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Profiles: Untold stories of South Caucasus under Chai Khana’s loop

Taking a creative, human-centric approach to story-telling in the region

[Editor’s note: Our new series “Profiles” looks at media trying to (re)define what it means to be a media outlet in 2021 how to build a better, more sustainable organization or make a more meaningful contribution to your community].

Chai Khana has an ambitious mission of human-centered storytelling and reporting from conflict zones in the South Caucasus. With a healthy dose of creativity, Chai Khana (which means “tea house”, a place to socialize and exchange ideas), is able to connect people across the region’s deeply fractured societies.

Chai Khana’s executive director Lika Antadze shares the story of a multimedia platform, which managed to connect writers, filmmakers and photographers to shine a spotlight on the people living in the region.

Lika Antadze. Photo courtesy of Chai Khana

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Can you explain Chai Khana and its mission in a nutshell?

Chai Khana is a digital multi-media platform that gives voice to independent media professionals in the South Caucasus. The platform was launched in 2015. It started with a small circle of local contributors – journalists, photographers and documentary filmmakers.

We operate in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and conflict affected zones: Nagorno- Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

How many contributors do you have? How do you operate your network?

We have been working with more than 200 freelancers from the region. Some are regular contributors who pitch their ideas. Others approach us through open calls. 

Working in many languages is a challenge. Therefore, our team consists of not only a network of authors, but also translators, editors and copy-editors. Communication within smaller teams working on different projects is handled by production managers. 

 Kazbegi, Georgia / Photo by Iman Gozal on Unsplash

What does your audience look like? 

Chai Khana publishes in five languages: Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, Russian and English. Because of this multilingual publishing, we have an audience from outside the Caucasus region as well as inside.

Our audience consists of those who, first of all, have access to the internet. Those are mainly people living in bigger cities, as internet connection in mountainous regions (e.g. in Georgia) is limited. Therefore, folks from rural areas are less likely to scroll Chai Khana’s website. Our main age group is people from 20 to 35. But we occasionally have spikes in the 50+ age group, who come from Facebook. 

We have on average 25000-30000 users per month on our website. The US, UK and Russia are among the top five countries. We also have accounts on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Telegram. Engagement varies on those platforms, mainly depending on topics. 

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What about audience interests? Have you noticed any differences between the audiences in three Caucasus countries and those abroad? 

It depends on the context. Last year in September, when the Nagorno-Karabakh war started, the Armenian and Azerbaijiani audience were engaging on war-related topics, while the Georgian audience was more passive. 

Generally speaking conflict is one of the main topics that gets views and shares. It resonates with our audience, whether it’s about Armenians and Azerbaijanis, or Georgians and Abkhazians. Articles on the realities of the pandemic were also well-received by our readers. The same goes for stories on women’s rights. This all proves that in this region we do have more in common than we think. 

Monastery Valley in Armenia / Photo by Ivars Utināns on Unsplash

When comparing engagement and audiences in three countries, there is always more engagement from Georgia and Armenia, while the audience from Azerbaijan is not engaging much. This is the overall trend in Azerbaijan – people might follow pages, but do not like the content or comment. 

The engagement of the audience also depends on the platform. YouTube is more popular in Georgia. Instagram is more popular in Azerbaijan. Telegram became popular in Azerbaijan, while Georgians do not use it.

How do you decide which topics need to be covered?

Since the start of the pandemic, we have been more or less following the events. We had to shift our topics as it was almost impossible to cover what we had planned. We started covering the pandemic from a human perspective: for example, how the elderly and young people were affected. 

With the beginning of the pandemic, it was difficult to adjust. But then the war in Nagorno- Karabakh started, and we had to change our plans one more time.

We brainstorm ideas within the team. Relevance of the topic is an important criteria, but the visual side of the story also matters. Chai Khana has a big visual component, so we always discuss whether the story can be visually interesting. 

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Did the media manage to connect people from across the region? 

I think yes. We occasionally receive feedback like this coming from our audience. Not only are we trying to connect our audience in the region, but our contributors as well. We can easily see documentary filmmakers from Armenia network with their colleagues from Georgia and Azerbaijan through our platform. This is an example of connecting people.

How do you manage to work across both Armenia and Azerbaijan? How has the war impacted your work in these regions?

Working during the war was very difficult. In both countries, every other topic became irrelevant almost instantly. It was difficult to adjust: as we are not a news outlet, we had no capacity to cover breaking stories from the frontline. We did not have a war correspondent, and we could not guarantee the safety of our authors. 

After a while we decided to concentrate on the human stories about those affected by the conflict, not on frontline news. This way we managed to find a different narrative about the war.

We created constructive narratives, which did not concentrate on “who won and who lost the war”. We all know there is no winner.

How do you ensure the safety of your staff? What about the heroes of your stories?

We have not faced any serious security issues so far. No serious interrogations or physical threats. Our contributors are really brave. But there is a difference between just feeling safe and understanding and evaluating threats. We always try to assess the risks connected with the stories. And this is not only about physical threats, this is also about hate speech and digital threats. 

Sometimes, when the story is really controversial, we consider publishing it anonymously. We might also consider publishing the story first in English language and then only in its native language. This helps to evaluate the initial response, as the language also serves as a filter. 

Nothing serious has happened so far, but discussions on safety are ongoing. 

Visual from the recent Chai Khana project Digital Footprint / Photo by Emin Mathers

What are the challenges for women-led media in male-dominated society?

The core team works in the office, so we do not experience any prejudices there. However, our freelancers often experience a range of reactions from local people, especially this concerns women with cameras. 

What is your business model? How do you see the future in terms of finding a sustainable operating model?

We are a donor-funded media, however we are thinking of different ways to get other revenue streams. For now, donations that we get are not enough to sustain us, as there is still no culture for paying for online media in the region. 

We do not have native ads, as we would rather monetize from people who read us, than get money from companies. We had an idea of an online photography shop and an agency that would connect our authors to other outlets to sell their photos and monetize that. Furthermore, we launched a donations page on our website.

There is no concrete model that we are working on, but we definitely want to have it.

What is the best part of working in Chai Khana? 

This question has to go to the rest of the team and the freelancers. For me, as Chai Khana’s executive director, it is about diversity. I know this is a buzzword now, but it is fascinating for me to go beyond my local content and find links to other realities. Even the possibility of approaching my team and asking “this is what is going on in Georgia, how is the situation in Armenia or in Azerbaijan?” means a lot to me.

Shushi, Artsakh / Photo by Sarin Aventisian on Unsplash

What I see as a benefit for our contributors is the openness of our work. They can cover the topics they want and in a way they want.

Photo by Levon Vardanyan on Unsplash

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