Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Citizen Journalism crusader Munthe defends free speech but worry about the future of media ....from a plane to Kazakhstan...
Text by David Hellqvist | Published 30 April 2010

Sometimes you can't trust anyone but yourself. Everyone has agendas, even major news organisations. Why are they telling us this, but avoiding saying that? News, like everything else, can be angled and made to sound and look a certain way. Who better to tell the world of events but us, the people. Now, in our technologically advanced world, this has been made possible. High speed internet, digital cameras, mobile phone videos, constant travelling - those are the means by which Citizen Journalism is created. But the will, determination, stubbornness and courage must come from inside us. Turi Munthe not only have those qualities himself, but also the ability to help others develop their own Citizen Journalism skills. Through his Demotix news organisation, thousands of people are now able to tell their version of what's happening around us....

Dazed Digital: What's the purpose of Demotix?
Turi Munthe: Demotix is an open news wire: it connects freelance reporters, photo journalists and video makers, as well as amateurs and activists, with the global media. Demotix was established to do two things: 1). Create a free-speech platform where anyone anywhere can safely upload their news stories, photographs, video and soon audio. 2). Provide a truly global, instant, multi-media, 2.0, collaborative, alternative newswire service to the mainstream media. We want to massively expand the pool of news sources available to the global news media.

DD: When and how did you set it up?
Turi Munthe: Demotix launched in January 2009, from an attic (rather than the proverbial garage). I set it up with my partner, Jonathan Tepper. I had the journalism and politics background, and Jonathan had years of finance and banking behind him. Since then, we've won and been nominated for about a dozen international awards and have seen our contributors' stories on the front pages of the New York Times, Guardian, Wall Street Journal and around the world. It's been an extraordinary ride.

DD: Where did the name come from?
Turi Munthe: 'Demos' means people in Greek. It's where we get the word democracy from. 'Demotic' simply means 'of the people' - and that, of course, is what our newswire intends to be. 'Demotic' is most commonly used to describe demotic Greek and demotic Egyptian - the languages of the street in ancient Athens and ancient Thebes. It was using these 'street languages' that Champollion was able to read the Rosetta Stone and ultimately decode hieroglyphics. We loved the idea of a language of the people - a 'street language' - that opens up the world, and that's how we got to Demotix. The final 'x' was a nod to the web (and to Asterix, Jonathan and my favourite cartoon as kids).

DD: Citizen journalism - what's the biggest Pro compared to 'normal' media?
Turi Munthe: I think there are three massive Pros to citizen journalism - and they are the reasons citizen journalism will continue to be a critical resource to news gathering going forward.

- 1. Accidental News:
No professional journalism organisation can pretend to be everywhere at once. In fact, most of the big organisations are stripping back. An open platform like Demotix is able to cover the 'accidents' of news in a way no mainstream news organisation could cover - like the now infamous picture of Henry Louis Gates being arrested in front of his home. That image made the front cover of Time Magazine, and the snapper (who made many $1000s from it) was a neighbour who just happened to be look out of his window at the right time.

- 2. Censorship:
Whether it's because of violence, or political crack-downs or simple logistics, there are a lot of critical news stories that professional journalists just can't get to. We saw it in Iran in June 09, in Haiti with the earthquake, in Afghanistan with the elections in Taliban-held country: in each case, Demotix had local reporters and courageous amateurs on the ground sending us stories and images.

- 3. Collaboration:
We love this shift in the way news is reported. Before the web, you could write in to your local paper on the off-chance they'd publish your letter. Today, the comments stream of any halfway decent article is crammed with information, and all serious media has realised how important 'civilian' participation can be. One of my favourite examples is the Guardian's treatment of the expenses scandal: where the Telegraph trickled the information out drip-by-drip, the Guardian put it all online and built a widget so that everyone could get stuck into deciphering the mess. The advantages for us at Demotix in having dozens of contributors in every city is that, with big news stories, we get a 360 degree view and a collaborative news story.

DD: Any Cons?
Turi Munthe: Most of the news on Demotix is produced by local freelancers, professionals and a few highly dedicated amateur news reporters. It takes a certain eye both to find a story and to tell it properly (not to mention the time and dedication), and these are skills that most people do not have.

DD: Where are getting most reports from right now? What's the Number One hot spot on the globe?
Turi Munthe: It changes with the news stories of course. As I type, Demotix is deep in the thick of Thailand's Red-Shirt movement, all over the troubles in Greece and of course the UK election. Last week it was Iceland, next week who knows. But, I suppose we have really particularly good coverage from Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Africa is difficult for us because of internet connectivity, and Latin America is slower because we haven't yet launched in Spanish.

DD: Do you travel around yourself?
Turi Munthe: I'm typing this response in a plane to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where I'll be talking at the Eurasia Media Forum. Next week, I'll be in Caracas talking at a Digital News conference, the following week in Thessaloniki to talk about innovation, and the week after that in Rio where I'm moderating a big UN conference on cross-cultural dialogue and new media. So yes. I tend to spend 3-4 days in a country, trying to meet as many journalists, photojournalists, editors and political activists/opposition figures as possible. We're not trying to tell the official story. We are always looking for the underbelly.

DD: It's mostly picture based, or do you have pure copy journalists working for you?
Turi Munthe: All our stories are picture of video led for two reasons: multimedia is much easier to verify than text, and it's also far easier to licence. We will get to text, but that will be after audio. Text is, as you suggest, the trickiest element in the equation because it's so difficult to verify.

DD: Your aim is to 'rescue journalism' - from who?
Turi Munthe: Today, only four US newspapers even have a foreign desk (NYT, WSJ, LA Times and Washington Post). The BBC doesn't have single staffer in Latin America. Industry reports suggest that over 100,000 journalism jobs were lost in the UK and US in 2008-2009 alone. The same picture emerges all over the news world. Who is responsible? - some combination of the recession, and an advertising nose-dive, but most of all the internet and free content: in other words, money. Demotix, which already has 3,000 active contributors in 190 countries around the world, runs on almost nothing and is based on a variable cost model, unlike all the big legacy players out there. We have broken stories from Gaza to Ghana, and we think we have found part of the solution.

DD: Is this the future of journalism?
Turi Munthe: The future of journalism, in our view, is collaborative. I see professional journalists becoming more and more independent, newspapers and broadcasters run by editors more than by journalists, and I see a huge role for participative media like Demotix. Our aim is to become the 'AP' of freelancers, only bigger, deeper, quicker, more local and more global, and a lot more democratic. That we can only do because of forces - economic and technical - that are revolutionising the news media today. It's an extremely exciting time to be involved in the news.

DD: You want to promote individual citizen journalism - do you think that the mass media today is too closed and reliant on only a few key players?
Turi Munthe: Read Nick Davies' Flat Earth News and you'll see how reliant today's media is not only on a few key journalistic players but on the gigantic machine that is PR. Yes - definitely - there are far too few players in news media today and they give a monolithic view of the world. In the hard news space today, only AP and Reuters (with Agence France Presse a poor man's third) even pretend to cover global news and the two big players don't have anyone in over 40% of the world's countries. That's appalling in a 21st century that is supposed to be defined by connectedness and information overload. 

DD: What's next for you and Demotix?
Turi Munthe: From a media perspective, we're launching Video, Audio, and eventually text. From a business perspective, we're looking at a number of really interesting partnerships now around the world (from South Africa to Latin America to Egypt to the US) which will give us access to reporters and distribution all over the world. And from a personal perspective, more travelling and talking. Demotix is activist on free speech and civil liberties issues, so it's good to get out and shout about it. Plus I seem to get in the way in the office...

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