By: Seth Porges
Former Associated Press and New York Daily News reporter Chris Allbritton wanted to be a foreign correspondent. More specifically, after having spent about eight days in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2002, he wanted to go back to cover the war and issues affecting the Kurds. But as a journalist who had spent most of his time covering technology, he quickly found that foreign affairs journalism is an exclusive field that is very difficult to break into.
“I was having a real tough time getting anyone to give me the time of day,” said Allbritton, who currently lives in New York. Becoming an embedded reporter was out of the question, and if he chose to tough it out on his own he faced the obstacle of a closed Iraqi border [not to mention the lack of limitless bribe money].
But Iraq was calling to him. After coming across the Web site of a woman who had successfully used her Web log (blog) to beg for money to pay off her credit card debt, Allbritton was inspired.
“If she could do it, I could do it for a much more worthwhile cause,” Allbritton said. “That’s when the idea kind of sprang forward: Raise some money to go cover the war. I just knew there was gonna be a war … I knew I really wanted to be in the middle of that. It just seemed like the thing to do.”
So Allbritton polished up his site, Back-To-Iraq.com, and put out a desperate plea for money to finance his voyage, smuggle himself into Iraq, and cover the war independently on his blog. By doing this, he hoped to reveal aspects of the country and conflict that were ignored by the mainstream press.
The response was heartening and donations soon flooded in. Once Allbritton had raised $10,000, he decided he was ready to go. To date, almost $15,000 has come in from donations as large as several thousand dollars.
“I would have liked to go freelance with some backing of a major media organization,” Allbritton said. “But as the money came in I realized I didn’t need it. I had my readership. I had my outlet. I had my resources. It really took on a life of its own.”
Using a laptop and portable satellite phone, Allbritton was able to upload to his blog in even the most remote settings. Traffic peaked at 23,000 unique visitors a day in late March, he said.
On March 26, Allbritton flew to Turkey where he met up with “John,” an ex-Marine who also wanted to travel to Iraq. Together, they found smugglers who agreed to take them across the border for several thousand dollars.
The journey across the Turkish border into Iraq consumes the most gripping entries in Allbritton’s blog. At times reading like an airplane novel, Allbritton describes his sleepless “death march” through the mountains, avoiding guards and battling fatigue and hallucinations.
“Near the top, I gave out. I couldn’t make it and begged ?imli [part of Allbritton’s entourage] to leave me, shoot me or something,” Allbritton wrote April 5 entry in his blog. “It was not one of my finer moments. This was the one time I was glad he didn’t speak English.”
From the northern border with Turkey, Allbritton traveled south, eventually reaching Baghdad shortly after coalition troops occupied the city. There, he described a capital in chaos.
The northern territories of Iraq, which were primarily in Kurdish control, were extremely friendly to Americans, Allbritton said. The reverence for American troops that the Kurds exhibited was in sharp contrast to the reception from most Iraqis, including those in Baghdad.
“The occupation is not making many friends among the Iraqis, however,” Allbritton wrote presciently in his blog after arriving in Baghdad on April 18. “In marked contrast to the welcome and friendliness we always receive in the north and in Kirkuk, the looks here are guarded and even cold. We smile and wave at people in the cars next to us when the traffic grinds to a halt, but our fellow drivers look at us and don’t smile back.”
Allbritton said he was in Iraq from April 2 until April 23.
His coverage of the war was very different than that of traditional embedded journalists. His blog spends ample time musing on the future of Iraq and his observations on the transitional society he sees around him. Further, Allbritton uses his intense personal interest in the plight of the Kurds to discuss their ordeal in great detail — an issue he feels the mainstream press is uninterested in and often ignores.
“The Kurds were our best allies,” Allbritton said. “They had 70,000 troops [in the American-led coalition], the Brits had 30 or 40,000.”
Allbritton faults the “absolutely awful” war coverage by television outlets, but feels that newspapers, particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post, did an admirable job of covering the war. Allbritton also insists coverage such as his, which he believes benefited from its independence from the influence of editors and corporate-owned newspapers, should not be a substitute for more established media outlets.
“I feel that this type of microjournalism, or guerrilla journalism, should really be an addition to your media diet,” Allbritton said. “Maybe the vitamins or the garnish rather than some kind of replacement for The New York Times. No one has a monopoly on the truth. It’s usually better for readers or the public to go to several different sources and try to get as much of the mosaic of the truth as possible. I was part of that. I felt it was important to have someone in there without adding any kind of filter.”
Allbritton says he utilized his close contact with his readers to create a more interactive style of journalism: “My readers e-mailed me and asked me to investigate stories. They would suggest story ideas. I didn’t have one editor to answer to, I had thousands. And that was a new way of doing journalism.”
Although Allbritton does not actively pursue donations anymore, money still trickles in through his blog, which he continues to update. As for the future, Allbritton hopes to devote his time to writing books. “The money in blogging sucks,” Allbritton said. “It’s hard to make a career at it.”