June 22, 2020

This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organizations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. 

In a nutshell: By centering the accounts of refugees and reporting on Greece’s migrant and worker communities via WhatsApp, Solomon counteracted the idea that the pandemic has been a great equalizer.

If there’s a perception that COVID-19 is a great equalizer because the virus can infect any person at any time, that perception is not borne out in the refugee camps of Greece.

Life is already hard in Malakasa on the Greek mainland and Moria on Lesvos island; a pandemic doesn’t make it any easier. Solomon — a nonprofit media collective founded in 2016 — saw that for itself as it reported on the effect of the coronavirus on the country’s migrant and refugee communities.

To get some insight into the challenges, the team used WhatsApp and its network of sources in the camps to report remotely on the impact of the virus. It also launched a live archive of eyewitness testimonies to document how Greeks and foreigners were coping with the pandemic. Despite facing significant financial issues itself during the period, the bilingual magazine managed to give a unique look into the lives of society’s most forgotten in the time of COVID-19.

What is Solomon?

Founded in Athens in 2016, Solomon is a Greek nonprofit media collective that uses media for social inclusion and aims to promote independent media in the country.

It has three main activities: LAB (free practical storytelling workshops for refugees, migrants and locals), MAG (a monthly digital publication focusing on Greek policy and society) and CUE (paid-for client services including photography, filmmaking and fixing).

Founded at the height of Greece’s refugee crisis, the organization was created after two friends — Fanis Kollias, from Greece, and Nadir Noori, an Afghan — decided to bring refugees and Greeks together to collaborate in publishing a magazine. The pair were joined by Nasruddin Nizami, another Afghan friend, a year later. The name Solomon is taken from the main character of The Elephant’s Journey, a book by Portuguese author Jose Saramago about an elephant who walks across Europe.

Solomon is currently funded by the Open Society Foundations and through revenue from CUE, its paid-for client services. In February 2020, Solomon also launched a membership program offering packages of €3 per month, €6 per month or €10 per month. At the moment there are no differences in membership tiers.

Due to the pandemic, there has been little opportunity to properly promote the scheme and there are only a few paying members so far.

MAG — its online magazine — has no paywall and all content is free to access. Up until February, it published one to two pieces each week on migration and refugee issues, including human rights violations and labor law abuses in Greece. It receives on average 4,500 unique readers a month.

Its most recent project — called “Last in Line” — seeks to tell the story of young male refugees, who suffer from mental health issues in large numbers but receive little support. However, Solomon recently had to let go of five or six freelancers and staff due to funding issues and now have three staff members and one volunteer translator.

The magazine aims to serve audiences within the humanitarian sector, including people working for nonprofit organizations, legal firms specializing in migration and researchers working on social inclusion and refugees. It is the only independent media in Greece that publishes original content both in Greek and English. The website is widely read and receives visitors from Greece, the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as Turkey, Belgium, Cyprus and Switzerland.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020, the Greek media market is characterized by online fragmentation, a changing and polarized broadcast marketplace and a print sector in crisis.

Social media is one of the most common ways that Greeks get their news. This year, for the first time, smartphones exceeded computers as the main way that people access news.

Media trust is low across the board with fewer than a third of Greeks trusting the news they consume. Few outlets are seen as independent from political or business influence and this poses a threat to press freedom in the country.

How did Solomon handle the COVID-19 crisis?

When the pandemic hit Greece, the organization decided to close its office in Athens and have people work from home. They collaborated by working on WhatsApp, Google Chat, Gmail and Google Hangouts.

Because of the precarious financial situation, they were in even before the crisis, they also had to let go a number of freelancers who regularly contributed to the magazine. Client commissions also dried up as advertising budgets shrunk. This was a difficult time for staff but it helped the organization slow down and reflect on what its next steps should be.

The team wanted to develop a shared understanding of the coronavirus in Greece and came up with “A Story We Shared”, a multimedia storytelling project about readers’ experiences of the pandemic. This was an attempt to create a freely available, live archive of eyewitness testimonies, made up of written accounts and audio recordings. The team reached out to contacts and partners asking them to participate and received 40 responses; about half of them were posted via the website with the rest sent in via email and Facebook. Many of them were diary entries about life under COVID-19 although some people sent poems along with videos and pictures. Most of the contributions were from women in Greece, although several were sent in from Germany and Italy.

Despite Solomon’s strong existing connections to refugees and migrants in Greece, some did not want to take part in the “A Story We Shared” project when approached; they would reply to the team and say ‘I’m sorry, I want to help but I don’t have the energy to do this’. With years of experience interviewing people in these camps, this was the first time they encountered this.

