We’ve heard the hype before. Citizen photojournalism, we’ve been told, is the future of editorial photography. Newspapers are shrinking their photography departments just as cameras have become standard features on mobile phones. With a camera-holder at every news scene, all a media outlet has to do is ask for submissions from any accident, disaster, terrorist attack or demonstration to be immediately inundated with a choice of free, quality images. Why bother sending a pro when the amateurs are already there, good enough and willing to work for next to nothing?
It was that hope that led to the rise of services like Scoopt, which took open submissions of news images and distributed them to the media. It was the potential of citizen photojournalism that led Getty to buy Scoopt in 2007. And it was the limitations of citizen photojournalism – the poor images, the rarity of important enough events, the inability of agencies to get between the photographer and the media, the difficulty of distributing images it did have to the right outlets – that led Getty to shut the service down two years later.
But crowd-sourced photography is back, and this time, it might just be working.
As Seen in Le Monde
Citizenside has been around long enough to have seen both the hype surrounding citizen photojournalism and the risk of believing it. Formed in 2005 as Scooplive, it was inspired by the London bombings when co-founder Matthieu Stefani saw a need for a way to deliver the images shot by people at the scene to editors in the news rooms.
“We got the idea then that there might be a market for eyewitness photos and videos of newsworthy events,” Matthieu told us. “So we started building what is now Citizenside to help connect people on the scenes, whether pros or amateurs, with people in the media. Essentially bringing the supply to the demand.”
The site now has 50,000 contributors based in more than 100 countries, of which over 10,000 are active on a daily basis, submitting more than 500 photos and videos each day. More importantly, Citizenside, which is based in Paris, has also managed to forge good connections with the local media. In the last fourteen months, the company has signed agreements with the three largest French dailies, the most popular radio station, the most watched TV news network and the two best-selling gossip magazines. Those connections mean that when an important image does come in, Citizenside knows who to call first and can place while it’s still hot and exclusive. Top contributions are also placed on AFP’s ImageForum, making them available to 9,000 media buyers around the world. This year, Citizenside plans to make similar agreements with publications in the UK and in other parts of Europe.
“We will hit the US market too,” says Matthieu, “as we think there is a real need for media, newspapers specifically, to reconnect with their readers.”
Some of Citizenside’s customers have already bought subscription programs, locking them into the service and committing them to purchases of videos and photos on a daily basis. Other sales though are more occasional, at just “a few pictures a day.” The launch of Editorside, a microsite intended to help buyers find content, and which is now undergoing testing, should push that figure past ten sales a day and “into the hundreds,” predicts Matthieu.
Sold for $100,000
That might suggest that we’re hearing the same old story: excitement about the power of citizen journalists failing to translate into more than a handful of real sales. But although Citizenside is interested in receiving “illustrative images” as well as its more usual demand for news shots, and while contributions may be sold more than once, it’s not a stock site that needs to make large numbers of frequent sales at relatively low prices. According to the Guardian, Scoopt’s most valuable sale was a picture of a Doctor Who monster, which went for £2,000 to a buyer who never used it. Citizenside’s biggest sale so far was a video of Jérôme Kerviel, the trader whose losses were believed to have cost French bank Société Générale around €4.9 billion. That clip was sold for an impressive $100,000. The seller would have received around 75 percent of that fee.
Most prices, of course are lower, and depend on the publisher as well as the quality, exclusivity and comprehensiveness of the package. A local website might pay only a few bucks for an image but a print publication looking for international exclusivity could pay tens of thousands of dollars.
Citizenside also tries to make use of Web 2.0 to turn its contributors into what Matthieu Stefani calls “a community of amateur reporters.” Members can communicate with each other, comment and vote on the stories they send in, and use the site as a source of real-time news. Citizenside is also able to use its members’ geolocation data to call for witnesses to particular events that it knows its buyers want to cover. Between three and ten such calls for go out every day for events that include bank robberies, natural disasters or violent demonstrations. The company is now working on an assignment service that will allow buyers to order images directly from locations where they don’t have staff photographers.
“The idea is that a magazine in San Diego might be interested in some event on the West Coast or in Europe, and could use someone qualified around the place where it takes place,” explains Matthieu.
But there will still be a difference between the kinds of images that an amateur shoots and the sort of pictures that a trained news photographer would produce, which is why Matthieu says that he regards his site’s contributors as witnesses rather than reporters, and their products as supplements to traditional reporting rather than replacements for it.
“We don’t believe what we do relates to ‘Citizen Journalism,’ but rather ‘Citizen Witnessing,’” says Matthieu. “We’re about facts and undeniable visual evidence.”
Maybe that’s one way to beat the hype about citizen journalism: rebrand it, then connect to the media and actually sell the pictures.