While in a masters program in photojournalism at the University of Missouri in the early 90s, Brian Storm started a company called MediaStorm. He envisioned producing photojournalism projects that would be published on CD-ROMs, the hot technology at the time. But he dropped the idea after graduation and went on to hold several high-profile positions in the New Media world, including director of multimedia at MSNBC.com and vice president of News, Multimedia & Assignment Services for Corbis, a digital media agency founded and owned by Bill Gates.
But since Nov. 16, 2005, New York city-based MediaStorm has gathered force in its second coming as a multimedia journalism website, winning accolades and awards. OJR spoke to Brian Storm about how his boutique media company continues to crank out high-quality journalism.
OJR: What was the impetus for taking a fresh look at MediaStorm in 2005?
Storm: I looked at the landscape and I remembered vividly in 2000 when broadband penetration at home was 10 percent. But by 2005 or 2004, we actually hit 50 percent of the online households where broadband enabled, and that’s a sea change. You remember surfing with dial up. That was a different experience. Now it’s always connected. Broadband gives you real video speed.
The other thing that I was noticing was the desire for video advertising. Madison Avenue now was looking at the Web saying “Pre-roll video ads are a big deal,” to the tune of $275 million business in ’05 looking to go to $640 million in ’07, looking to triple in ’09 to $1.5 billion. I think those estimates are low. I think it is going to grow faster and bigger than that.
The other thing I noticed was there was a supply problem. Everybody was saying, “look there is demand to place these video ads but there is no content to place it against.” There was no inventory. And if you look at circulation going down and fragmented television programming, and about viewers moving to the Web, now all of a sudden you have Madison Avenue wanting to place $25 dollar CPM video ads in front of content. This is a huge financial opportunity that just didn’t exist a couple of years ago.
The other thing that has happened is what I call the democracy of production. So you think about things like this magic box that we are sitting next to. This is a Mac with 3 terabyte hard drive in it. I mean, it comes with a seatbelt. It’s a multimedia powerhouse machine. This is like a Hollywood production facility that we are sitting in front of in my apartment. And it’s not that expensive. Final Cut Pro is 1,200 bucks. And it’s like a Avid system that used to cost $250,000. HD video camera used to be $70,000. Now they are $5,000. I own a HD video camera, man.
So that’s the democracy of production–that’s a revolution in my mind.
So I wanted to get back to my publishing roots, frankly. I had seen a lot of great projects and I felt like I had developed a model for financing and producing and creating them. And I felt completely empowered because of production tools because the way the medium has matured.
It was just the right time to do it… to start this thing again.
OJR: You said you had developed a model for financing. How are you financially staying alive in the middle of Manhattan with four employees and putting out publication that is really about socially aware journalism?
Storm: How do you do that? You cash in on your relationships and you go build really high-end stuff for big name brands.
The Los Angeles Times hired us to produce a Gail Fisher project. It’s called “Blighted Homeland” it’s about Navajo living in Monument Valley where they’ve been doing all this uranium mining and so the people you know have been affected adversely because of that the mining. We’ve produced this project for the LA Times.
OJR: So their photographer collected the audio you worked with them to produce this?
Storm: Exactly, Gail actually came to New York stayed in our guest room–we have a guest room exactly for that reason. And Pam Chen produced this project. And I do the oversight.
Early on, MSNBC.com hired me to produce video projects for a magazine called “Take 3″ which was targeted at baby boomers. There was the story about “The Vanishing Americana” about the “Milk Man” and it was laden with sexual innuendos; it was really funny.
And then we did a piece called “The Sandwich Generation” which is also now on our site but we first produced it for MSNBC. It was at the level at which I want MediaStorm projects to be so it was also on MediaStorm.
Plus we do a lot of consulting. It’s standard interactive Web stuff but most companies don’t have teams that can produce that for them.
The other thing we are doing is that we really are acting as a multimedia agency. And I am really excited about this element.
There is the technology that we deployed for them so we work as both a consultant and a production arm. We help them tell the story but we also help them get up to speed with doing video.
OJR: Tell me about the auction model you tried out for selling a project last year?
Storm: I sent an e-mail out to 25 key clients inviting them to participate in a private auction to license the exclusive right to premier “Iraqi Kurdistan.” So the premier was auctioned off eBay-like. So what happened is I actually had ability for people to write their name, and publication, their e-mail address, their bid amount, and they’d hit send, and that would come to my cell phone in my e-mail and I would say yes, approve it. So we now have a template for doing digital auctioning of editorial content where we are allowing the client to drive the price up. I mean, I could have said $10,000. I could have guessed what that that’s what it was worth. It was far better to let the industry sort of decide. You know I mean that’s the key issue. Producing great content and trying to get it to the right publication and you get paid an appropriate fee to do it. I mean that to me seems to be the Holy Grail of trying to do these kinds of stories.