Solomon believes COVID-19 took an extra toll on these vulnerable groups living in unhygienic conditions with limited access to clean water. There’s a perception that the pandemic was an equalizer because the disease could infect any person. However, self-isolating in a tent in a refugee camp understandably proved to be emotionally draining for these people.

The Solomon team focused its reporting on topics linked to the precarious conditions that COVID-19 created for certain vulnerable groups in society. They started covering the stories of society’s most at-risk communities, including homeless people and manual workers. For instance, they wrote about the terrible living conditions of agriculture workers, while another article looked at what life is like for asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors. Another piece looked at the Greek government’s eternal denial of allegedly illegal deportations. Some of these articles were translated into Greek while others were recorded into English so they could be listened to.

Solomon was very careful not to spread COVID-19 when reporting on these vulnerable communities. For example, when researching the cramped living conditions of agriculture workers in Manolada — a region in the western Peloponnese region of Greece where 90% of the country’s strawberries grow — the team knew it would not be wise to travel there. Instead they reported on the story remotely using WhatsApp voice messages for workers who spoke Greek and WhatsApp text messages for those who spoke English.

To illustrate the piece, laborers took photos and sent them to the team via WhatsApp. It helped the reporting process that Solomon’s MAG team had covered Manolada for two years and were trusted by the workers.

The team also used existing networks of sources when reporting on the effect of COVID-19 on Greek refugee camps. They interviewed migrants in two camps — the Malakasa camp in the mainland and Moria camp in Lesvos island in the Aegean Sea — and asked these sources to introduce them to more people living in the camps. This allowed the team to collect a wide range of testimonies and photos which will be used in an upcoming long-form piece about the spike in asylum seekers moving from the Greek islands to the mainland during the last three months.

The team also makes a habit of involving interviewees in the editorial process by getting their opinion on stories before publishing them. It isn’t unusual for people featured in Solomon’s stories to drop by the office to say hello to the team.

During the pandemic, Solomon took the opportunity to redesign its MAG website to be mobile responsive. It also introduced a pop-up window that explains the new membership scheme and encourages people to sign up for its free newsletter. The new site is much easier to navigate, as shown by digital analytics: pageviews tripled in March and April (an all-time high). Unique visitors dropped slightly in that period, which the team put down to publishing a fewer number of articles on the site.

One example of the impact of Solomon’s stories during COVID-19 is a Last in Line first-person piece by Keita, a promising footballer who sought to live in France. In it, he explains how he ended up working in a factory in an eastern Mediterranean country before arriving in Greece. Eventually he decided to study to become a translator.

A day after the story was published, Keita received a call from an official at the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum, who said they wanted to meet him because they read the interview and were interested in his story.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Solomon?

When the pandemic hit, Solomon was already concerned about revenue and lost further streams of funding. The team took the opportunity to reconfigure its operations, diversify its revenue and apply for future funding elsewhere; for example, it has applied for a grant to examine the financial impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations in Greece and to understand its effect on migrants’ work and living conditions. To save on costs, the organization plans to have local university students in Athens help out with MAG’s production.

Solomon has enough funds from the Open Society Foundations to maintain its work until January 2021 but will attempt to increase the revenue from membership in the next six months. The team believes there is an opportunity to gain support from international audiences, especially those working in the nonprofit sector supporting migrants and refugees.

A limiting factor is that Greek consumers are not familiar with paying for news content and there are only a few online outlets in the country offering member programs. This limits its ability to target local and national audiences.

The funding of the Last in Line project from the Open Society Foundations ends in February 2021. Although the project has been made difficult by the pandemic, it has already been impactful and so the team will try to secure funding from various foundations to continue it.

Readers have also responded positively, particularly about the portraits, saying they humanize the people behind the numbers.

What did they learn?

Iliana Papanegeli (Courtesy: Solomon)

“Staying close to the community has never been more important. We learned that the pandemic is not a common experience for everyone and that showed particularly from the difficulties we faced in our communication with certain parts of our community. Members of our community can be found in places from where information is difficult to be gained: refugee camps and workplaces across the country. We also learned how to cover marginalized communities during a pandemic with limited resources. Although we are facing severe financial difficulties, the initiatives taken around COVID-19 helped us build new skills, contacts and networks. We learned that the participation of our community is similarly significant for the coverage of the unseen aspects of the unprecedented times that we experience.”

– Iliana Papanegeli, project manager, Solomon

Additional reading

This case study was produced with support from Evens Foundation. It was originally published by the European Journalism Centre on Medium and is published here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Poynter Institute is also the fiscal sponsor of the Verification Handbook.

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