The Brown Moses blog, a basic looking site run on Google’s Blogger service, is currently receiving around 140,000 page views a month, up from 40,000 views since the beginning of the year, for its coverage on Syria and the phone hacking scandal.
A range of national and international media titles have featured Brown Moses, highlighting the information it discloses and analyses, as well as the intriguing story of its author Eliot Higgins, an unemployed finance worker based in Leicester who has become one of the go-to sources on Syrian weapons.
This year, Higgins set up an Indiegogo fundraiser so he could run the blog full-time for a six-month period. From that he raised £6,401. Additionally, he received a grant from the campaigning organisation Avaaz which is enabling him to publish translated versions of his posts in Arabic.
He says he is not collecting any more funds at the moment, although he intends to put a donation link on his blog at some point: “Currently, I’m working on getting more stable streams of income, such as regular advertising from organisations more specifically related to the work I do, rather than relying on the randomness of Google Adsense, and trying to get the occasional regular writing job“.
He has achieved his first goal: the launch of the Arabic version of the blog. Additionally, he has filtered off his ‘Hackgate’ coverage on the phone hacking scandal and related Metropolitan police investigations as he “felt it was getting lost in all the post I was making on Syria“.
Other plans include producing videos using footage from Syria and developing a project entitled “Public Eye Journalism”.
Where did Higgins’ journalistic interests and ideas develop? In regards to the media industry and police coverage, he says that he’s “always had a interest in the media, and how it operates.
“I had just read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies when the phone hacking story really began to get picked up, so really the timing was ideal,” he says.
“I started to blog in part to write about stuff that wasn’t being covered elsewhere, and just as I began the blog thousands of emails were leaked from NDS UK Ltd [coverage here], and I started going through them with members of a forum I frequented, and started putting the interesting information on the blog. My regular contributor [on Hackgate] got on board just as my work on Syria was really starting to take over, and they started to produce some really excellent and informative work, so that really helped keep the phone hacking side of things going“.
The Syrian content developed out of the Arab Spring, he says: “I had always had an interest in current events and global politics […] there was such a vast amount of information coming from social media, but there was such a mass of information not many people were trying to make sense of it, and filter out the quality information from the rubbish, so part of the reason I started the blog was to try to make sense of it all“.
The content has changed over time, with his audience:
“Many of my earlier posts were about the activities of NDS UK Ltd, currently in the news again, and that attracted a lot of interest from journalists and others interested in that aspect of the Hackgate scandal, so I started building up a following on that side of things quite early on.
“With Syria I had already been Tweeting about Libya for quite a while, so I already had a small following, but once I started my blog I was very fortunate to have respected journalists like CJ Chivers supporting the work I was doing.”
It was the endorsement of respected media outlets and journalists which helped increase his profile: “I knew I had a lot of readers who were journalists, or working for various governments and NGOs, but it wasn’t really until the Guardian interview in March off the back of my work on Croatian weapons smuggled to Syria with the New York Times that things began to escalate rapidly.
“I think that interview let a lot of the people I mentioned before, who had been reading my blog for a long time, know I wasn’t some weirdo in a basement, and then I started getting lots of media requests and contacts from various organisations. That led to me having the fundraiser for the blog, and being able to turn the blog into a full time job rather than just my hobby … My audience has expanded rapidly thanks to all the coverage“.
It will be interesting to watch the project’s development and assess its potential, as well as limitations, as a model for independent, online-based investigative and public interest journalism. In the comments under Higgins’ profile in the Guardian, someone commented: “Shouldn’t someone like the BBC, Channel 4 or the Guardian be employing this person immediately? He’s putting other journalists to shame…”