflict, Stability and Security fund, and Open Society Foundations.
  • The platform has 20,000 new users per month on average, which are measured through Google Analytics. For each social media platform, they track the performance of the individual story separately.
  • One of the ways Chai Khana builds its audience is through live events. Chai Khana prioritises content which is visually engaging, such as stories which feature photography as a key component, or short documentary films. This makes it easy for the team to organise events such as exhibitions and film screenings which showcase their material and bring readers and contributors together. These events form a key part of Chai Khana’s fundraising efforts by enabling them to interact with potential funders while also showcasing their successes and developing their relationships with current funders.
  • Chai Khana has 12 members of staff, including regional production managers from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Having a mix of geographical backgrounds within the staff team is crucial for fulfilling Chai Khana’s mission of generating greater cross-border understanding, as it allows the editorial team to draw upon vital local knowledge when commissioning and editing stories from the different countries.
  • Over the past five years, Chai Khana has worked with 250 freelance contributors. This includes new and aspiring journalists, photographers and filmmakers as well as more established media professionals.
  • Potential contributors first have to go through a rigorous commissioning process, after which successful applicants are provided with ongoing training and mentorship. The team believes that empowering contributors is key to the success of Chai Khana.
The audience at a Chai Khana rooftop film screening
The audience at a Chai Khana rooftop film screening


How did they do it?

  • The commissioning process starts with the selection of a topic by Chai Khana’s editorial team. They will consider topics that are relevant to the current situation in the South Caucasus and that have strong cross-border potential.
  • The team will then create an open call, outlining the kind of issues they would like the edition to tackle. In the past, staff members would share a list of concrete story ideas, however they stopped doing this as they found that their story ideas were being copied by other media outlets.
  • Potential contributors are asked to read the open call and fill in questions presented in Chai Khana’s pitching document. The pitching document has been refined over the years to help the team get the right information from potential contributors in order to assess the strength of their story idea with maximum efficiency. It now features more detailed questions which ask about the contributor’s prior research and knowledge of the issue, their personal attachment to it and a breakdown of the key characters and their access to those characters.
  • The open call is promoted publicly through Chai Khana’s website and social media channels as well as privately through a mailing list of freelancers and a closed Facebook group. This way the team is able to continue working with known contributors while also reaching out to new and emerging talent.
  • The team will then review the submissions they receive from the open call and will judge them based on criteria such as relevance to the topic, research done by the applicant, uniqueness of the story, whether the story can be produced in the given timeframe and whether the applicant has access to the protagonist. The team will prioritise proposals that fit within Chai Khana’s overall mission of giving a voice to underrepresented groups.
  • After making an initial pre-selection, the editorial team will arrange calls and face-to-face meetings or will request more in-depth pitches from selected applicants. Based on the additional information they receive at this stage, they will make their final selection and will ask contributors to produce a first draft.
  • If a proposal reaches the pre-selection stage but is not then commissioned, the team will give the applicant feedback and will encourage them to apply again in the future.
  • Successful applicants will be asked to submit two drafts, after the first draft they will be given feedback from a member of the editorial team. After a last review, the final draft, or in the case of documentaries the final cut, will be translated into the five languages used by Chai Khana.
  • The whole process from commissioning to publication can take between a month and a month and a half. For each edition the team usually selects around 30 stories which are then published on their website and social media over the course of two months. Contributors are paid a set fee depending on the format of the content they produce.
  • The team at Chai Khana believes its role is to invest in and contribute to the development of a new generation of media professionals in the South Caucasus. Once a contributor has worked with Chai Khana, they are considered part of its network and are entitled to support and training from the team.
  • Chai Khana organises two or three training sessions per year – each training is designed to address a recurring challenge the team has seen contributors struggling with in regards to their reporting, filmmaking or photography skills.
  • Previous training sessions have included a two and a half day overview of short documentaries, which was designed to improve trainees’ ability to package and pitch their documentary idea. The training was conducted and co-organised with Deutsche Welle Akademie to give trainees an insight into why short documentaries are important to Chai Khana and how they fit into the platform’s commissioning strategy, as well to give guidance on how to ‘sell’ a documentary idea, how to write a successful longline and synopsis, and other skills related to making and pitching a documentary.
  • Occasionally the team at Chai Khana will open the training opportunities to the public, such as this series of masterclasses and lectures organised in collaboration with European Social Documentary, but mostly they will invite selected contributors who they believe will benefit from the training offer. This allows them to tailor the training to meet the specific needs of the contributors they invite.
  • As well as offering formal training sessions, each contributor is offered mentorship from the moment their story is commissioned. Contributors are assigned mentors depending on the format they are working with, for example videographers and filmmakers would work with the film commissioning editor.
Chai Khana team at FEMDoc
Chai Khana team at FEMDoc


What did they learn?

