With Webby Awards crowding his shelf, Storm says anybody can start a company like MediaStorm. Overnight. All it takes is the right skills and a love for journalism.
“MediaStorm is like a garage band. We work at home in our socks, but we have distribution all over the world across a variety of platforms.”
In 2008, MediaStorm won two Webby Awards and Best Use of Multimedia in the Pictures of the Year Contest. In 2007, MediaStorm won an Emmy for Broadband Documentaries, took first place in both the Best of Photojournalism Contest and Pictures of the Year, and won the Webby Award for the Magazine category.
Q: You have pieced together an unexpected, innovative career since entering the Missouri Journalism School as a master’s degree candidate in the early 1990s because of your interest in photojournalism. Let’s start at the end by discussing your current venture, MediaStorm.org. You say its “principal aim is to usher in the next generation of multimedia storytelling by publishing social documentary projects including photojournalism, interactivity, animation, audio and video for distribution across multiple media.” That one sentence covers a lot of elements. From my perspective as an old-time newspaper and magazine investigative journalist, you are re-inventing muckraking, an exciting development. Others visiting MediaStorm.org will bring entirely different perspectives to what they see and hear. How did you conceive a venture that would offer so much content to so many publics?
A: For the past 15 years I’ve been encouraging photojournalists to give their subjects a voice instead of just taking their picture. I learned while a graduate student in photojournalism at the University of Missouri in 1993 that pictures are more powerful, more meaningful, if viewed in context. One way to provide that context is to do an audio interview with the subjects of the pictures. Most photojournalists choose that path in journalism because we didn’t want to write, but with this approach we allow the subject to write the story for us and we gain authorship in the process. It’s like documentary photojournalism meets National Public Radio. I’ve written quite a bit about this approach, the rationale and details of how to go about gathering audio on our site at http://mediastorm.org/submissions/index.htm.
One early example from my days at Mizzou was working with fellow student, Torsten Kjellstrand, who was doing a story about black farmers in the Missouri Bootheel for his master’s project. After each trip, he’d come back with these incredible pictures and tell me the stories behind the pictures. I said, “Man, you’ve got to take a tape recorder with you, you’ve got to get the voices of those farmers and their family members. I want to hear them tell their stories.” At that time I was producing CD-ROM’s and wanted to use the audio to drive the narrative that would provide the context for his images. He took my advice, and as he listened to what the farmers were telling him, he learned about other scenes, other people he needed to document to create a more complete story. Then I interviewed Torsten about what he was thinking while documenting each scene and person, and I could mix his audio into the presentation to give viewers insight into the context of what they were seeing. If you do the audio interview, the subject will write the story for you; it’s a really powerful way of thinking about captions. I call it captions on steroids.
By 1994, after a journalism student journey to National Geographic in Washington, D.C., I shifted my emphasis from shooting pictures to displaying the photographs of top-tier photojournalists. We’re sitting in an auditorium at the Geographic, Mecca of photojournalism, and we’re watching these incredible photographers show their pictures. One of them showed 81 images that showed the Berlin Wall coming down and the impact afterward on Eastern Europe. He said only one of the pictures had been published, in a German magazine. This was a defining moment in my career. I thought, we’re just preaching to the choir. The public needs to see these images. Why is it that the best photojournalism on the planet is not being seen by anyone other than photographers? I wanted to help him realize his vision in front of a larger audience.
That’s still a primary goal for me today. The production tools and distribution models are far more robust and much less expensive now. You can start a company just like MediaStorm overnight with the right skills and a love for journalism. Everybody is looking for a great story; you don’t have to be a big-name person to do a great piece of journalism. It’s really about commitment and time. For recent graduates especially, now is the best time to do it when you don’t have a mortgage and you can still live on Taco Bell. It’s something you’ve got to do, though, for the right reasons. It’s not about making money, you know, I mean I hope that’s not why you got into journalism.
Q: “The Marlboro Marine” is one of the documentaries, 16 minutes in length, available on your site. The documentary turns the generally accepted reality about American involvement in the Iraqi War inside out. Could you elaborate?
A: The photograph by Luis Sinco of Marine lance corporal James Blake Miller that so many people have seen has been interpreted as a macho American Marine smoking a cigarette while glaring at the Iraqi enemies. The Los Angeles Times received ten phone calls from ten different mothers saying ‘That’s my son.’ They received over 100 phone calls from different women saying “I’d like to marry him.’ The way this picture was perceived is exactly wrong. He’s not this tough, macho Marine; in fact, he’s struggling with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. We know this because Sinco spent three years with Miller, and did audio interviews. The documentary is a good example of giving a subject a voice, of telling the story behind the story, beyond the iconic image.
