Where Does Citizen Media Go From Here? An Interview with Turi Munthe of Demotix

Demotix is a photo agency launched in 2009 through which citizen journalists can post and sell their breaking news content to the international mainstream media. The name comes from the Greek word “demos” which means “the people.”

The company has developed a record of success in providing news coverage which the mainstream media cannot reach. Photographs from some of these events are included in this article. 

Demotix was recently acquired by Corbis Images, a sale which perhaps could be seen as a recognition of the importance of citizen media's role within mainstream journalism.

I spoke with Turi Munthe in London, the founder and former CEO of Demotix (he has recently left the company). I asked Turi about the ideas behind Demotix and on what basis it was founded, as well as for his opinion on how the landscape of citizen media has changed in the last few years. 

The following is an edited version of the transcript of our interview. All images are, of course, courtesy of Demotix.

- Laura Morris, Rising Voices blog editor 


TURI MUNTHE: I had the idea in late 2007 for Demotix, and I was essentially trying to put together two different problems, and solve them by association.

One problem was the hemorrhaging of resources within in mainstream media, which meant there were fewer and fewer reporters, photojournalists, and videographers working for the big organizations anywhere… on a domestic level as well as international. There was a time when, for example, The Nahar in Lebanon had not just a bureau in every other capital, but they had 20 regular bureaus around Lebanon. Today, they have nobody and they get their news from within Lebanon via AFP. But, it's the same thing as BBC – the BBC doesn't even have a full time staff in Latin America…  So, it's mass shrink in international reporting [and] the absence of national journalists everywhere…

Problem two is that, counter-intuitively, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall there has been a decrease in global freedom as measured by Freedom House. Those indices point to a decrease in freedom of speech…

The idea of Demotix: could you create a free speech platform which would allow people to tell stories that were not being reported, check them, verify them, do it in such a way to ensure your contributors were as safe as they possibly can be, and then ship that news through to mainstream media?

We had a business model on the principle that we needed to create a virtuous circle which would incentivize more people to get involved in the whole business of journalism…

[2007, the beginning of Demotix] was in a sense an interesting cultural period, where we all still believed in 2.0, and that mass groups of people do really interesting stuff online. But it turns out that wasn't true. What we realised, and what everyone ended up realising, was that there is a very small percentage of people anywhere, in any space, virtual, practical, real or not, that actually do anything. Poking and updating one's Facebook status is one thing, and contributing to serious news is a completely different kettle of fish… [We realised] we were building a network of freelancers.

Because of our business model we were having to go harder and harder into images and video as it is verifiable and copyrightable, where text is not). Our approach was that it allowed us to get our stories into mainstream news and organisations through the back door…

A Demotix photographer captured the beginnings of the London riots, 2011 (Matthew Aslett)

A Demotix photographer captured the beginnings of the London riots, 2011 (Matthew Aslett)

What we've seen over the last few years is that the tools have changed. One of the things we realised was that for an enormous amount of the hyper-breaking, citizen witnessing of the kind that Demotix thought it might do at the beginning no longer needs to happen via a platform. [Now, news] doesn't need a contributor to Demotix to be reported because two of the biggest publishers of content in the world run essentially all content: Facebook and Twitter.

The key point here is that the biggest distributors are Facebook and Twitter, because everybody's on Facebook and Twitter. The community of people that is news-savvy and engaged, they're also on Twitter, and that is where they're posting most immediately.

[For example] what happens with Boston [marathon bombings], is that all the [photographic news content] doesn't go to Demotix, doesn't get sent to the BBC or the Boston Globe, but it just goes on Facebook and Twitter, where the news organisations will jump in and verify, parse, conjugate, put together, etcetera… but everybody goes to those sources for the news…

And what we're seeing is that tech has gotten considerably more sophisticated in surfacing these news events. If suddenly you find there is an enormous number of tweets coming out of Central Boston, those tracking devices which are looking at Twitter will be able say that there’s a news event happening here… just because there are so many people posting.

