Should we be monetizing user-generated content?

Illustration: AP

In 2011, John McHugh, an Irish photojournalist, was trying to get to Bahrain to cover the Arab Spring. Several of his photojournalist friends were trying to get in, too, but most were detained at the airport, arrested, and deported. Figuring their equipment was tipping off authorities, McHugh devised a simple plan: He’d go without his cameras. It worked; McHugh slipped into the country. When he set out to buy a new camera, he was struck by what he saw.

“I counted a whole lot of people who were photographing and filming the protests for themselves, and disseminating their content through Twitter and WhatsApp,” he recalls. “That was the first time that I really saw people with the ability and the determination to tell their own stories.”

That was the first strike. The second was the culmination of his 10 years reporting in Afghanistan, where, among other things, he spent months trying to back up a story about Abdul Raziq, a provincial police chief accused of extrajudicial killings, but was unable to verify the video of an eyewitness’ testimony. Together, these events motivated McHugh to address a hole in the market. He wanted to tighten the loop between the growing supply of eyewitness videos that were breaking major news—from Bahrain to Ferguson to Staten Island—and the news organizations that were clamoring to verify and use them. He wanted to help freelancers shooting on the frontlines of wherever something was happening to make money, keep the rights to their content, and remain anonymous. He wanted the newswire he’d always wanted, but so far didn’t exist.

His solution is the Verifeye Media Pro Camera, an iPhone app he created with Feargal Finnegan, whose background is in tech startups. The London-based app enables eyewitnesses to upload their content directly to a newswire, where it’s verified, curated, and sold to news organizations. The model, which just this launched this morning, has important implications for newsgathering.

 

I think it’s wrong to say we’re not gonna pay sources but make money by stealing their content.

 

Not only does it promise to professionalize user-generated content and an army of citizen journalists—two terms McHugh deliberately avoids because they connote the content is somehow less valuable—it also raises significant ethical questions about how to place value on a segment of newsgathering that’s increasingly essential but is still considered the “Wild West.”

There are other companies that license breaking news. Storyful, for example, which specializes in discovering viral content, has been on the leading edge of this for a while, paying uploaders a portion of the ad revenue their content generates and trying to sell their clips directly. But Verifeye quickens and flattens the process in three important ways:

  1. By eliminating the need to track someone down for permission to use a video they posted to Facebook
  2. By partially automating the verification process, using a combination of metadata, birds-eye view maps, compass bearing, altitude reads, cross-referenced content, and EXIF data
  3. By selling the content for a flat rate of £200 pounds, which it splits 50-50 with uploaders, who get to keep the copyright

The fact that the app is co-founded by a journalist, as opposed to someone with no journalistic background, attests to its intuitive design and business model.

“The model is shoot, send, and sell,” McHugh says. “We’ll pay straight into your PayPal. You don’t have to do a thing. Just keep shooting.” Because clients have to pay with a credit card, uploaders are guaranteed payment within seven days.

If the immediacy of this transaction appeals to professional freelancers, it might appeal to publishers, too. For instance, in December, while still in the beta phase, McHugh tested the app while covering a news event in London, where soldiers had marched on Downing Street and thrown away their medals to protest the British government’s decision to bomb Syria. iPhone in hand, McHugh says he jostled with reporters to get to the front of the scene, where he filmed “15 seconds of this, 15 seconds of that, got some quotes, and was able to upload it all from the center of the pack.”

 

When you create a marketplace for breaking news content, as soon as you put a monetary value on eyewitness media, there is real evidence that people have crossed police lines, they put themselves in danger, they show graphic imagery when they have no training to do that.

 

“By the time the soldiers walked away, I had already uploaded 10 or 20 clips to the Verifeye newswire,” McHugh says. “All I had to do was log in as the editor and approve my own stuff.” 

The payoff was immediate. “Within a few minutes, The Guardian website bought it and had it cut and online. So while reporters from AP and Reuters and Bloomberg had to walk back to the office to download their footage, we had already sold the story and it was online.” Just last Tuesday, after Verifeye received some horrific footage showing a pregnant woman and her husband being beaten with batons by riot police at a refugee camp in Calais, France, they were able to verify and push it on their newswire within seconds, where it was licensed by The Guardian and Sky News.

“This footage didn’t come from a journalist, despite their huge numbers covering the story,” McHugh says, “but from a volunteer who works in the camp.” That volunteer has already been paid, according to McHugh. Mashable and BuzzFeed also licensed content when the app was still in beta.

