Interview with Tassos Morfis from Athens Live

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Athens Live is an independent, non-profit media outlet born out of the Greek crisis. The founders of Athens Live believed that international coverage of this crisis was lacking, so they decided to do it themselves. They consider their social mission as more important than their product. Therefore, they disseminate the news for free. We talked with the current editor-in-chief, Tassos Morfis.


“The plan was to survive for one year. We achieved that, but when something is not growing, it’s going to be dragged down in the swamp and the journalistic swamp is full of swallowing mud.”


“Generally, I think the media in Europe are one-sided, especially in small countries. That is a problem. Making the media cover more sides and making them more interesting gives them more opportunities to monetise, to educate people and to tell the news and the stories. And also explore different storytelling formats may offer a solution. Media should always be one step ahead, so they can monetise and become self-sustainable. The crisis was a big chance for new things to happen, but crisis has this particular characteristic where the people are full of passion but there is a lack of the resources. This is suffocating because you can only operate in difficult circumstances for a very short period of time. After that, it becomes too difficult to stay focused. So when a crisis might sound like a very good chance to create new things because all the old is collapsing around you, the tools you have in your hands are extremely limited. There is also a psychological factor involved and that is very crucial. When things are collapsing around you, you need a safety net, so you can feel that you can have something to grab on to, to cling to. I think this is the most important part: to find the psychology and courage and the right context in order to perceive the idea of what you are trying to do and shape it very well. But also to insist on this, because you know it takes time for businesses. It takes more than a year for businesses to start working properly, unless there’s not a big investment. We absolutely started in a do-it-yourself fashion. The plan was to survive for one year. We achieved that, but when something is not growing, it’s going to be dragged down in the swamp and the journalistic swamp is full of swallowing mud.


If you are a professional, you have some standards around your work, so you want all the standards to be achieved. And if you’re struggling to do very simple things, while your colleagues abroad are working in these corporations and have way more resources, you get frustrated. So it was a conscious choice to deliver our stuff for free, because our mission is a social one and we try to explore a different model in the Greek media, which is the non-profit model. There are non-profit media companies that do media education and of course, there is Shedia, but there were no non-profit newsrooms. Non-profit newsrooms in the US, especially after Trump was elected, were a big thing. While we had this start-up approach when we started, we realised that while Trump was getting elected, that US media was shifting towards a non-profit model and we thought that this was something that was lacking here in Greece as well. We decided that the mission is more important than the actual product, so we decided to distribute the news for free on social platforms. And this has worked out quite okay, because we are exploring in some way a model that very few organisations around the world have the ability to do. But disseminating the news for free on social networks experiences exactly the problem where it’s very hard to monetise them, so that’s why the non-profit model can be adjusted to a structure like this. But we are still exploring. We are not that big to feel risky about certain decisions. We are very small and this gives us the flexibility and the ability to first of all do trial and error and also, it gives us ability to shift rapidly, because our organisation is not that big. So we are way more flexible and work with eight people.


“We basically believe that the media of the future will be based on technological advanced platforms and ways to disseminate the news.”


We launched a crowdfunding campaign last year. This money covered our work for one year, for all the expenses of the space, utilities, etcetera. Everyone was working for free. The way that we survived is that we do other work. For example, our photographers do corporate work. So in one hand you have the luxury to be independent, and to write whatever you like without anyone suffocating you editorially. But on the other hand you are being suffocated financially, exactly because this independence is precious and expensive.