OJR: With the ability to route your content to TiVo over cable, you are poised to be a broadcast company…
Storm: In my mind we already are a broadcast company. We have this unique place on the web right now that we can do pretty much anything we want to do. I can publish any story I want. I know the next nine projects that we are going to produce for MediaStorm. I am sitting on 200 stories right now. Thirty of which I would love to produce for this site.
OJR: Your roots are of a photo editor… how do you see the Web’s impact on photojournalism?
Storm: So with this idea of a photojournalist going in and taking a picture but also doing audio reporting, we can give our subject a voice and I think that that is such a critical element. That changes the equation.
Most of us as photographers, we got into this because we didn’t want to write. We love journalism but we wanted to tell the story through photography. And because we are not necessarily great writers, the thing that’s so beautiful about sound is that we don’t have to write the story we can let the subject write it for us. And it’s just refreshing to hear the subject of a story tell you their story as opposed to some beautiful television person telling you… standing in front of the situation saying this is what you should be seeing and what you should be thinking. I don’t feel we need that.
I always describe it as documentary photojournalism meets National Public Radio. It’s like a combination of the fly on the wall of “This American Life” and the story telling approach they take meeting the sort of fly on the wall hands off approach that we take as a documentary photographers.
OJR: What does that say about just journalism in general? There is no more division of labor… the photographers, the print reporters, the radio reporters, the television reporters…. You have to be good at multiple things?
Storm: That’s the trend but for economic reasons and that bums me out. It shouldn’t be an economic decision.
What we should be doing in journalism is figuring out the very best way to tell a story. There’s division of labor on a breaking news story, where you’ve got people doing multiple things to try to meet the deadline. That’s one form of news.
The stories I work on are long term. The difference is that these photographers are authors. Only Olivier Jobard was on the story with “Kingsley’s Crossing.” He spent six months of his life on that story. Now if we would have had the resources to send a crew on that story, I think it would have changed the intimacy of it.
So I think there is a fine line between our just redoing this because it is just flat out cheaper to not send a sound guy.
OJR: Right, so you’ve been in this field for about 14 years. What’s really surprised you with MediaStorm about audience feedback? Enthusiasm for this kind of work?
Storm: Honestly it’s not surprised me that the “audience” has responded, because this medium is completely different from television, for example. The television has a signal that they send out there and they have to homogenize it frankly, because what they are trying to do with that one signal is trying to get as many people to watch it. So therefore they get stories on Britney Spears’ belly button because that’s going to give you more numbers.
The Web is completely different. I can have thousands of stories on my website and its exact opposite mentality which is I want to do a story about AIDS that will stand the test of time because those sort of affinity groups will find it and promote it. You will find people promoting “Bloodline” off their blog or off a foundation site or charities. They want advocacy work to be able to get people to be inspired and act and give.
There are a lot of interesting things about the way the audience is different. About 70 different countries hit our website. How do they find us? It’s all word of mouth. We don’t do any marketing. It is all viral conversation and its exact opposite of broadcast. When we launched on November 16, 2005, maybe 500 people watched our project that day. Today there are thousands of people watching those same projects who have never seen it before right so the whole time-shifting capability is really critical to this medium.
I wouldn’t say things have surprised me I think what they have really done is to encourage me to believe what I always believed about people: that they really do care and they do really want quality stories. I think mainstream journalism isn’t always set up to deliver that. They’ve got to feed the beast. They’ve got to shoot for numbers. The biggest problem with big journalism right now is answering to shareholders, instead of to their readers. They are trying to drive a profit margin at twenty seven percent instead of saying let’s invest in journalism and you know satisfy and gain readership. They are answering to the wrong matrix in my mind.
I hope this is just one example of the kind of company that is going to say that it’s time to take journalism back. I know I’m not going to make a pot of money with MediaStorm. I’m not going to. I’m just continuing to do stories that I believe in.
You know that’s that whole living a rich lifestyle thing. You know making money is a necessary evil to stay in business but it’s not our focus. It’s not like any of us got into journalism to make tons of money. We got into journalism because of the experiences—the rich lifestyle.
OJR: Nicholas Kristof, a columnist at the New York Times, recently invited readers to “tell the story” using the material he has gathered with his producer Naka Nathaniel on a trip to Darfur. What are your thoughts on audience participation-–helping with the process of production?
Storm: Well that to me, honestly, sounds like a gimmick–and that’s what that is. But if that gimmick gets more people to care about, and learn about, and understand what’s going on in Darfur, I’m for it.
I think citizen journalism is incredibly exciting because we need to engage the audience. We just do and getting them to tell their own stories or to comment on a story. I think that’s super important and valuable. I think we as professional journalists have to contemplate what that means. Breaking news is really not for us any more because there are going to be tons of people on the scene. We need to be the people who come in with our rich journalism skills and do the definitive story… the story of record if you will.
You can see more MediaStorm projects at http://mediastorm.org. Brian Storm can be reached at brian [at] mediastorm.org.