Sarah, a 23-year-old Iranian woman thought selling a kidney was the last chance to save her mother, a cancer patient. She didn’t have to go far to do that. In countries like Iran, where many people live below the poverty line, organ trafficking has moved from the dark net to social networks, like Instagram.

But there was something unusual about Sarah, though. She was a fictional character created by Iranian journalists in exile to uncover a new trafficking route.

The story was revealed in a joint publication of Danish investigative media outlet Danwatch, Danish news media Zetland and Zamaneh Media, an Iranian media in exile.

Screenshot of the joint publication by Danwatch, Zetland and Zamaneh Media

The investigation was a pilot produced as part of a new European networking project called “Media Bridge.” The project aims to build an interactive digital product – an online system connecting newsrooms all over the world for joint production and distribution of stories in a variety of genres.

The project was founded by International Media Support (IMS), Danwatch (a Dansih investigative team covering the editorial side), and a tech company called IndieFrame (on the product side). Project development was funded by the Google Digital News Initiative Fund and will be fully launched in January 2021.

Different media communities have used international networks in their reporting for decades now. This is particularly the case with massive cross-country investigations, with hundreds of media participants and high stakes across the world (see the recent FinCEN Files investigations by BuzzFeed and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for a great example).

But this misses many local stories with less obvious international ties that end up remaining local, leaving inequality, regional corruption and lack of justice to stay in the shadows of global politics and money laundering. This is the problem Media Bridge is aiming to solve.

The focus of Media Bridge, however, is not just investigations. “It can be pretty much anything – even a photostory,” says Gohar Khodjayan, a media expert and Media Bridge coordinator.

Since beta-testing started in September, the project already has 5 regional and 3 European partners working on joint stories. France’s Libération is one of them – their story on COVID-19 developments in collaboration with ARIJ, an arab investigative journalism NGO, is already in the pipeline, waiting to be published.

The platform can help journalist teams find a subcontractor for a piece of work or a fixer – much like Berlin-based NGO Hostwriter. But it focuses on deeper, organizational cooperation, with its primary goal being to foster partnerships between European newsrooms and those from other parts of the world (or at least on a regional level).

Screenshot of Media Bridge landing page (beta)

To get into the system a media or a journalist has to go through a verification process run by the project’s editorial committee, consisting of the project founders’ representatives, and regional expert coordinators.

“The coordinator’s role is to verify if the media is really independent and if they do what they say they do,” Gohar explains, adding that verification is an essential part of the process, helping the team ensure safety of the project contributors and their content.

After an entity is verified the newsroom will get access to an online bank of story pitches and will be able to join a partnership on an existing pitch, create its own, find subcontractors for stories in a country of interest or even buy or sell media materials as a one time deal.

As soon as the story pitch is selected by one of the partners it will be closed to other media from the same country to avoid competition (unless parties actively decide to be exempt and agree to work together).

The Media Bridge team is currently working on a financial solution enabling partners to cover each other’s reporting needs, pay honorariums or sell their materials safely through the same system. The system will take a 10-15% transfer fee – making commercial deals on the platform the basis for project sustainability.

As soon as a partnership is secured the Media Bridge team stops being involved. “We are like Tinder for media, that’s what we call it,” Gohar smiles and ensures the team is confident in putting full responsibility for the content quality on their verified partners.

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By the final launch the system will have photos and a footage verification function through metadata – as a helpful tool to kick-off the process, the team explains – but the final decision on what content to use will rest on each editor in the partnership.

The platform will also have video tutorials to help regional partners with the pitching process and will involve coordinators and editors to help with pitch drafts as well.

“We need to bring pitches of the regional partners to a higher level, so that European partners would buy in,” Gohar explains.

As soon as the platform is launched and more partners sign up the project team plans to create a few regional newsletters letting partners know if there are stories that could potentially interest them.

“There is a big marketing angle to the project work as well, as we don’t expect the partners to check the platform every day,” the coordinator adds.

By the final launch, the team plans to have at least 40-50 signed partners and encourages both local and European media to join. Meanwhile, participants will provide valuable input during the beta testing phase to make the platform as useful as possible.

Here are the contacts of project coordinations for partnership requests:

  • Gohar Khodjayan – (project manager)
  • Oleg Khomenok – (regional coordinator for Eastern Europe)
  • Jesper Hyhne Petersen – (project editor)
  • Henrik Grunnet – (project editor)