Now we are trying to look for philanthropic funding in journalism. It is a relatively new field that we are exploring since April 2017. We believe that the Greek media and European media need a fresh breath of air in order to survive. The US has a lot to teach us when it comes to that. We believe that right now is the right time in Greece, because all the media in Greece have huge financial problems. At some point last year we were joking that we are one of the very few authors in Greece that has a positive outcome, financially. Philanthropic funding is something that is working out in countries like Germany, the UK and France. We would like to explore the possibilities of getting philanthropic funding from corporations, foundations, but we do foresee the traps. The media business has always been cooperating with specific business interests, political parties or certain parts of the political spectrum. So to be independent, we believe that it means having a separate operation when it comes to electoral policies and to the moneymaking machine. And advertising and technology takes up a major role in that. We basically believe that the media of the future will be based on technological advanced platforms and ways to disseminate the news. But in this country, it will take some time to make this model work, because the Greek society is a very polarised society and especially after the referendum two years ago, when everyone lost their trust in the media. So now you can see outrageous things being written on social media against journalists. But the media landscape is being rearranged, so there is space for something new. I believe it can happen.


Nowadays, every silly platform is moving towards news. And Facebook announced a few months ago that they are starting a journalism project and Facebook is already finding a way to make money of this system. We can see that news consuming is shifting towards payment and to be honest, that is the right thing to do. Like for the price of a beer every month you get your news on your cell phone and you can have verified and trusted sources that tell you what is happening around the globe. And also you can adjust your interests on what you like. And you can see what
is happening in certain parts of the world. For example, I’m interested in politics, football and fashion. I think technology is able to explore all these things. What’s not achieved yet is a culture of news worthy outlets and things are changing in Europe. Facebook is an extremely well organised company, but it’s still a company, so they will always make profit off your work. But on the other hand it’s the space where most things happen nowadays. It’s a very vibrant tool and it is where you can touch new audiences. We can’t not use it, we have to deal with it. Unfortunately, they are very clever, it’s difficult to beat the ever-changing system.


“It may be weird to think that Greek people want to read Greek news in English, but it’s modern.”


Currently, we are planning to grow. We are planning secure funding for three years so this can work properly. And we always want to be technologically advanced and try new things. We are a kind of guinea pig and we like to be one, because we believe in technology in journalism. We think this is the future and technology will make the media more accountable, but also it will make them less boring.


Our audiences come mainly from the US, UK, Germany and Italy, but also from Greece. We are new, we try to tell news in our own way, which is in English. It may be weird to think that Greek people want to read Greek news in English, but it is modern. However, there is a demand for Greek news in Greek. There are still a lot of Greeks who don’t speak English very well. Greece has always been a place where the most important issues of our times have been in conflict and there are very good stories coming from Greece that talk about international issues which affect everyone in the first world. Also, Greece invented democracy and you can’t have a free democracy without a vibrant media landscape, right! The more independent media you have, the more you have voices and views on the public sphere and this makes everyone happy.


I believe that Athens Live can be a model that can be used in other cities and that this can be part of the future. Other partners abroad are writing and producing stuff in their own language but for us, using English was  kind of a choice of emergency, because somebody needs to tell our stories abroad and nobody in Greece was telling these stories in English. So we tried to combine those two problems.


“We never paid Facebook a single cent. Everything we have has grown organically, we have 20,000 likes.”


At the beginning we were image based. So for us it was very easy to create a video, but when you are doing news you need to be consistent in what you do, only because it’s a matter of credibility and if you don’t have the resources to be consistent, then you can’t be credible. So we prefer to take it easy and see what’s going to happen. So we don’t follow the trends like Facebook evolving from image-based to more video-based. For example, we never paid Facebook a single cent. Everything we have has grown organically, we have 20,000 likes. We would more like to send emails to people, saying “Guys, we are starting this, please tell one of your friends,” so after sending 100 emails, we have 200 people coming back. So we prefer to have a very personal relationship, exactly because this thing is happening here through personal relationships. So it’s a community based outlet. And we want to remain that way. I don’t think that these media trends, like those on Facebook, help towards this direction.


We try to focus on a few themes every week. For example this week it’s the oil spill in Piraeus, we have the El Dorado gold mine in Thessaloniki, where there is a huge conflict with the government and also we have the anti-fascist rally’s that are going to take place during the weekend. So we have three issues and we are trying to cover them. So every week the agenda is changing. The amount of posts varies a lot.”


Interview by Sonderland and The Caravan’s Journal
Photo by The Caravan’s Journal