Following Getty Images' decision to close its citizen journalism arm Scoopt, the venture's founder Kyle MacRae explained in an interview why "the dedicated cit-j agency model isn't the way forward." His reasoning was that even though many members of the public may well be on a breaking news scene with a camera, it is extremely unlikely that they will be a member of a citizen photojournalism organisation. But has Citizenside, a small, young company based in Paris, found a solution? The Editors Weblog spoke to co-founder Matthieu Stefani and editor-in-chief Aurélien Viers about Citizenside's work and the way they see the future of citizen photojournalism.
Citizenside operates in two different ways. On its own site, it functions in a similar way to other agencies: it gathers photos from its community - 35,000 members, close to 7,000 of which are active - which are published after thorough checking of the photos' validity. Staff receive 500-600 images a day, and those which pass the checking are categorised into sections such as headlines, showbiz, or unusual, or gathered into portfolios with others along the same theme or about the same event. Media outlets can purchase the photos from Citzenside, with up to 75% of the price going to the contributor. Agence France Presse owns a 34% stake of Citizenside, and is currently trialling incorporating the company's amateur images into its image forums, where any of the news agency's 7000 partners would be able to buy them. Content is clearly labelled as amateur, and Citizenside stressed the importance of differentiating the work of 'citizens' from that of professionals.
AFP is currently trialling incorporating Citizenside's amateur pictures into its image forums where any of its 7000 partners can buy them
Staff are proactive about finding images, "we don't just wait for people to send them," explained Stefani. Their kit allows them to locate users within a certain radius of any given spot, so if something happens which they want to know more about, they can send out an email requesting photos. "We send 3 or 4 of these a day," Stefani clarified. The company tries to avoid receiving photographs straight from mobile phones via MMS as the quality is poor and it is much harder to check an image's authenticity. Developers have however released an iPhone application, and are looking at launching similar products for Blackberry and Google's Android phone. Staff also provide feedback when contributors send in images that cannot be used.
Mainstream Media success through factchecking
Citizenside photos have recently been on the cover of French daily Liberation, and in Le Point magazine and Le Figaro magazine, so the company is making a name for itself. The Liberation photo was of a snow storm, and Viers explained how a storm was a good example of an instance when citizen photo reporting really works: anybody can be a witness and as it might be harder to travel, professional photographers will not necessarily be able to cover the whole storm effectively. He added that Citizenside members were definitely not trying to play the role of reporters, rather they are "news witnesses."
One of the ways in which Citzenside differs from other sites that gather user photos and video, such as self-declared "unedited, unfiltered" CNN's iReport, is that all images are checked for authenticity. The company's developers have created a tool through which users can send photos, and which provides various details to staff about each photo or video that they receive, such as the camera brand and model, the resolution, and the date the photo was taken. Crucially, the programme can also alert staff to whether a photo has been modified online. Using the sender's IP address, the tool also shows from where in the world images have been sent. With this information, Citizenside staff can get a pretty good idea of whether what the contributor has told them about the image is indeed true. "I think at the moment, we are the only company who can offer such a specialised tool for the media," Viers remarked, and Stefani explained that developers would continue to refine the product to make it more and more effective. If staff still have doubts, particularly in the case of major, potentially controversial stories, they will contact the sender directly via telephone or email. "We will double check, triple check, quadruple check if it is a big story," stressed Stefani. "If someone appears to be trying to mislead us, we will expel them from the community," he added.
"We will double check, triple check, quadruple check if it is a big story."
This emphasis on checking the authenticity of the images significantly increases the value of Citizenside's service, as amateur content with no professional input can be relatively meaningless. Citizen journalism site The Observers offers a similar commitment to fact-checking, a trend which has the potential to bring citizen journalism closer to the mainstream media in terms of respectability. Stefani asserted that he believes it is the company's focus on "quality not quantity" which makes their service so appealing to clients. "We don't believe in the idea that everybody is a journalist, just because they have a camera and a blog," underlined Viers. Rather what he believes works is a form of professional-amateur collaboration: "an association of bloggers, witnesses, journalists and editors."
