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July 03 2011

20:24

Documentary - Citizen X: Sao Paulo, portrait of an integrant of movement of the homeless

emphas.is :: In 2007, Sao Paulo’s government launched the “Cidade Limpa” (Clean City) project, with the intention to standardize all visual advertisements throughout the city. This initiative has addressed what was indeed an overwhelming visual pollution, and in this matter it has certainly improved the life of the population.

Initiatives such as Cidade Limpa only deal with the most superficial aspects of the city and its problems. But Sao Paulo’s housing deficit, for instance, is a much bigger problem that affects people’s lives directly and contributes to the degradation of the city in a much more fundamental way than mere visual pollution.

The project seeks crowdfunding supported by emphas.is (crowdfund visual journalism).

Julio Bittencourt is a Brazilian photographer. His work has been published in GEO, Le Monde, The Guardian, Esquire, Photo, among many others. "In a window of Prestes Maia 911 Building", his first book, is the culmination of three years of work in a formerly squatted building in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Help to fund the documentary - Julio Bittencourt, emphas.is

September 21 2010

18:25

An Anaylsis of Six Journalism Startups

In the last few weeks there has been some interesting and exciting news in the journalism startup world. I wanted to take some time to highlight new players and provide my own personal analysis.

Collaborative Storytelling: Three New Startups

Kommons.com

Kommons was founded by the young Cody Brown who busted into the conversation with some epic blog posts last fall. Brown and his co-founder taught themselves how to code (this is a bootstrapped operation) and iterated like mad. For that, my hat is off. Disclaimer: I've had the chance to chat with Brown a few times and find him to be a brilliant media thinker in part because he has no baggage from past experiences.

Similar to 10questions.com, Kommons is playing in a very interesting intellectual space. The ability to reach people in high positions of power has dropped to a Tweet. The ability to get a response from them has not. More accurately I'm referring to the cost to get their attention. This can be done, however, if enough people chime in as well. Since the collective cost of asking powerful people the same question is a matter of getting the attention of the masses, in theory, the most important questions will rise to the top and the public conversation will become richer.

Kommons reminds me a bit of Yoosk.com, a site I came across when I was editor at NewAssignment.net. I do believe, however, that it has some core strengths that will make it shine. First, it's a growing community. To be a part of Kommons you have to be asked a question. Thus, the goal right now isn't to pressure Sarah Palin to answer a question (at least, not yet); instead Kommons will grow organically and look to include her eventually. This is how Twitter  grew, and Twitter is Kommons' second strength because it means they are working off of a known vocabulary and platform. The @'s need no explanation.

Another key point about this startup is that, unlike some of the others, the emphasis is not, in my interpretation, "journalism." I think this is a strength. Brown is avoiding "journalism" baggage while still providing a community with tools that can serve its news and information needs. As I've said before, we may not call it "journalism" in the future, but if it still meets the news and information needs of a community, more power to it.

My biggest complaint -- nobody has asked me a question on Kommons yet :(

Storyful


It's hard to offer analysis about Storyful. They have a private alpha I haven't seen and their about page gives only the vaguest of descriptions, which make it sound like it could re-invent the wheel of GroundReport, NowPublic, GlobalPost or others.

My hope is that they break new ground with a compelling feature and test a new method of collaborative storytelling. I bring up Storyful not so much to provide analysis on their product (which I haven't seen) but to comment on the continued state of journalism startups occasionally reinventing the wheel. We do not have a Crunchbase of journalism. The "fog of war," as my colleague Lisa Skube calls it, has us scrambling around with the potential of friendly fire. Again, I know nothing of Storyful beyond their About page, and while I encourage participatory storytelling in any form including pro-am, which is how I interpret them, we need to make sure that new ground is forged.

The Local: East Village

Let's start with a big disclaimer. I used to work for Jay Rosen and I still lovingly call him "Boss Rosen." The second disclaimer is that when I look at The Local: East Village I can't help but see that blossoming from an experience we were a part of called Assignment Zero which had postmortems from several angles (including my own).

I think the fruit of Assignment Zero's perceived failure was a better understanding of what is needed to create what Rosen calls the "Virtual Assignment Desk." It must be clearly articulated, focus on the story, allow for participation that lets people come and go quickly and freely. Most importantly the burden is on communication and how to streamline it. I love that at the end of the video below it states that the assignment desk "is better than sending and receiving 25 emails for one assignment" because that's what I did during Assignment Zero. Somehow I ended up at the center of communications and I would relay messages back and forth for all 90+ assignments. That the Assignment Desk is built in WordPress is a HUGE boon. I think one
might also see the intellectual roots of Spot.Us by examining the Assignment Desk. The two are somewhat similar, though mine has an added focus on participation through funding.

Assignment Desk overview from Matt Diaz on Vimeo.

New Business Models for Journalism: Three New Startups

Emphas.is

The quick explanation is that Emhpas.is (pronounced "emphasis") is Spot.Us aimed at photographers.