While the app is an exciting step forward for verifying and monetizing eyewitness content, it also raises ethical issues that are relatively new to the industry. The app has tried to address some of these issues. One is anonymity. Verifeye anonymizes all of its uploaders and will not share their information with clients. But if an uploader wants to remain completely anonymous, even to Verifeye, then Verifeye won’t pay them. The concern is less about the principle of paying anonymous sources—or any source, for that matter—than it is about knowing who you’re funding. In this case, McHugh and his lawyers created this guideline as a precaution against accusations of funding terrorist groups or criminal organizations.

Also, while the app’s closed ecosystem ensures an unprecedented level of privacy and protection for eyewitnesses, as well as what McHugh calls an “evidential chain of custody,” there’s no legal precedent that can protect them should British security agencies issue a warrant to search Verifeye’s database, similar to what the FBI has done with Apple. McHugh says if MI5 or MI6 should ever arrive on his doorstep, “I’ll fight them every which way I can. What we say to people is if you absolutely, truly want to be anonymous, you can sign up with our system under a pseudonym, but then we can’t pay you.”

Another big question revolves around profiting off disturbing content, or content that was acquired by taking excessive or illegal risks. Again, Verifeye has created a built-in protection. It’s called a “traffic light system,” and it means that when McHugh or Finnegan have a concern about a piece of footage, they add an “amber light” warning to the contributor’s record. The warning initiates an email with the contributor outlining Verifeye’s concerns. After three amber warnings, the contributor’s account is suspended, “pending a full conversation with the contributor.”

“This basically means we move from sending advice to actually engaging in a discussion,” McHugh explains. “There may be times when what we are seeing appears far more extreme that it really is, and a contributor will always have the right to explain themselves, as I am a great believer in trusting the judgment of ‘the guy on the ground.’ But their explanation must be convincing. At this stage, we can either terminate the relationship, or, more likely, offer more mentoring.”

 

If Verifeye Media existed back then, we may have broken it first, possibly saved some lives, and most definitely have made the US military and other groups that backed [Raziq] a little less keen to throw money and kudos his way.

 

By not commissioning eyewitnesses or professional freelancers to go out and document an event, as some licensing agencies do, Verifeye also avoids any legal and moral responsibility should something happen to them. It’s merely a platform for distribution and sales. Still, that doesn’t erase the larger issue.

“I’ve really struggled with this idea of should we be paying eyewitnesses?, because I think it creates a dangerous precedent,” says Claire Wardle, who used to work at Storyful and is also involved with Eyewitness Media Hub, an organization that disseminates guidelines and research around this growing segment of news. (Wardle is also the Tow Center’s research director, at Columbia University.) “When you create a marketplace for breaking news content, as soon as you put a monetary value on eyewitness media, there is real evidence that people have crossed police lines, they put themselves in danger, they show graphic imagery when they have no training to do that.”

Other eyewitness apps, including Mobile Justice from the ACLU, Informacam, and Eyewitness to Atrocities, have cropped up in the human rights space, when activists needs to prove they were at a particular protest. None of these platforms are monetized.

On the other hand, Wardle, who is a friend of McHugh and informally advised him on the app, recognizes the importance of paying for content that has newsworthy value, adding, “I think it’s wrong to say we’re not gonna pay sources but make money by stealing their content.”

What gives Verifeye moral standing, Wardle thinks, is that people aren’t just going to download it on the off chance that one day they’ll witness something newsworthy. The app was designed by a freelance journalist to give other professional freelancers an edge, a network, and a chance to profit off the little bits of news they collect while chasing other stories. It likely won’t be enough to pay off a mortgage, but it could be a speedy way for freelancers—“people with hostile environment training, people who understand the ethics of showing people’s faces,” Wardle says—to supplement their wallets without the hassle of invoicing or chasing down a payment.

It also could have been useful to McHugh back when he was reporting on the police chief in Afghanistan.

“In the end, Matthieu Aikins broke the story for The Atlantic, and did a brilliant job,” McHugh says. “But if Verifeye Media existed back then, we may have broken it first, possibly saved some lives, and most definitely have made the US military and other groups that backed [Raziq] a little less keen to throw money and kudos his way.”

It would also be especially useful right now in a place like the Greek-Macedonian border, where reporters and refugees are gathering, the hunger of information is real, and an Instagram post may be difficult, if not impossible, to verify (given how easy it is, for instance, to fake one’s geolocation).

“I think creating a market for freelancers who are gathering news with a smartphone is not as problematic in the same way as paying activists or people who just happen to be there. But I think it’s really difficult,” Wardle says. “Verifeye touches on so many issues around business models, ethics, supply and demand, and technology that so many media managers just don’t understand. We should be having more of these conversations.”

Through Verifeye, McHugh and Finnegan may help get those conversations started.

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Damaris Colhoun is CJR's digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.