A global citizen photo network?
The most crucial difference of Citizenside, however, is its mission to share its technology. Stefani explained that he and the other Citizenside founders quite quickly understood that, as Kyle MacRae pointed out, one agency alone will never be able to get an image from every breaking story. But what if many different publications all over the world each hosted their own UGC community that was managed by Citizenside? This is what Citizenside is aiming to do by offering its 'Reporter Kit' to traditional publications, sold via AFP. The tool was released in September 2008 and the first client to purchase it was Voici, a French gossip magazine. Citizenside is about to launch the same service for Public, one of Voici's rivals and is also in talks with one of France's biggest daily newspapers, a couple of regionals and one UK paper. The Voici community allows readers of the magazine to upload their images to the site, and if Voici decides to use them in its print magazine or on its main website, then it will pay the contributor, and Citizenside takes commission. If Voici would like to sell an image to another outlet, then Citizenside retains exclusive resell rights, and the profit will be split equally between Citizenside, the magazine and the contributor. Recently, for example, a video showing Hollywood star Lindsey Lohan being showered with flour by animal activists on her way into a Parisian club was sold to US TV channel Extra TV for a considerable sum. Stefani described how he plans for Citizenside's income to be based largely on this reselling of content, rather than on sale of the technology itself. Incidentally, a years' use of the Reporter Kit tool would start at about 13,000 euros, moving to upwards of 20,000 for premium tools and tailor-made development.
What if many different publications all over the world each hosted their own UGC community that was managed by Citizenside?
Citizenside hopes to make the checking process easier and easier for its clients, for instance by developing a system which would make automatically judge an image's authenticity based on different variables and display a red or green light. Viers stressed that he sees citizen contributions as essential in today's media environment, if news organisations "ignore UGC they are going to make mistakes, and they are going to miss opportunities." Stefani explained that "we had a hard time being understood at first because journalists would just see us as competitors." But he insisted that rather than a competitor, Citizenside aims to be "a new tool, a new source of information." They believe that particularly in a local context, such a community could be extremely valuable to their clients, who would be able to forge better relations with readers, and provide a greater level of coverage. Viers pointed out that hyperlocal news is often incredibly important to people, and it gives citizen witnesses a real chance to flourish.
Dollars for amateurs
So Citizenside believes it has found the solution to the problems raised by Scoopt founder Kyle MacRae. Stefani brought up the example of the man with the first Hudson plane crash photo previously cited by MacRae, who argued that it was the man's instinct to share the photo rather than sell it, and that he was very unlikely to have heard of a citizen photojournalism project that would help him sell it. If Citizenside achieves its goal of establishing popular image sharing community sites for major newspapers, then in the future, a similar witness to an event may well think of sending such a photo to their favourite newspaper, where it would be shared amongst the community, but could also be sold for a significant amount of cash. The project has a great of deal of potential. Obviously, the company is still very small and is yet to break international barriers, though they hope to soon. Stefani admitted that they will need a cash injection if they are to expand beyond Europe into Asian or American markets. There is likely to be some resistance from more traditional media operations to the inclusion of amateur content in their publications, and it might take time to change mindsets.
But the current economic downturn could in fact benefit the rise of citizen journalism as news organisations look for cheaper ways to obtain coverage of events. Editor and Publisher recently ran a story on World Press Photo and Pulitzer prize winning photographer Anthony Suau, who is currently struggling to find work because media outlets do not have enough money to pay him. Using photos from readers is undoubtedly cheaper than employing prize-winning professional. Citizen photojournalism does make sense, if there is a way to prove that the photos are real. A reporter can write a story from afar, but you cannot take a photo from afar. And although many photos will not be of the quality of those taken by experienced photojournalists, professionals cannot be everywhere at once, and taking advantage of the camera-armed public is definitely better than nothing.
Photo credits: Laure Bernard