A new Protestify service connects citizen photo- and video-journalists with media companies so that they can be compensated for their work, but will media companies pay?

  • While observing the Arab Spring from afar, Christina Hawatmeh became frustrated that photos and video taken by protesters were getting lost on social media. In 2013 she founded a company called Protestify—a portmanteau of protest and testify—that helps media companies visualize and analyze social media activity around hot-button hashtags. This year, Hawatmeh is rolling out a new Protestify service that connects citizen photo- and video-journalists with media companies so that they can be compensated for their work.

    Compensating citizen journalists is an idea that has been tried before, mostly unsuccessfully. If it works this time, it will be because Protestify has other revenue sources, and because, on top of content, they promise curation based on big-data analytics that media companies might not be able to replicate in house.

    “I didn’t expect to build a tech company,” Hawatmeh tells Civicist, “but I wanted to solve [this] problem and it turned out to be a tech problem.”

    The problem, as Hawatmeh sees it, is the “the disconnect…between mainstream media and people online.” While studying at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), she began building a service to help media companies better analyze, visualize, and acquire breaking social media content.

    Protestify sold their first images last month but they are only now getting around to automating the copyright agreement. Now, citizen journalists can simply tag their photos or videos on Twitter with “#protestify,” signalling their interest in selling the material. Protestify then sends them a copyright agreement and puts the photo up for sale on the website. Although the pricing is a bit variable, Hawatmeh says they are comparable to Getty images, averaging $200 per photo. The money is split fifty-fifty between the photographer and Protestify. Their service offers citizens a “more equitable way to contribute to the news,” says Hawatmeh.

    Prior to launching the “#protestify” feature, the company practice was to reach out to individual photographers about selling their work. Hawatmeh says that they have a 90 percent response rate from users, generally within one or two minutes.


    Screenshot of the Protestify content feed in the United States.

    Screenshot of the Protestify content feed in the United States.

    Without a doubt there is demand for user-generated content: A recent study by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that, in seven of eight television newscasts, an average of 11 pieces of user-generated content (what could also be called citizen journalism) was shown daily. More than 70 percent of that content was not properly attributed or identified at citizen journalism. The real question is whether news outlets will ever pay for photos and video when there is an abundance of free material.

    In 2005, media observer Steve Outing wrote a piece for Poynter headlined “It’s Almost Time to Pay Up for Citizen Journalism,” in which he predicted that photos would be the first thing media organizations would buy from citizen journalists. He cited three then-new online marketplaces for citizen content: Scoopt, Spy Media, and Cell Journalist.

    None of the three are still up and running: Scoopt was acquired by Getty Images in 2007 and subsequently shuttered in 2009; Spy Media was sold in a private deal in 2007; and Cell Journalist was acquired by ScribbleLive in 2014. According to a ScribbleLive spokesperson, “there was never any compensation for submissions.”

    When reached for further comment, Parker Polidor, who helped launch Cell Journalist and is now a ScribbleLive employee, wrote in an email to Civicist: “We were thinking about paying subscribers (at the beginning phases of the company), but never went forward with any of those plans.”

    Thomas Quinn, the founder of Spy Media, tells Civicist that citizen content is a tough sell because the “internet is a massive cloud where everyone can go in and get anything they want.” He adds that verification of ownership was a challenge, and that media companies are afraid of using material from unknown, and therefore less trust-worthy, sources.

    Steve Outing, who still covers media news, says that a surplus of content is an additional challenge. At any given event, he explains to Civicist, “there will probalby be enough people there that there won’t be one person that has the single best photo.”

    Outing adds that “perhaps there is space [in the market] for curation.”

    That is what Christina Hawatmeh is counting on. “Our domain expertise is how to find this content and organize it together,” she says. To that end, Protestify employs four hashtag researchers in addition to the development and design team.

    Protestify has been enlisted by one agency to build an election-centered visualization around a hashtag that the organization will encourage readers to use, so users can “be a part of the process all the way through.” The end result will incorporate photos, videos, comments, and a livefeed will run on the media website.

    Although Hawatmeh isn’t ready to announce any specific partnerships yet, she tells Civicist she has spoken with representatives from the Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York Times. She adds that Protestify currently is “user testing with a smaller, younger agency and a large enterprise client.” They plan to release details this month.