The process of gathering and distributing editorial has changed irrevocably over the past decade. Yet the sourcing of photographers and media workers hasn’t. Matthew Craig tells Olivier Laurent how he aims to change that with his new startup business
Newspapers and magazines now have multiple outlets to fill online and in print, but the processes behind the scenes have not moved with the times. “I was page-one photo editor for The Wall Street Journal for six years,” says Matthew Craig, who left the newspaper in October to work full-time on Blink, the technology startup he founded. “During my time there, I was commissioning a lot of photographers – easily five a week – and our department dealt with a high volume of images. To make things worse, in the last 10 years, the media has gone through a lot of contracting. The pressure was to try to take a print product and make it digital; that meant that all of the developing power in these companies was put towards creating web content, with very little innovation in the thought process. In essence, we’re doing things in the same way we’ve done them in the past.”
Digital media has also created an ever-expanding appetite for video, adding another layer to the commissioning process and pushing publishers to create more content than ever. “The easy answer in the short term, and I guess the naive answer, was: ‘We will commission more photographers, but also train our reporters to shoot better photos and videos, and develop tools to source images from the crowd,’” says Craig, adding that this had mixed results.
“Within these past five years, we had a lot of success commissioning photographers, but we had fewer successes with our reporters, especially for photography, and as far as user-generated content is concerned, I see it falling by the wayside soon because so much vetting needs to happen that it just doesn’t make sense,” he says.
The challenge was to find a way to streamline the commissioning process within the newsroom, allowing editors to source more content from professional photographers. “That’s where Blink comes in,” says Craig. “We want it to become the best place for sourcing freelance talent, whether that’s a photographer, a videographer, an editor, a producer or even a writer.”
Location, location, location
An online platform connecting newsrooms with freelance staff, Blink lets editors know where a photographer lives or is currently located, as well as the type of work he or she has done in the past. “The process is fairly simple,” says Craig. “Photographers can sign up and fill out their profiles. We then point them to the app on Apple’s iTunes or Google Play, which they can use to update their location.”
The app, coded from the ground up by a team of developers based in South America, offers several ways of sending geographical coordinates, in order to protect its users’ privacy. “We understand the need for privacy,” Craig says. “It’s your information and you should be in control of what you submit to Blink. So you can choose to update in real time where you are, at city level or street level, or you can choose to manually update your location, telling people where you are going to be, for example. Blink will render anything that’s in the Google Maps database.”
Using the web-based version of Blink, photo editors can then search for photographers by name, email address or location. “If, for example, you need someone in Buenos Aires who’s a photojournalist and has a proven track record, you can search for that person on Blink.” At sign-up, photographers are asked to fill out their biography, with options to build a portfolio coming in the next few months. “We’re also building a rating system. For example, if The Wall Street Journal commissions you, once your piece has been published, you can add the hyperlink to your profile and request verification from the editor that the assignment really happened. We want to put this in place because having a portfolio is one thing, but showing that you can actually get the job done is more important.”
This aspect of the project is vital, adds Craig, because while most technology startups are judged on the number of users they have, allowing anyone who considers him or herself to be a photographer would defeat the purpose for Blink. “We’re strictly working on an invite-only system, at least for the first year,” he says. “We have a master list of photographers we’ve worked with in the past, and we are leveraging the connections we have.”
Of course, this is a not a tool just for the top one percent, this is a tool to make editors’ lives easier. So when people get invited, they also get 10 invites to distribute among their friends and colleagues, and it cascades from there. It’s an interesting project because a lot of startups are saying that growth is the only measure that matters, but unbridled growth on Blink would render it useless. We need to be very careful in the early days. We need to keep the quality high. At a certain point, we need to open the doors a little bit and that’s why you need a strong rating and vetting process.”
Blink is free to use, at least in the beginning, and Craig says there will always be a free option. “Our aim is to charge the client,” he says. “It can be a powerful tool for them. Once they branch out from having one editor and one account to having 10 editors with one database of contacts – that’s a coming feature – then they should start paying. We will try to figure this out once we have growth.”
Revenues could also come from white-label opportunities, with organisations licensing the software to use internally. Humanitarian organisations could license it to keep track of employees in conflict zones in real time, for example, making it easier to take action if they get into trouble.
In the meantime, Craig is focused on getting his product adopted in the industry. “Location is one of the last bastions of private data,” he says. “If we can leverage your nervousness about sharing your location against the opportunity of gaining new clients, then let’s take that leap together – especially if we make this service all about finding new work.”
Visit www.blink.la for more details.
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