We became involved because I do a lot of workshops, and Alan Hagman from the Los Angeles Times was at a workshop I did and said, “ I had no idea that you produced projects for clients. We have a project I would love for you to produce.” He sends me this material, and I look at it, and I’m thinking this is amazing journalism, I can’t believe the Los Angeles Times is hiring us to produce this. We spent two months in production, with Chad Stevens as the lead producer. We have the right to publish it on MediaStorm.org and to syndicate the piece as well with revenue shared evenly with the Los Angeles Times. So our workshops, our publication, our production model, our agency approach, they all fit together. There’s no one thing, there’s no silver bullet right now. You really need a diverse business model for a variety of platforms.
Q: What about the other documentaries you have completed? When I checked earlier today, I saw 23 available at MediaStorm.org.
A: One of my favorite projects is Kingsley’s Crossing, the work of French photojournalist Olivier Jobard. Kingsley is a 23-year-old lifeguard in the West African country of Cameroon. He wants to move to Europe to earn higher wages so his parents and seven siblings can enjoy a better life. Jobard followed Kingsley for six months across half of Africa and into Europe. What Jobard observed was the willingness of an individual to abandon everything in the hope of discovering a better life elsewhere. The documentary runs 21 minutes, and everybody told me nobody would watch to the end, nobody has that kind of attention span for such heavy material, especially in the YouTube web environment. But we know the completion rate on the documentary is 65 percent! It’s an epic story about about immigration, about the movement of people and why people migrate. There are these hooks in the story that make it more universal and allow people to connect with the character in a more intense way. I think Kingsley’s Crossing will matter 20, 30, 40 years from now. It’s timeless. When people visit MediaStorm, they know they will see something worth watching to the end. We don’t throw up lots of two-minute stuff to see what will stick. We don’t offer anything perishable. People come to our site with high expectations.
I don’t have to do perishable content that is deadline driven. I look for more universal stories that will stand the test of time. We don’t even publish on a schedule. It’s not like we come out the first of every month or on a Tuesday or whatever. We publish when we’re ready. And then the project goes viral. The first couple of days the email goes out and we get a lot of traffic and then there’s sort of a flat line and then there’s a massive bump when the blogosphere starts picking it up. And then it flat lines again, but it stays at a level, and over time in the aggregate there are a ton of people who see our projects.
I’m trying to help people understand the world, understand themselves, through what they view on our site. In many ways, I don’t want you to be able to describe what we do; I want you to start telling someone about the site, then I want you to get frustrated and say, “You know what, just go see it, because it’s good and it’s worth seeing.”
Q: I’ve heard you say you regularly get asked the question, “Dude, how do you guys make money; I don’t understand?” So, what’s the answer? How do you make money conceiving, producing and disseminating long-form, serious, multimedia journalism?
A: We have four lines of business, a publication, a multimedia agency, a production studio and workshops.
The publication is the soul of the company. It’s the place where we have the most freedom to innovate. We have over 130 countries hitting our web site each month. We’ve built a global audience in a very short time period.
The financial opportunity for the publication is in advertising, sponsorship and transaction. We can support three premium sponsors and we’re currently sponsored by the Washington Post.
Madison Avenue is looking at the Web as a new destination for rich media advertising, but there’s a quality supply problem. Advertisers want to place video ads but there isn’t much top-tier content to place it against. This is a huge financial opportunity that just didn’t exist a few years ago and I think it will support a new era of journalism.
Another way we make money on the site is via transaction. We allow people to purchase the DVD or buy the book related to the documentaries on our site. They click through to Amazon.com, and we get credit for the sale. It’s not just the sale of this DVD or book, it’s session-based, so anything a customer buys during that session we get credit for. We also syndicate many of the projects that we produce to broadcast and web sites around the world. We share those licensing fees 50/50 with the journalists and artists that we collaborate with in producing the pieces.
Our third line of business is production and consulting. Getting to collaborate with some of these incredible media organizations is really fun—with MSNBC on “Sandwich Generation” with the Los Angeles Times on Navajo Indians living in Monument Valley who are adversely impacted by uranium mining, with National Geographic on the ivory wars, about the poaching of elephant tusks in parts of Africa.
What I want you to think about is that National Geographic is not just a world-class magazine, it’s a media company. So Ivory Wars can show on television, on the Web, and in the print magazine. That’s what we’re trying to do, create an opportunity for people to see stories in multiple media, multiple formats.
Our fourth line is really about evangelism and sharing our approach. We’re teaching people how to report with distribution multiple media and formats in mind, and how to package the reporting afterward. Our workshops are really about sharing our methodology and we have a ton of fun as well as you can see from the behind the scenes piece that we produced at our New York City workshop (http://mediastorm.org/workshops).