  • The team at Chai Khana found that by asking more detailed questions in the pitching document they were able to get a more concrete idea of the potential of a proposal early on, as well as being able to quickly identify whether the applicant has carried out sufficient initial research into their story idea. This increases the efficiency of the commissioning process and saves time both for the editorial team and for the contributor. The team has also found that the ideas submitted to the open call are now more frequently in line with Chai Khana’s overall mission and criteria.
  • Since offering tailored training opportunities to contributors, Chai Khana has witnessed an improvement in the performance of those who then participate in future open calls, meaning the team can be more confident in the quality of the submissions they will receive and the ability of the contributors to execute their story idea.
  • Executive director, Lika Antadze, believes that it is important to invest in individuals rather than offer one-off training opportunities. She believes that this not only benefits Chai Khana, in terms of the quality of content they are able to publish, but also benefits other outlets operating in the South Caucasus who may then work with the freelance contributors. Antadze believes that part of Chai Khana’s mission is to contribute to creating a stronger media landscape across the South Caucasus and does not see it as being in competition with other media outlets.
  • As part of its commitment to being a contributor-driven outlet, Chai Khana has begun to collect success stories about their contributors which are published on their social media accounts. As part of its upcoming rebrand, the team wants to create a specific page on the website which celebrates and amplifies the successes of Chai Khana’s contributors.
  • In 2019, Chai Khana attempted to launch an agency which would allow it to represent its contributors to media organisations from outside the region. The process was designed to be automated through the website, however due to a change in management, challenges over developing the user interface and questions about legal responsibility the plan was not fully executed and has now been put on hold.
  • Antadze believes that although working with a smaller pool of journalists must be an easier and more manageable process, Chai Khana ultimately benefits from investing the time to guide and invest in its large pool of contributors, as this allows them to continue to bring in new ideas and perspectives to the platform.
  • Chai Khana is currently considering ways it can diversify its income streams, including thinking about reader revenue streams such as a membership model.

How has engagement changed during COVID-19?

  • In addition to dealing with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chai Khana team is also having to find ways of continuing the work despite the war that recently broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result, Chai Khana has had to adapt its plans, such as postponing the launch of its rebrand and changing the topic of the latest edition at short notice.
  • Its most recent edition, Homefront, gives an opportunity for both sides of the conflict to reflect and share stories. This newsletter highlights what the work they did and details their plans for keeping their community together despite the war.
  • When the pandemic took hold in the South Caucasus, the team quickly changed the topic of the edition to isolation. In addition to commissioning articles which looked at the new state of isolation caused by the pandemic, the edition also considers groups which were already dealing with different forms of isolation before the pandemic. It explores questions such as: What does it mean to be alone today? How does being alone today differ from being alone a generation ago? In the South Caucasus, where tightly knit communities are a foundation for culture and society, what does isolation look like? Outputs from the edition include this short documentary.
  • Chai Khana has been able to continue functioning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by moving work processes online and using platforms such as Zoom to host team meetings and meetings with contributors. However, the team has had to cancel all live events, including film screenings, exhibitions and trainings.

In their own words

Lika Antadze

Lika Antadze, Executive Director, Chai Khana

"At Chai Khana we want to empower filmmakers, journalists and photographers, bringing their original and unique voices to the larger audiences in order to raise and challenge social issues in the South Caucasus. Open calls and the commissioning process is a way for us to be open to those voices."

How would you improve it?

"In the future we would like to strengthen the inner community of creators we work with, through offering them more opportunities and commitment from our side. And we would like to reach out more actively to our wider community of audience members and raise awareness amongst them about the importance of the voices that we are trying to amplify."

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