In their words:

Crowdfunding has already proven successful in other areas, and we believe photojournalism has a large and enthusiastic following that would be willing to contribute financially when given the right incentive. Emphas.is offers this incentive in the form of exclusive access to top photojournalists carefully selected by a board of reviewers composed of industry professionals.

Of course, I view this statement as a HUGE WIN for Spot.Us. Just two years ago I had to yell and scream about crowdfunding at the top of my lungs and still got strange looks. Now it's an accepted norm. The more people that join the space, the better it is for all of us. Even if it means "competition," I welcome folks like Emphas.is with open arms and hope they feel the same towards Spot.Us.

Spot.Us (pronounced "Spot Us") is not centered around a specific medium. We've worked with photographers, videographers, radio and print. Hell, we've worked on strict database journalism projects like LittleSis.org.

That said, photographers do view themselves as a horse of a different color. Some outright hate Spot.Us because historically we've asked them to license their photographs under Creative Commons (we have made exceptions and are still willing to hear folks out). One thing I can tell you right now, however, is that we would never put our content behind a pay wall, which is what Emphas.is sounds like it intends to do.

From my understanding, only people who contribute will gain access to the content from photographers. I assume content will be teased out elsewhere. If not, I highly question the enthusiasm of people to support photographers whose content they haven't seen. The assumption that folks will pony up funds for photographs they haven't seen might be based on a romantic vision of photography hat seems to be expressed throughout the site. I love photojournalism as much as the next person, but that's NOT what the site should emphasize. If it's not in the public interest or perceived as something that can't be gotten elsewhere, it will be an uphill climb. I think the folks at Emphas.is know this, so I imagine they have some idea of how to deal with the pay wall/audience attraction problem.

I will also be curious to see how they work with news publications. On the one hand there is talk of a pay wall, on the other hand there are endorsements from folks at Time magazine saying they "welcome the opportunity to work" with their producers. Well, that would require publishing their work at which point folks paying to get beyond the pay wall might feel like all they are doing is subsidizing Time magazine's photography. If Emphas.is doesn't work with major publications they'll have a harder time finding the top notch photographers they are looking for. This is what makes Spot.Us interesting in my perspective -- we are a three-sided marketplace. I can't tell if Emphas.is is trying to have a triangle marketplace with a pay wall or not.

But the next startup in this space is decidedly NOT a three way market.

Ebyline

Freelancing is an antiquated system. It is a process that happens behind closed doors and is one-to-one communication. What I like about Ebyline is that it's trying to modernize the process of freelancing.

Certainly there are inefficiencies in the freelance process today. Beyond only being able to pitch so many editors at a time, the dirty secret of journalism is that it's an insider's game -- you need to know somebody to get any attention.

Ebyline takes a swipe at this by allowing eager publishers to find new talent, but it fundamentally doesn't challenge the truth that decisions about content should include the public. Ebyline is a B2B play. It will remain opaque to the public. One person with a budget makes the call. It is not participatory.

You can't necessarily knock Ebyline for this. Like I said earlier, they are purposefully not a three-sided market. They are decidedly two-sided, and I believe there is much ground that can be gained in figuring out how to make that marketplace more efficient. More power to them.

My personal bias towards making journalism more participatory and transparent, however, is why Spot.Us pivots around public participation. That could be its strength, it could also turn out to be a weakness -- which is why I'm glad Ebyline is trying the B2B version.

ThankThis.com


I came across ThankThis.com and have had a back and forth with the founder. There is even the possibility I will join as an advisor (no papers signed yet, so no "official" disclosure as of writing this).

What I love about ThankThis is the idea that advertising can be transparent and participatory. I first wrote about this idea in April and we launched our first attempt at "community-focused sponsorships" in May. In the coming months we hope to have new sponsors and opportunities where community members consciously engage with an advertisement because they will see a direct benefit.

The idea behind ThankThis.com is similar to community-focused sponsorship: to bring some transparency and participation to advertising. At its best, advertising is not adversarial. Coupons are a perfect example of advertisement that we welcome with open arms. Look at Groupon, one of the fastest growing companies on the planet, and tell me that advertising isn't ripe for reinvention.

With ThankThis.com you can click a button, engage with an advertiser and then give your credits to the cause of your choice. Meanwhile the publisher also gets a cut.

I'm biased -- this is similar to Spot.Us' sponsorship model -- so I think this is brilliant. The challenge, from my perspective, is that the founder is a bit of an outsider to the publishing industry. Similar to Kachingle, which CJR profiled recently, it's a chicken and egg game. Spot.Us suffers from this as well, but we actually decided to pick the egg. Our focus has been on independent reporters and news organizations. We would be happy to work with larger publishers -- and we recently put up a pitch from Mother Jones, arguably the biggest organizations we've worked with since the New York Times -- but our core is around small folks. If we can prove the model for them, we can scale around it. If not, we wouldn't have worked for bigger publishers anyway.