A: I knew that we could partner with media companies to produce important stories, but I didn’t realize how big the opportunity was for storytelling with foundations. We’ve created projects that have been funded Soros, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations. These organizations have a mission and they have money to fund important work. Soros spent a million dollars sending 31 teams into the field to cover Hurricane Katrina, and they hired us to produce the Web site. Partnering with larger organizations really helps us reach a larger audience. Projects we have produced for MSNBC.com have had millions of viewers. Reuters hired us to produce a multi-chapter application where you have an interactive time line, rich informational graphics, and profiles of their employees who covered the Iraq war. Reuters has this amazing sign on Times Square where they promoted this project. Did you ever think journalism would be shown there? What a strange place to have that happen.
A: People find us through word of mouth; it’s all viral. Every project has an email link on it, and you can forward that to a friend. I mean, if a friend sends me an email and says, “you’ve got to look at this!”, I’m going to click that link every time. It’s a trusted source, right? That’s a unique capability and I think the greatest opportunity for good journalism to happen in this space, because quality is what people email around now and that’s what drives traffic.
The emergence of social networks and other Web 2.0 capabilities has also really benefited us. We launched a Facebook fan page and in like four days we had 400 fans for all corners of the world. That’s amazing to me, the way in which we have an ability to connect people who care about important stories from all over the globe. Once people find us they subscribe to our newsletter or our RSS feed which drives 35 percent of the traffic to our Web site. This is another reason it’s not important for us to publish on a regularly defined schedule. Our readers come back when we have something new and we use a variety of ways to keep them in the know.
Q: What about your background before founding the current version of MediaStorm.org?
A: When I arrived from College of the Ozarks, a small college in southern Missouri to study for a master’s degree at the Missouri Journalism School, I wanted to be a sports photographer; I had played baseball as a college undergraduate. I was quickly seduced by the power of documentary photography by hanging out with all the incredible people in the University of Missouri photojournalism department. Professors Bill Kuykendall, David Rees, Loup Langton and Zoe Smith were instrumental in my journalism education. While there, I ran the New Media Lab for the Journalism School, taught electronic photojournalism and produced CD-ROMs for the annual Pictures of the Year competition and the annual Missouri Photo Workshop, which documents life in a small town. Those were three really important years for me; they defined everything I think about now as a publisher.
After graduate school, I took at job at MSN News in 1995. I was the 11th employee at the startup that would become MSNBC.com a year later. I was responsible for the audio, video and photography elements of the site. To showcase visual journalism in new media, we created “The Week in Pictures” and “Picture Stories.” We put quality journalism onto the Web and viewers flocked to us.
After seven years at MSNBC, I moved on to Corbis, a digital media agency founded and owned by Bill Gates. I developed the strategy for the news, sports, entertainment and historical collections. In addition, I assigned the best photographers around the world to focus on creating in-depth multimedia products. We found new ways to market these multimedia documentaries to different publications, some in print, some in broadcast television, some Web-based. We had created a model for making long-form journalism economically viable.
After two years at Corbis, a management shakeup left me without a job, but gave me the opportunity to start my own business.
A: After the first few months, I hired a creative team; I’m in New York City, but some of them live elsewhere. It’s a virtual office.
The opportunities are there for quality in journalism even though it’s a tumultuous time. You visit a media company right now, their hair is on fire, they’re freaked out and they look at you and ask “What should we do?”
I think we need to get back to expert, collaborative journalism because it’s really hard to work at a high level across multiple media. It’s not about asking one person to do it all because we’re not all great at all these various skills. I don’t know one person who can do all these things. The industry supports the convergence model of journalism education so they can hire a twenty-something who can come in for $40,000 and do it all, but usually they do it poorly. To me that’s a business decision, not a journalism decision. I’m looking for people who are excellent at one thing, who are absolute rock stars at what they do. I hire experts in specific verticals who collaborate to create something that’s greater than any of them could create alone.
A: It’s a small but very talented team. Robert Browman, based in Miami, carries the title senior producer. We worked together at Corbis and MSNBC. He’s a great producer and journalist. Eric Maierson is a multimedia producer; he earned an MFA in creative writing, then developed and produced television programming as well as short films that showed at festivals before joining MediaStorm. He’s got mad, mad final cut skills. Chad Stevens is another producer, who has put together multimedia projects for clients such as Save the Children and the Global Food for Education Initiative. In 1997, he won the College Photographer of the Year award, leading to an internship at National Geographic magazine. Bob Sacha, a legendary photojournalist, is our third multimedia producer. His more than 25 years of experience include traveling the world for National Geographic, Life, Fortune and Time magazines. Tim Klimowicz, our interactive designer, is known for his ongoing interactive mapping project, Iraq War Coalition Fatalities. He loves his informational graphics and can code like the wind. Jessica Stuart, our project manager, spent five years as executive producer of the Eddie Adams Workshop and managed Adams’ extensive photo archive. She handles our blog, too.
Interview conducted by Steve Weinberg, Professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, Author and Freelance Magazine Writer.