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Screen Shot 2013-04-20 at 20.27.47
COMMENTARY SATURDAY 20 APRIL 2013

AlertNet RIP? Pride and optimism

Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 18.22.51_2 STEVE SOMERVILLE

As founder of AlertNet, I am naturally sorry to learn of the planned disappearance of the name, after 15 years of respected service to the humanitarian community – and much positive publicity for Reuters and then Thomson Reuters [Foundation buries AlertNet brand]. No doubt there are corporate branding explanations for the change, but in my opinion AlertNet is its own unique brand.

Leaving that aside for the moment, there seem to me to be good reasons to be both proud of the past and optimistic about the future.

THE PAST

AlertNet has an enviable track record. Right from the start, we were encouraged by the success of the concept. The timing was good, soon after the Rwanda massacres, and the simplicity of the original objective – better information for the emergency relief community, thanks to Reuters – appealed to all the key players:

Internally, we had the inspirational backing of Reuters board member David Ure, who threw Reuters technical weight behind the project. MD Peter Job gave us his full support. Editorial helped us with staff secondments and cooperation around the world. We put together a small but brilliant project team, motivated by huge enthusiasm for doing something new and good.

International NGO relief organisations, and even various government departments, began to back us, despite some initial suspicions about Reuters’ motives for funding a “free” service. The ball started rolling slowly but rapidly gathered momentum. Our first 12-month target was 20 members. By the end of the year we already had 45. Soon it was over a hundred. Now it’s a community of 528 member organisations in 65 countries. And the website attracts nearly 12 million visitors a year.

The international media also welcomed our initiative. We promoted AlertNet at press launches in London, New York and Washington, generating a wealth of free publicity for Reuters. As Newsweek magazine commented, “Reuters’ AlertNet – at last a media venture that may actually save lives.”

Since those early days, I have followed with satisfaction and admiration the way our successors – managers and editors – have broadened the scope and influence of AlertNet, extending its range of coverage to the whole humanitarian spectrum – with a team of some 25 reporters. We had started with just two independent stringers, and even that was considered a rather daring innovation.

THE FUTURE

So, after all the achievement of the past 15 years, where does AlertNet stand in the Foundation’s plans? Unfortunately, conflicts and catastrophes still beset the world and cry out for more specialised and shared information, the AlertNet formula. With its established reputation for independence and impartiality, the service is clearly more valuable and necessary than ever, and should be maintained. Without its own name, though, and the hard earned respect associated with it, can its independent and distinctive identity be assured?

According to the current editor of AlertNet,
Tim Large, there is no question of terminating the service. Under the heading “AlertNet is Dead! Long live AlertNet!” he says the service is definitely not shutting up shop. He describes AlertNet as the world’s premier independent humanitarian news service and predicts that, although the name will be “dead and buried”, it will be “morphing into something bigger and – we hope – far better.”

Hear, hear! Let’s hope so.

But then, why drop the brand name?

How about “Trust AlertNet”? Or is that perhaps the plan?


Steve Somerville was director of Reuters Foundation from 1989 to 2000 when he set up journalism training programmes and launched AlertNet as a website for the disaster relief community. During a 40-year career with Reuters he was a correspondent, bureau chief, editor and manager. He is now chairman of The Reuter Society, the social club for former Reuters and Thomson Reuters colleagues.
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