- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The founders of Al-Monitor set a goal to track the pulse of the Middle East, offering a direct and immediate look at the complex dynamics of the region through a combination of original reporting and analysis from two dozen partner sources in Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Yemen and eight other nations. In the eyes of many policymakers and regional observers, the Web-based news service has lived up to that promise and has become a key source of news.

As Al-Monitor marks its two-year anniversary Thursday, it is debuting a strategic alliance with PBS’ “NewsHour.”

“Our mission is to uncover trends while covering the news,” said editor and CEO Andrew Parasiliti. “Our founder and chairman, Jamal Daniel, saw what was taking place in what was once called the Arab Spring three years ago and thought that our understanding of the Middle East would be better served by listening to the region in its own voices.”

The result is a hybrid news product expanding its reach in a media marketplace otherwise dominated by budget cutbacks. At many traditional news sites and publications, overseas coverage and the presence of Western journalists are often the first to go.

Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Al-Monitor “stepped into this breach to bring in genuine voices from these countries, covering issues with a depth and insight not accessible otherwise, and written by people who know the lay of the land.”

He lauds the variety of perspectives — the Russian or Turkish take on Iran, or how Arabs see Russian behavior.

“For policymakers, for opinion-makers, this can be very valuable,” said Mr. Nasr. “We make assumptions, but we can find out that we are completely wrong and have misread the situation.”

Recent Al-Monitor reports have included looted museums in Egypt and militants’ competition for “supremacy in global jihad.”

On a topic rarely covered in the West, Iranian-American journalist Mehrnaz Samimi reported on the rise of abortion rates in Iran. “The paradoxical nature of Iranian society more often than not results in people covertly performing the forbidden,” she wrote.

The World Press Freedom Index released this week by Reporters Without Borders suggests that Al-Monitor is doing its work in one of the world’s most difficult markets for news. Syria has become the most dangerous country in the world for reporters, and press freedoms took a step back in countries throughout the region in the past year.

Offering original reporting and translated content, Al-Monitor’s masthead has 47 reporters, columnists and contributors. Washington Times Editor John Solomon serves on Al-Monitor’s board of directors, along with a group of academics, business leaders and journalists.

Marcus Brauchli, an adviser to Graham Holdings Co. and former executive editor of The Washington Post and managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, praised Al-Monitor as a “journalistic one-stop-shopping for people interested in serious coverage and writing on the Middle East,” saying “its mix of views and insights is deep and broad.”

Al-Monitor also translates original reporting and analysis from the region in Arabic and Hebrew, and has launched a strategic partnership with PBS’ “NewsHour” to produce Web programs moderated by foreign correspondent Margaret Warner. The series debuts at 7 p.m. Thursday at Al-Monitor.com.

Al-Monitor contributors argue that the service can provide insight into regional trends and issues not available elsewhere. Ben Caspit, a prominent Israeli political columnist who supplies commentary to Al-Monitor’s “Israeli Pulse,” said he was quite taken with the news service’s approach.

“The Internet gives us the ability to ignore physical borders, boundaries, prejudice and politics. We are not dependent on anything but ourselves. The idea that I am working together with journalists from all over the Middle East, including Lebanon, Iraq and Syria is, for me, not less than stunning,” Mr. Caspit said.

“The fact that these people can read me, contact me or try to understand my views and thoughts, and vice versa, is unique. the freedom of speech in Al-Monitor is absolute,” he added.

A host of U.S. lawmakers have granted exclusive interviews to the organization, along with such regional figures as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Saudi Prince Turki bin Al Faisal Al Saud, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy.

“Technology and citizen journalism have led to dramatic changes in Middle East media, and it is affecting the politics of the region. There is more transparency than ever before, and that is for the better,” Mr. Parasiliti said.

“On the other hand, journalists are also increasingly under fire in conflict zones and face pressure from regional governments. Many of our columnists and correspondents are quite brave, and I am proud that Al-Monitor has been able to be a forum for independent reporting on the region,” he said.

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