Turi Munthe talks to Shumon Basar

Tank _vol 7issue 2111

Portrait by Michael Donkin 

Turi Munthe is the CEO and founder of Demotix, the award-winning open newswire, which has over 4,000 citizen reporters in 190 countries around the world. The Telegraph describes Demotix as “journalism for the 21st century”. Munthe talks to Tank’s Shumon Basar about today’s news ecology and how, during the Egyptian revolution, Mubarak made a mediaeval mistake.

Shumon Basar Every new technological development tends to spark hysterics who claim that “this” will kill “that” – that “citizen journalism” will kill off “traditional media”. However, looking at Demotix, you actually turn traditional news media into a paying client for your citizen-generated news reports. Is user-generated material not about to assassinate newspapers, but in fact helping to rescue them?
Turi Munthe Whereas the AP and Reuters run their newswires with staffers and stringers around the world, Demotix uses communities or networks. That, structurally, is the only difference in our approach. Our many thousands of contributors are paid just the same as any freelancer supplying their work to the mainstream publishing media. What we’ve been trying to do is professionalise that grassroots journalism space.

SB So the hysterics have it wrong?
TM Given the current state of the news industry – some reports suggest that up to 40,000 professional journalists in the print and broadcasting industries have been laid off in the UK and US over the last three years – there has been an entirely understandable witch-hunt for the “baddies” killing off the old jobs, and citizen journalism has unfairly taken some of the flak. The reasons for the demise of the old models are simple and twofold: free online access to news, and the end of classified ads.

SB But the landscape of reportage is changing fundamentally, is it not?
TM “Citizen journalism” has always existed. Fifty years ago, the Telegraph’s staff photographers would rush to the scene of an event and simply buy the camera film of any passers-by who had captured what happened. Now that everybody has a camera on their cell phones – and they really do: the poorest Kenyans spend 40 per cent of their disposable income on telecommunications – the mainstream media has the potential to access an entire globe of stringers. If you look at Al Jazeera’s extraordinary, social media-inspired coverage of the Arab Spring, you’ll see that this kind of “networked” journalism isn’t the future; it’s already happening.

SB WikiLeaks reinforced the intellectual use-value of papers like the Guardian and the New York Times by handing them the millions of cables and entrusting professional, analytical journalists to extract sense from the morass. In Darwinian terms, will the strongest news institutions survive precisely because demand for informed information will never die away? Or is this wishful thinking?
TM It’s a slightly more complicated story: a lot of people were outraged by the Guardian and New York Times’ gatekeeping of the diplomatic WikiLeaks cables. Bill Keller of the Times, with the backing of the Guardian, took every single story they intended to publish to the State Department for sign-off. Many thought Assange had betrayed his mandate with the partnerships. That said, and at a more general level, there’s no question that the smarter news organisations already see their roles as curatorial: unbundling and verifying the extraordinary amount of user-generated news out there, and making sense of it for their time-poor audiences.

SB You’ve said that one of the paradoxes of an ever-increasingly globalised world is that it highlights the areas where news coverage is lacking: apparently only four US papers have foreign desks now. Does the phenomenon Demotix is part of make the world a flatter place, news-wise? Is this the gap you sought to fill?
TM Precisely. But we didn’t just want to plug the dangerously large news hole we saw growing in coverage. (During the Haiti earthquake, NBC shipped their Beijing team out to cover it, meaning that for over two weeks, there was not a single NBC journalist anywhere between London and LA.) Of course we want all the stories covered, but we want them covered locally. Pop-star correspondents today – the likes of Anderson Cooper or Christiane Amanpour – are in Benin one day and Bhutan the next. However fast they read, the knowledge they have hitting the ground can only be light, and can only be driven by a news narrative written from HQ. Because our Bangladesh stories are written and shot by Bangladeshis, and our Iraq stories are sent in by Iraqis, we’ve been called anti-imperialist media. It’s anachronistic as a term, but I don’t mind what it gestures to.

SB Is it too easy to turn what we are seeing in the Middle East into a triumph for social-media technology over long-term historicity?
TM By enormous good fortune, I happened to read Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 in early January this year. Two big take-away messages for me were, one: revolutions have the kind of failure rates of high-end restaurants, and if they ever do succeed it is all in the long game, and two: revolutions have always been contagious. 1830 was a pretty much continuous, European-wide explosion, and they did it without YouTube. So, caution. And caution also for the way these “technological/Facebook/Twitter revolutions” have been framed. No doubt, the fact that millions of young Arabs all have cell phones and Twitter accounts has made them more recognisable, and therefore more attractive, to the spectating West – some describe this as the famous “Arab street” finally getting a face – but there’s more than a hint of narcissism in the “Facebook topples Mubarak” story; as if the revolutions in the region were in fact the triumph of Californian values over despotism.

SB Has social media played any part?
TM There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that social media has had a foundational role in what’s been happening, both in terms of news gathering and in terms of the actual protests. The theme here is flatness. Social media allows mass movements to coalesce without all the old pyramid structures required for past mobilisations. Nobody led these movements because nobody needed to. There are huge advantages here: when Mubarak, a week into the Egyptian revolution, declared that he and Omar Suleiman were meeting with opposition leaders, we all laughed – there were none; there was nobody to co-opt! But the downside is that it’s far harder to formulate policy thereafter. I’ve heard of a number of attempts by some of the Tunisian opposition groups to Wiki-write and Google-doc their proposed manifestos and constitutions, but we wait to see how effective that will be.

SB When Mubarak’s government switched off the internet during the uprisings, it signalled an astute understanding of the infrastructural underpinnings of this new information ecology. Do you foresee the war on free information becoming more advanced and sophisticated? Or are those with something to hide fighting an unwinnable battle?
TM Many would say that Mubarak switching off the internet was about as mediaeval as things get. And it actually made things worse: Jacky Rowland of Al Jazeera English was there and said the result was that everyone poured into the streets because they couldn’t get their news anywhere else. Clay Shirky describes this as the “dictator’s dilemma”. But other regimes have far more sophisticated mechanisms in place, notably the Chinese. And the fight for and against free speech isn’t a war; it’s a cat-and-mouse game. Governments have the resources to learn fast.

SB An amateur, non-professional is able to take a telling photograph or video clip by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, but ask him to write up that same event and it won’t often work. Are sounds and images the future – in the way that Euronews coined with their “No Comment” feature?
TM Images and video can only tell certain kinds of stories. Mass protests, religious festivals, environmental disasters, one-off events: any news that features in the visible, physical world. But that is a minuscule fraction of the news, and the rest has to be done either with words or with data. Data journalism is exploding now – both in the UK and the US – and it’s one of the things that most excites me today. But there are also examples of crowd-sourced investigative journalism (the hardest, and perhaps the most important, kind of journalism out there).

SB CNN, and with it rolling 24-hour news, was born in 1980. Al Jazeera English introduced the notion of decentralised, multiple broadcast centres around the world in 2006. Livestation aggregates news stations on our laptops for free. What is the next news revolution after citizen journalism? And have you given it a name?
TM Yes – but if I told you, I’d have to kill you. §

  • Turi Munthe