Direct from the streets of Gaza – Demotix is the UGC picture agency

Demotix, a new startup coming out of London, is taking a pretty interesting approach to reinventing the newswire and with the wave of news coming out of the Israel/Palestinian conflict right now it is coming into its own. If you ever wanted to know what life and death was like on the ground in the middle of a war, this is it.

The idea is simple: anyone can shoot video or photos at a news event like a protest and upload the content to the site. The site only takes photos right now but text and video are due soon. Everyone who uses Demotix will keep the copyright and the right to remove the images from the website. The non-exclusive images will be sold for anywhere from between $150- $3,000, and videos will be sold by $500-$1,000/minute. Demotix shares 50 percent of the revenue from each sale with the person who contributed the content. Demotix has six-full time staff members and six full-time interns. The site has launched in Beta but in the next fortnight launches a full version, along with an Arabic version.

Founded by Jonathan Tepper and CEO Turi Munthe, the latter is a former journalist who realised that with old media declining in revenues the consequent impact on on-the-spot reporting and investigative journalism is huge. In its place has come what he calls Churnism – re-publishing AP or Reuters-like wire stories and pulling journalists out of the world’s hot-spots because they are just too expensive to run. In 2007, there were only 141 U.S. foreign correspondents in print and broadcast media, and there are currently only four newspapers that maintain foreign bureaus (The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the LA Times). In the UK, The Independent is in the process of cutting more than 60% of its staff, including 60 reporters.

Demotix doesn’t need to maintain a global network of staff reporters and its contributors get paid when it does. However, with many potential contributors living under repressive regimes, Demotix goes to some lengths to protect identities. Metadata inside photographs about the time of day or event or the owner are removed before the image is uploaded to the site. And the site uses a Tor system to scramble IP addresses from where photos are uploaded.

But the history of “UGC photo agencies” is patchy. Kyle MacRae founded a similar UGC picture agency in 2005 called Scoopt after realising that CNN’s coverage of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami had largely consisted of photographs or videos by people caught up in those horrific events. It also sold pictures direct to newspapers and magazines, splitting the fee 50/50 with the photographer. However the site ran out of steam, largely because the idea was pretty ahead of its time. Camera phones are only now common place in global hotspots. The site was bought by Getty Images last year and MacRae left to pursue other ventures. There are now other similar UGC photo agency sites. For instance, Yahoo runs You Witness News in partnership with Reuters.

However, Demotix might now get traction because the core technology – better cameraphones – is now commonplace.

And the content is pretty raw as you can see from this kind of imagery (warning NSFW) from Gaza, and above.

Munthe, an English-French-Swedish raised in London, has also worked at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. His research into the radicalization of terrorism lead him to believe that the aggressive approach, such as sanctions and bombs, doesn’t work. He thinks the “civil society approach”, where populations are allowed to vent their frustration via media, works better and takes “the lid off the pressure cooker.” Who knows if social media can actually help, but the idea that the suffering of your community can be communicated to the world may be of some consolation, however limited.

The site’s name, Demotix, is derived from the word ‘demotic‘, meaning ‘of the people’, a description coined by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BC to describe the form of writing used and most easily understood by the man in the Alexandrian street in 196 BC.

Update: As a commenter below points out there is also a French start-up called CitizenSide (formerly Scooplive).

Update II: This post caused a lot of controversy because in its original form it showed some very graphic pictures from the Israel/Palestinian conflict happening at the moment. Something you’d expect when a war was happening. Unfortunately the detail of the post was lost in the debate about the appropriateness of the imagery, plus I was accused of favouring one side over another. This was profoundly not the intention, but it was clear I had stumbled unwittingly into a political area because the post largely carried pictures of Palestinians under siege and no pictures of Israelis under rocket attacks. This was not done to favour one side – I simply couldn’t find any of the latter kinds of pictures on the site, simply because no Israelis had uploaded any at that time. This is arguably a drawback for a picture agency which relies purely on user-generated content, in that it leaves it to “the crowd” to gather the footage – and the crowd is not usually out to be balanced. I’ve now removed the imagery, other than the original, to illustrate the piece.