Another strength of ThankThis, from what I can tell, is that not only don't you have to pay money out of your own pocket, you don't even have to join anything. To participate in a Spot.Us community-focused sponsorship you have to join our site. This is because we do more than just sell advertisements. But registration is a mental barrier.

ThankThis has the potential to get around it, which would increase participation. If they can find a way to make sure that one person doesn't drain an advertisers account (perhaps by using cookies), then what do they care if you register? (This is all assumption, as I have no idea if they will/won't have registration. But as a potential future adviser, I'd question it as a necessity for them.)

ThankThis.com hasn't launched in full, but I will support their mission whether or not I "officially" become an advisor.

News From The Dead

I wrote this post because I saw all these startups come out in the last few weeks. I wish them ALL well. Seriously. Even those which could be seen as competition. But we need a more robust conversation to keep track of journalism startups and the lessons each of them hold. Not too long ago I wrote five lessons learned from NewsTilt's closing. When this happened Paul Biggar emailed and told me he would have a personal blog post out soon. Well here it is. And with it some analysis from Lois Beckett at SF Weekly, GigaOm and probably others.

No matter what you think, it takes guts and a reflective personality to try and grasp and articulate ones own failings. I hope Paul recognizes that this is a service to other entrepreneurs (whether in journalism or not).

Back From The Dead

I also found out that the Printed Blog, which was closed last year, re-opened in the past month. They have a new vision and revenue model. Whereas before their aim was to play the role of newspaper, providing up to date content funded by advertising, the Printed Blog is now looking to be a niche interest weekly magazine that people will subscribe to.

It looks to me like they are taking some ques from LongShot Magazine and others, which also share revenues from sales with the contributors.

September 13 2010

14:00

Photojournalism site Emphas.is wants to leverage the crowd through the romanticism of its craft

If times have been tough for journalists who write, they’ve been no better for photojournalists. Magazines and newspapers have cut staff positions and freelance budgets. And the Internet has given rise to free or inexpensive substitutes, like Flickr and iStockphoto. A new startup launching this winter hopes it has come up with a way to solve some of the field’s financial problems, while giving world-class photojournalists a new level of freedom in telling stories and interacting with their audience.

The site, called Emphas.is, will be a platform that looks to the crowd to fund photographers’ work in dangerous places around the world. Similar to other crowdfunding sites like Spot.us or Kickstarter, photojournalists will post trip pitches with a fundraising goal. If that goal is reached, backers will get access to postings from the photographer about his or her experiences and the photographs and videos that are filed along the way. The photos will be initially available to only to backers, but photographers will be free to distribute them as they please — Emphas.is will not own the photographs.

“We’ve been badly hit and we need a solution,” says the site’s founder Karim Ben Khelifa about his work as a photojournalist. In the last 12 years, Khelifa has photographed stories in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somaliland, Kashmir, Kosovo, and other war-torn and dangerous places. His cofounder, Tina Ahrens, is also an established photojournalist. Khelifa’s reached out to elite photojournalists around the world to join him in launching the project. He says plenty of his colleagues are eager to give the idea a try. “We have the top of the top,” he says.

The platform is not a distribution tool meant to reach media outlets, but an experiment in storytelling that will let the photographer take on a more central role.

“The project comes out of frustration,” Khelifa told me. “Having a double-page [photo display] in Time or Vanity Fair…it doesn’t give me a point of view. You might have seen my photographs in Time magazine, but you don’t know me. And I don’t know you.”

And maybe that doesn’t make sense. Photojournalists, particularly war photographers, have a certain allure, one Khelida hopes is the basis for a business model. “We have a romanticism around our profession,” he says. “We realized that our work isn’t the end product, but how we got to it. This is what we expect to monetize.”

Khelifa says he’s often asked how he manages to move around a war zone, or join up with groups like the Taliban and photograph them from the inside. That backstory will be the draw, he says. Backers on Emphas.is will get to meet the photojournalist and then ride along virtually as they sneak through border check points and embed themselves with rebel groups. (Imagine getting a text message from the photog you’ve funded: I’m entering a dangerous region of Yemen, will check back in three days.) The experience will drive how the audience consumes the story.

Khelifa also says that it’s a good opportunity for photographers passionate about injustice in far-flung places. A crowd of funders can support a trip in a way only a few magazine photo editors could before.

But that doesn’t mean media isn’t interested the project. Khelifa is rounding up endorsements from top photo editors and directors at outlets like Time and agencies like the VII and Magnum. For them, the platform offers the potential for both more and lower-cost high-quality photography.

Once the site is launched, photographers will bank on the public pledging small amounts to back their ideas. Khelifa says one of their strategies for reaching those potential donors is through NGOs with large email lists. (NGOs themselves will only be allowed to fund 50 percent of any single project.)

For now, Khelifa has raised his own startup funding from a number angel investors. The next few months will be about getting the details in order, including finishing the platform and bringing on photographers. He hopes to see the site go live in January 2011.

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