So in a sense, all that breaking news stuff – as the world gets more and more online and as the spread of mobile camera technology continues – that is being covered. So the question at this point in terms of citizen media is: where are are the real gaps? And how do you fill them?…

[The problem] is that the availability of this kind of content [social media images and tweets] exacerbates the the original problem… the most interesting news is usually that which you cannot capture in a crowd-sourced, everybody-and-their cellphone kind of way… Every so often this can tell an extraordinarily powerful story, but those occasions are very very few and far between – the capture of Gaddafi, for example, was an absolutely seminal movement which was captured by cellphone, and it’s an extraordinary important document. But, more sophisticated news happens elsewhere, and, that's what I'm most excited about what citizen media can achieve, and has to look towards. [This means] using the tech at its disposal, whether it’s google docs for crowd-powered collaborative journalism, or Yammer in terms of building communities with key verticals so people can do investigative journalism in groups.. and the Kickstarters and the funding processes and everything else.

Demotix was one of the first at the scene at the contentious arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr in 2009 - a prominent researcher at Harvard University's Institute for African and African-American Research (Bill Carter)

Demotix was one of the first at the scene at the contentious arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr in 2009 – a prominent researcher at Harvard University's Institute for African and African-American Research (Bill Carter)

…The big holes [in journalism] are the ones you cannot address with citizen media.  And those are investigative journalism in all forms… We need to move away from what Demotix originally thought was going to be the problem because the tech has changed so radically, and the modes of distribution have changed so radically… Its not simply covering that there was a protest in Mogadishu, its why was that protest there, who are these people, how does it work, what are the key causes… And there, the advantage of being in groups is potentially enormous. Especially for collaborative investigative journalism.


RV: So, what do we need to look at now, in order to get to the next step with citizen journalism?

TM: … An enormous amount of [raw] content is now being produced by everybody… The key point now is figuring out how to tell the story.

Syria is the classic example, and a heartbreaking example. There are an obscene number of citizen journalists who have sacrificed their lives to tell the story in Syria, unlike anywhere else, on a scale which is incomprehensible. And, for reasons which have nothing to do with them, the story has failed to be told [in mainstream, global media] in ways which are impactful… [information coming out of Syria is] not geographically linked: they simply sit on YouTube in ways that doesn't particularly make sense. There is a stream of atrocity, but it doesn't tell a story; it gives you no sense of what's happening. It's provided no real insight – not just for the newspapers but also the policy advisers and foreign governments.

It just hasn't fulfilled that role because they haven't told stories… it's narratives: chronological, thematic, that's the absolutely key function. That’s how you get noticed – that's how you make a story happen. There are very few bits of straight content: the snapshot, the YouTube video, that are going to do that and that becomes ever more the case, the more content is produced.

London, United Kingdom. 26th March 2011 -- photos of police in riot gear clashing with protesters at anti-cuts protest (Alex Milan Tracy)

London, United Kingdom. 26th March 2011 — photos of police in riot gear clashing with protesters at anti-cuts protest (Alex Milan Tracy)

RV: What has Demotix’ role been in this process of bringing citizen media stories forward?

TM: …Demotix has achieved a few things which I am enormously proud to be associated with. The role we played in Iran in 2009 was kind of extraordinary, because we were the extraordinarily lucky brokers of two dozen exceptionally brave Iranians on the streets of Tehran shipping their stories out through us, getting to first front page of the New York Times. That was extremely, extremely moving to be a part of.  We were very involved, obviously, in much of the Arab Revolutionary movements that have taken place in the last three years. We've continued to be involved, often when other news organisations were not there… I think we did serve a purpose.

I think that what Demotix absolutely has learned is that the story is what’s most important. When we've had an impact, it's where we've managed to slightly tweak the general narrative. That's the only place you can have an impact; its not a picture here, a picture there… It's in storytelling where you can have an impact.

Green Movement supporters in Tehran in 2009, rallying days before the election opposing Ahmanidejad (anonymousIran)

Green Movement supporters in Tehran in 2009, rallying days before the election opposing Ahmanidejad (anonymousIran)


RV: What is the most appealing thing about Demotix?

