On the very day of the 2016 US Presidential election, Oxford Dictionaries declared "Post-truth" the word of the year. In the few months since, we've seen the emergence of "Alternative Facts" and "Fake News." It seems like every day there's another breaking news story filled with baseless accusations or statements that are grounded so far outside of reality, making it more difficult to believe anything you hear.
But seeing is believing, which gives video immense power to convey truth and increases its importance to news reporting. And when every town hall or airport runway can, without warning, become the next hotspot, it's a good thing anyone with a smartphone can instantly become a mobile journalist.
Mobile journalism, or MoJo, isn't just user generated content (UGC), nor does the term apply to everything shot using a mobile device. Rather, it's a new way of reporting based on a DIY approach and the ability for an individual to act as a one-person news team. Whether a professional or an amateur, the lone reporter in the field can easily capture moments as they happen, without expensive equipment or extensive personnel resources.
I expect that MoJo will pick up steam in the next year or four, but in the meantime, here are some early-adopting companies who are showing that the model works:
Fresco, which describes itself as a "next-generation news company," was founded in 2015 with the goal of connecting news outlets with citizen journalists so they could get on-the-scene footage from anywhere news is happening. Some big names in media like CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld, MediaBistro founder Laurel Touby, former Yahoo executive Ross Levinsohn and former NewsCorp/AOL exec Jonathan Miller gave big thumbs up to the plan, as evidenced by their participation in a $1.2M seed round. This past August, Fresco picked up another $5M with Liberty Media as lead investor.
The business model is pretty win-win. Fresco has deals with news outlets and TV stations who pay per photo/video. They can either use content that's already uploaded to Fresco or send out assignments to MoJos through Fresco's app. The MoJos using Fresco's app are alerted whenever there's a breaking news event near them. Any time a news outlet downloads or uses the content from the MoJo, that person gets paid.
Economics aside, the Fresco approach has worked. One recent example of a MoJo breaking a story is the crash of a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe Arizona. In addition to hundreds of retweets, the MoJo's footage was widely used online and even on broadcasts outlets including BBC News, Buzzfeed, the Washington Post and the Today show on NBC.
Storyful is another company that connects newsrooms (as well as brands and other video producers) with content. Compared to Fresco, they take more of a curated approach, selecting from content that has already been created instead of amassing new material from the public. As they put it, "When everyone is sharing content, Storyful finds the stories worth telling."
The company's founder was himself a former journalist, and like Fresco and its CNN investment, Storyful quickly attracted the big money media. It was acquired by NewsCorp back in 2013, but still operates as a standalone company.
Storyful's key differentiator is its emphasis on verification, which has been a cornerstone since before the post-truth era. To make sure no questionable, falsified or stolen content is disseminated, Storyful uses a combination of technology and human touch to examine metadata, source the original and vet the source.
One of Storyful's big success stories is the video that appeared on the majority of news sites, networks and TV shows last fall, in which Hillary Clinton appears to faint and is then assisted getting into her SUV. The video was shot by a Czech man who was tracked down by the Storyful staff, who immediately started negotiating fees on his behalf.
The last of our MoJos rising is Stringr, which refers to itself as a marketplace for video footage. Launched in 2013, the company was co-founded by a former news producer who had seen firsthand the challenge of obtaining quality footage from unpredictable locations with a moment's notice. Like Fresco and Storyful, media organizations have thrown in their financial support. It is a portfolio company of Matter, a San Francisco-based accelerator for media-related startups that is backed by the Knight Foundation, the Associated Press, The McClatchy Company, Google News Lab and other media organizations.
The Stringr model is akin to Fresco's, with the exception that it is solely focused on video. Professional and amateur videographers can use an app to upload footage directly to the Stringr library, from which publishers looking for video can select, purchase and download. Publishers can also request specific content and Stringr will contact nearby videographers to supply the assets.
When Stringr signed on with Wochit in October, they had 25,000 videographers spread across the US. Wherever there's news happening, you can be sure a Stringr will be there to capture it.
Reporters can't be everywhere, and the decline of staffs at even the biggest of newspapers shows that will continue. But today's smartphones open a new world of opportunity. Especially for smaller outlets, the ability to obtain local news, event and other topical content enables them to serve their audiences without needing a large staff. This will keep these outlets competitive in the long run. In an article by consumer experience director at the Detroit Free Press, Ashley C. Woods, notes, "We will never be able to compete with the national news outlets on scale. So instead, we will acknowledge our strengths: Proximity. Intimacy. Fidelity." Now that's news you can use.