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Q&A | Jahanshah Javid: From Iranian.com to Iroon.com

by ARASH KARAMI

28 Aug 2012 23:15Comments
248086_10151023044291885_1094872323_n.jpg"The vast majority of the population inside and outside Iran are becoming more and more frustrated. And what we see online is a reflection of that."

[ interview ] After 17 years running Iranian.com, Jahanshah Javid, the website's founding publisher and editor, is leaving to start a new project. I emailed him some questions, which he answered while traveling through Latin America.

***

When and why did you start Iranian.com?

It was in July of 1995. I had thought about launching a print magazine for Iranian Americans in English. There was no medium that appealed to the growing number of English-speaking emigrants. But there were practical problems. It would cost a small fortune to print a quality magazine and maintain a staff. And who was going to buy it? Very few bought or subscribed to Iranian newspapers and magazines even if they could find them in local outlets. The Internet was very young and untested but it had enormous potential for reaching a worldwide audience at a fraction of the cost of conventional media. So I hooked up with my cousin Karim Ardalan, who had just started an Internet development company, and launched The Iranian, a bimonthly online magazine. I would gather and prepare the articles, and my cousin would post them online. The Internet gave the power to publish practically anything and everything without state control. With all the problems with censorship in Iran, it was a tremendous opportunity to exercise freedom of speech.

Can you briefly take us through the evolution of the first edition to what it is today?

For the first year or so, new content was published every two months. That's how long it took to find, write, and publish new articles. Eventually as viewership grew and more people submitted articles, it became easier to gather and post content. The site became a monthly and soon later, around 1997, it was updated every day. But the updates were all done manually by myself and people could not express themselves directly. Finally in 2007 I teamed up with a group of private investors in northern California and Iranian.com was transformed into an interactive site.

It is difficult for me to measure and understand Iranian.com's impact in these 17 years. I have been involved too deeply in its day-to-day operation to be able to give an objective assessment. That's for others to judge and make sense of its huge archive of hundreds of thousands of pages -- the largest of any Iranian site. But one thing I am sure of: Iranian.com has been the freest, most diverse and progressive forum in the history of Iranian media. Its motto "Nothing is sacred" meant anyone could publish virtually any opinion, story, photo... without fear of state or religious persecution. That was a first for Iranians.

You studied journalism and media in the 1990s. The profession has obviously evolved drastically and is continuing to change today. What role do you think your education played in how you approach your work?

I started my journalism career as a translator for the Islamic Republic News Agency in Tehran. I had just turned 19. I had no skills and or understanding of news and media, except that as a young supporter of the revolution I felt an obligation to promote it. That changed when I was sent to London to attend a summer journalism course at City University. The teachers were all experienced journalists and what I learned was that facts and freedom of expression were most important for a healthy society. I thought that healthy society could be the Islamic Republic where a free press and critical opinion could allow everyone to participate and improve society together. But the government became more and more repressive and my belief in a utopian religious society eroded.

In 1990, I left Iran and began studying journalism and communication at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and later Hunter College in New York where I received my B.A. in media studies in 1995. I enjoyed my classes and professors enormously. They helped me understand what was wrong in Iran and why free speech is so important in maintaining open societies. I am glad to see the children of many Iranian emigrants have chosen to study media -- something their parents would never do in Iran where practicing real journalism is fraught with danger. Even today, most Iranians don't see journalism as a skill. They think anyone can do it. Comedian Hadi Khorsandi said it best: They asked an Iranian why he closed his pizza parlor and started a TV station and he replied that making pizza required skill!

How does Iranian.com work operationally and managerially as far as producing content is concerned? How are editors, bloggers, staff structured, and with so much content is it possible to fact-check everything and make sure due diligence is done before everything is published?

I have been the only editor/publisher since the beginning. In recent years I have had volunteer help to moderate the news section and comments. We make sure that no one breaks the law as far as slander is concerned, and we do not allow profanity in the comments. Other than that anyone can post or submit whatever they like. It is impossible for us to check who is telling the truth or what is the real identity of anonymous writers who make wild claims or outrageous comments. That has caused some instances of abuse but as a whole the freedom to post freely has encouraged Iranians to set aside their fears and allowed them to express themselves in ways they could never imagine before.

On social media and different media sites, one would get the impression that the Iranian community is deeply divided. Do you feel that only a niche group is compelled to express their opinion on comments sections and that perhaps they're not reflective of the community as a whole?

The Iranian community is polarized but not really divided. Because of the extremely unnatural situation in Iran where the government represents only a small minority of religious zealots, the vast majority of the population inside and outside Iran are becoming more and more frustrated. And what we see online is a reflection of that. There's a lot of anger and it's getting worse as the regime gets more and more isolated and militaristic. We will not be able to escape its nasty effects online.

Do you feel that comments sections contribute to constructive dialogue and better understanding or does it serve as a platform for the various groups to diverge even further while attacking one another with anonymous profiles?

The comments section is not where you'd often find civilized discussion especially when the topic is about politics or religion, but it's still better than no discussion at all. I think there are better ways of managing comments and one of them is by allowing each user to moderate comments under his/her own posts and even block users. Just like in Facebook.

Why do you believe Iranian.com has been able to economically sustain for so long? Is it the business model, user participation, content?

It has survived economically because I have been the only person who got paid. And got paid very little. Except for the cost of the server, we haven't had any other significant expenses. So it's been very cheap to maintain. But survival alone is not enough. In order for Iranian.com to grow and stay updated with the latest technology trends it needs to make more money. Owners, shareholders, expect a return on their investment as well.

After 17 years, why are you leaving Iranian.com?

I sold my shares because Iranian.com is being redesigned to make it more user-driven and much less reliant on an editor or moderators. Basically once the new design is implemented, I would have no role in the publishing operation. So it's the best time to move on and start something new and somewhat different.

What's next?

Iroon.com! Unlike Iranian.com which in many ways has been focused on freedom of expression, Iroon.com will measure Iranian moods and views in some interesting, unconventional ways. For instance we will have a mood meter on the top bar which will register the collective happiness or unhappiness of users on a daily basis. The site can be accessed in Persian or English mode and will include some basic social networking functions. Users will be able to blog and post surveys, links, videos, music and photos.

I hope Iroon.com will be up and running by the end of August.

On a personal note, you've been traveling through South America and have compiled an amazing portfolio of travel photography. Most Iranians I know are primarily concerned with the day-to-day happenings inside Iran and are not necessarily interested in other countries inside the region, let alone on a different continent. So why South America now and what has this experience meant for you both personally and professionally?

I spend half my days, seven days a week, following Iran and Iranian-related things online. The other half I try to dedicate to enjoying life through traveling. I've been very lucky to have had a job, which I love, that allows me to work anywhere there's wifi. I've been traveling for almost four years. I spent the first three years mostly in Mexico and Europe, as well as a road-trip across the U.S. And for the past 10 months I've been moving around South America: Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and now Peru. It's such an amazing part of the world, full of breathtaking natural wonders and rich, warm cultures. Forget Europe. Discover Latin America!

Travel is the best thing I've ever done. You learn so much about yourself and others. You realize Iran could be a much better place.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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