Demotix CEO on rescuing journalism

Demotix is a citizen-journalism website and photo agency. It takes user-generated content (UGC) and photographs from freelance journalists and amateurs, and markets them to the mainstream media. Demotix’ CEO Turi Munthe talked to Fast Media Magazine about the progress made over the past months. He also addressed the companies’ business model and shared the next steps for this young London-based company.

Demotix has a social‐entrepreneurial function at the core and wants to make sure journalists in countries across the globe can earn a viable income from their work. Payments are split 50‐50. The photographer keeps all the copyright and can withdraw their images at any time.       

You want to “rescue journalism and promote free expression by connecting independent journalists with the traditional media” Is the rescue plan working or is journalism still on life support?

Everybody in the business is trying to rescue journalism and everyone in this space is profoundly concerned about the things that have been happening with the media model. What we have seen over the past 10-15 years and perhaps longer is a shrinking market. When the internet started trickling in deep investigative reporting was cut, We are now seeing a massive increase in the speed of this and the resulting layoffs of journalists in every possible sector. We’re getting to an interesting space where the number of people that are hungry for serious, rich global and local news is growing. The means of delivery (the web) are there but the content is worth almost nothing so there is no money to do this work.

To put this in perspective: In 2007 a number of studies came out about the state of US journalism. At that time there were 141 foreign correspondents in the entire US media (broadcast and print). There has been this massive contraction in the way news is gathered. This is what Demotix talks to; we try to create a safe platform for people to tell their stories, who-ever and wherever they are, as efficiently as possible. We then take the best of this content and pump it out to the mainstream media who use it as an alternative source of news.

The reason we do this is because there has not just been shrinkage in news resources to publishers but also in the resources available to the newswires like Reuters and AFP. On the one hand we create a safe platform for contributors (let’s call it political participation).  On the other hand it also tells a different kind of news. We now have over 10.000 contributors from over 130 countries and they tell a different type of story. Big western faces (no matter how good they are) do not have a local informed perspective.

I visited a conference in Bangladesh in February and the people there told me: “You drive us insane; every story that comes out of Bangladesh in western media are about Floods or Typhoons”. These stories have become part of our narrative but there are many other stories; one that stuck in my mind was about a group of Bengal Tigers that were eating children in the forest. That’s a story you don’t hear about, but you do get it when you’re from there.

So when you’re talking about saving journalism you’re not really talking about mainstream media, do you think the mainstream will be replaced by something new?

If you’re referring to mainstream media as the big Media companies then categorically no, they won’t die. They are changing their shape, are getting lighter on their feet and are trying to find new models. The advertising recession is causing enormous damage and we have seen a lot of mid-size players die and there may be more, Media itself, serious reporting and informed comment, will never die, it can’t. The question on how to monetize it is finally getting some serious answers; whether it’s Murdoch talking about paywalls or Journalism online with a collective solution.

Once these new models find their feet and start to embed what do you think the share of citizen journalism will be in the bigger scheme of things?

I think it will always be collaborative. I hope that what we’ll stop seeing is this distinction between professional photojournalism and citizen journalism. In fact we hate the term citizen journalism as it’s now used in a derogatory manner; to talk about non-professionals. We find this absurd as most of our contributors are professionals in their own spaces. We prefer the term street journalism on an open platform. We are increasingly accepted as a mainstream player now with covers of the New York Times, the Guardian and TV networks. As things develop people will stop to make these absurd distinctions and go back to the quality of the material being generated.

What are your criteria to accept contributors, are there any?

We have as few criteria as possible. We verify if the news is true, otherwise bring it on. We do not choose an editorial line. We do sometimes try to expand it. In the winter of last year there was an Israeli invasion of Gaza when Demotix could have been called ‘’. We had so many pictures of protests from all over the world. We then wondered if it would be interesting to get more material from Israel and went out to see if we could get that content.

In general though, we do not curate but push as much as possible.

In the case of Gaza was this content from one side a case of a buzz in a community that made everyone submit?

Exactly,  Demotix is entirely a word of mouth story. We never spend anything on marketing, nor do we need to. Our objective is not to become the next Facebook but to bring together a group of interested, committed people from all over the world who use Demotix to share their story.        

You say you’re founded on the cross roads of activism and journalism. I assume first and foremost you’re a business. How does this triangle of elements work together?

That hits exactly at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. I have always been very interested in social enterprise and so is my partner. We both worked with NGO’s and charities. When I stumbled on the idea of Demotix what appealed to me was an idea that could bring an enormous amount of good all over the world. Not just as a platform for freedom of speech but also in the redistribution of cash. We have a 50/50 split with contributors and try to be the kindest people when it comes to photography on the web. If we can sell a picture of an event in Iran for £1.000,- to the New York Times that’s a good month salary for the contributor. We’re outsourcing work. You no longer have to send reporters but can use locals who know the story directly.

Some time ago you got some criticism in PBN Mediashift when you were compared to Scoopt, which had a similar model and failed. What made you decide now was the right time to start Demotix?

All credit to Scoopt for starting; they were the first bounce of the ball. They didn’t have a community and were predominantly focussed on England and on Paparazzi . These are very competitive markets,

It functioned in a completely different space and a different cycle in the media economy. We operate in serious news, all over the world. We have a serious focus on our community and we’ve seen that through the role we played in Iran. It’s a very different proposition

What about the safety of your photographers, they may get themselves into trouble knowing they can make money off the pictures. How do you deal with that risk?

We’re very careful with our contributors. Let’s go back to Iran for example; everyone that uploads something to Demotix has all the metadata stripped upon arrival. We created anonymous email boxes as well. The difficulty is that most breaches are very human, people watching you type passwords etc. We also have relationships with organisations like Human rights watch but we don’t have the resources to get people out of trouble personally. What helps furthermore is that being a contributor to Demotix is very deniable, more so then being part of a well know news organisation.

And what about you? You decided to move from journalism to start running a business? Do you still have your journalist hat on sometimes, or do you miss that element as a CEO of a business?

I do miss that and I’m happiest when I’m travelling, meeting journalists and politicians and trying to understand how places work., but I do have a strong principal and business interest in what Demotix is doing, It’s certainly a learning curve…learning to make mistakes.

How big is your team now?

About 10

And you have your new sales director in that you were looking for some time ago

Yes, that’s been fantastic.

And that takes away some pressure from you?

Yes, but I also just don’t know how to do it. We have a very good and committed team here, that works very hard on a combination of whisky and pizza.

How do you reach out to clients?

We have a new Sales Director and Sales Manager and a team of interns that helps as well. We also have an FTP going out to all the UK dailies and a couple of the big US dailies. We have a daily email to over 100 different media organisation across the world. Then there are subscription agreements with companies and finally there are simply image by image sales, it’s a slow but steady ramp up period.

We’re still in recession and in the middle of big shifts in publishing. How do you feel right now about the company’s prospects for the coming 18 months?

We’re looking for expansion finance to increase the interactivity of the site and give us the tools to really take advantage of this recession, which is what young companies do well. We’re small and light on our feet and see the next 18 months as a period of high growth with international expansion and a multi-lingual site and are looking for the right financial partner to do that with.

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses