A brochure left on her desk by her father changed the direction of Heba Aly’s life.
Born to Egyptian parents in Canada, Aly’s heart had two passions: journalism and human rights.
The brochure was for an internship in Senegal, writing for a United Nations-founded publication that covered international efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, originally to Rwanda following the genocide there in 1995. Aly is now the CEO of The New Humanitarian, formerly called IRIN, and remains as passionately committed to providing mission-based coverage of international crises.
“We began as an information coordination product under the helm of the UN. We’ve evolved to become the bona fide newsroom we are today, moving toward a more journalistic approach, growing offices around the world from an East Africa focus and incorporating more storytelling,” she says. “The mission of informing how the world responds to crises has remained.”
As a general reporter with the CBC in Canada, she was never able to dive too deeply into a story or an issue, but that kind of reporting is at the core of The New Humanitarian.
“We have a depth of knowledge that allows our journalism, we hope, to be much richer and ring much more true because we follow it day in and day out,” Aly says. “We know what matters, we know the community that follows it.”
But what really sets her newsroom apart is that it is a nonprofit and writers are not unduly influenced by advertisers.
“We’re driven by a mission, not profit,” she says. “We’re free from the pressure of getting eyeballs for the sake of it. We face pressure from donors in the way advertisers will put pressure on the way you do your job, but we have fared much better in the current environment compared to commercial outlets because we have a loyal audience that cares deeply about what we do.”
Aly said she believes this model will continue to gain strength and support going forward and that, in no small way, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to underscore this.
“Our audience tripled during the pandemic because people yearned for information about the humanitarian crisis. That’s not just the international policy makers that usually dominate our audience but even people in countries,” she says. “In Tanzania, we did a piece on how the true toll of the virus was being hidden. That was shared widely across the country because people were looking for information they could trust and they couldn’t trust the government. I think, on a global level, there’s a renewed recognition of this kind of work.”
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell is joined by Heba Aly, CEO of The New Humanitarian, an independent nonprofit newsroom covering humanitarian crises. She discusses how her publication handled the COVID-19 pandemic and why her newsroom might be a model for other outlets as advertising dollars shrink.