[Demotix] built on the only thing that had anything of any real value: the network of contributors. This is something that was always spectacularly and explicitly obvious [to its organizers] – that Demotix was really nothing at all, simply a network of exceptional people…

We had to sell to mainstream media, that was the whole principle of it. But some of the media we pulled in we couldn't sell. I remember one particular occasion: on the same day one of our contributors in Somalia spent the morning with the al-Shabaab militia in Mogadishu, and took some great pictures and amazing information about what was happening there.

Teenage Al-Shabaab Soldiers in Training in Mogadishu, 2010. Al-Shabaab (Arabic - 'The Youth') call young children and teenagers from the countryside using the Propaganda department of the Executive Council of Al-Shabaab. They who reject face the death penalty (Abdul. A)

Teenage Al-Shabaab Soldiers in Training in Mogadishu, 2010. Al-Shabaab (Arabic – ‘The Youth’) call young children and teenagers from the countryside using the Propaganda department of the Executive Council of Al-Shabaab. They who reject face the death penalty (Abdul. A)

Simultaneously, one of our contributors in London had… walked home through Green Park, which was next to Buckingham palace. And there was a guy on a bench feeding a pelican. He took some great shots of this guy with the pelican, which we sold to every single UK newspaper (except the Guardian). And these Somalia shots [which were not bought by any mainstream media] still continue to gather cyber dust somewhere.

Michael Ellis with Willy the Pelican, London 2010 (Craig Shepheard)

Michael Ellis with Willy the Pelican, London 2010 (Craig Shepheard)

That's when we changed our policy. That's when I – against all previous impulses – brought advertising on to the site… I just couldn't bear it anymore, that this fantastic content was not getting remunerated in any way… So you can make money from your story being seen on Demotix, not just your story getting sold to the New York Times or BBC.


RV: How can Demotix help people to put their stories forward?

We realised we could achieve certain things, and we couldn't achieve certain things. If your contributors are only interested in the money, then they need to figure out financial ways of doing that, and Demotix is one of those. If what you're interested in is getting that story out as broadly as possible and you are repeatedly bringing those stories, all you need is a WordPress blog, and to market the stories you're telling. There are two ways to do that – one is Facebook, and one is Twitter… Or, use Demotix and other things like that as springboards. Demotix has, of course, relationships with publishers, so there's a reason to do that, to link in with them.

Our ultimate goal is impact and change. Sometimes that impact is simply voicing, airing, and shining light into darker corners. Sometimes its about having people sacked! Sometimes, its about getting things fixed. So, I think one needs to bear in mind what one's ultimate goals are.


RV: Would you say it is possible to support oneself as a citizen journalist?

…It’s a sliding scale. There is somebody standing out with a cell phone camera at a protest, and there is somebody who is not employed by the New York Times but is doing journalism and reporting all the time. There is an enormous grey scale. What I'd say – within citizen journalism – is that journalism is a craft [and] requires all sorts of skills, commitment, understanding storytelling, understanding presentation, all those things. You don't have to go to journalism school for that – I didn't go to journalism school. You need to be connected to what you're doing, and to try to be engaging.

Demotix has sold all types of news photos... including the Royal Wedding (James Lumb)

Demotix has sold all types of news photos… including the Royal Wedding (James Lumb)

So, yes, if you're doing all those things, then absolutely there are all sorts of ways in which you can make money and a lot of people do. The key thing I find is making sure you're not putting yourself in situations of real danger to ensure that you get that money. And that's one of the things we see over and over again in the past few years, precisely this problem which is that freelancers without the right kind of hazardous environment training, insurance, or backup, putting themselves in danger to get reports. This is what war correspondents do… but they're not necessarily going in without backup.

What are the tools you use to make money as a journalist… essentially, you build up your relationship directly with clients of your work. Have a very strong line for story, always think about story. A thick skin for rejection letters, and pitch two or three stories every day. And use tools at your disposal, like Demotix, where you can sell your stories and the rights.

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