Yousuf Omar, who worked with the Hindustan Times nationwide, is an India-born South African journalist. He is cofounder of ‘Hashtag Our Stories’. Jamil Khan took his interview during his visit at the Prothom Alo office in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Prothom Alo: Since 2010, you are working as a mobile journalist. What inspired you to become a MoJo?
Yusuf Omar: I wanted to be an overseas correspondent. I wanted to tell stories about the wars and natural disasters. I wanted to travel around the world and meet the amazing people. I wanted to challenge prejudices and misconceptions around the world.
Then I went to all of the news editors and all of the media companies and I said, “Hey, can I do this journey?” And, they all said, “No, you're too young! You don't have enough experience and we don't need you to do this work. So I said, “I am going to do it anyway.”
And I started travelling and telling stories on my own as a one man and one woman band storyteller. I travelled from South Africa’s Durban to Syria’s Damascus. I went to Congo. I travelled all over the world telling stories on my phone and empowered myself to find hard-to-reach stories that weren't being told.
PA: Can you just say how hard that task was?
YO: It wasn't particularly tough. I come from a privileged background.
I come from a sense of comfort and I think I was able to make those brave moves because I had the safety net of a family that I could fall back on. And it wasn't particularly dangerous either. I mean people have this fear of Africa being dangerous, this and that and it wasn't. I think it just takes a leap of faith. Sometimes, you have to leap off something and say I'm going to try it and you don't know if it's going to work or not. And it happened to work.
PA: So, you have a second goal right to travel around the world especially from Durban to Damascus.
YO: That was my goal then (with your mobile phone) and my goal was as an individual to be a storyteller. Today my goal is to create a global news network of people with mobile phones that hashtag our stories. So, it's changed a lot. If you would have asked me ten years ago, I would've said, “No. I'm just Yousuf Omar travelling round. But now I've got much bigger goals.”
PA: All right! So, we are coming to the point of mobile journalism. Is there any particular definition of mobile journalism? Or do you have any other terms? Who are MoJos?
YO: Yeah. So, in a traditional sense MoJo (Mobile Journalist) is somebody who shoots edits or produces with a mobile device that can be a DSLR, a GoPro or a cell phone. I don't really care. It could even be any. I mean right now I've got a camera on my face. I press a button and lights starts flashing and I'm recording video of you right now. Some, people may call it selfie journalism.
Some people will call it mobile Journalism. Gene’s journalism is that everything you need to use fits in your genes.
For me the definitions don't matter.
What matters is good storytelling no matter what device you use.
PA: What are the pros and cons?
YO: So, the greatest pro of mobile journalism is speed, efficiency, intimacy where you forget that the mobile phone is even there, its cost is very low.
The greatest cons are the challenges and audio is very difficult to capture. Often it's very difficult to get a zoom lens on a mobile phone. If you are to capture sports or anything like that.
PA: Good connection of internet?
YO: Good connection can be a problem. It even can be a solution either. I mean, traditional cameras not going to have an internet at all and I have a camera that can connect to the internet in my pocket and that’s a powerful thing.
PA: So, there are some definite dos and don'ts when filming with the smartphones. What are the basic or common mistakes that mobile journalists usually do?
YO: So, most people say the basic dos and don'ts shoot verticals and don’t shoot landscape and all that. That's all rubbish. The biggest mistake of mobile journalists is that they start producing TV habits. They think everything must be like this, like news anchors speaking all formal. Everything must be on a tripod. Everything must be 16 by 9. That's all rubbish. The fact is you must be creative, try new things, experiment, and build new formats.
PA: Mobile Journalism has become an integral part of today’s newsroom. And what are the big changes? You can mention since when you started off working as a MoJos.
YO: When I started working as a MoJo in 2010, a lot of the big stories were still being captured by big broadcast cameras. The biggest shift is today user generated content now makes up the vast majority of the big breaking news stories around the globe and that trajectory is only going to increase. So, the biggest big difference is that now the journalist role has moved from creation to curation.
PA: You have a vast experience of working in different places in your life like Syria like Congo and what are the challenges of a mobile journalist working in such kind of locations or war-torn areas?
YO: The biggest challenge of a mobile journalist working in conflict environments is the same as any journalist. It's safety to your life from working in a war zone especially with a mobile phone. You effectively have a bit of radar on your back. Every time you miss a signal or during a Wi-Fi or do a live broadcast you are flagging on a map where you are and that can be incredibly risky.
So you should keep your privacy. Maintaining your privacy is very important, which is an open secret.
PA: You worked with the Hindustan Times for a long time and trained around 750 journalists there and then you moved to London to join CNN. How was the journey with all these?
YO: I've got an incredibly privileged background and I have had five years of foreign correspondent experience. I was then the mobile editor at the Hindustan Times as you said where I trained up 750 people across 27 offices to tell stories with their phones.
Amazing challenges to 75 different types of phones in one newsroom! Fragmentation is real. Some people had a 4.0 dollar phone. Other people had an iPhone and everything in between. And then moving to CNN working as a senior social media reporter everything comes with its own blessings.
I think the biggest blessing in India was I could move very quickly and experiment with new things. The biggest blessing at CNN is the editorial standard was very high. The biggest challenge was that a big old organisation has a very particular way of doing things and one day I woke up and said, “Hey, you can spend your whole life trying to fix an old company or should you build a new one.”
PA: That triggers you to shift from CNN and that's where we left CNN and launched hashtag our stories and traveled to 40 countries. Now come to your organisation. You and your wife, Sureya Yousuf are establishing this organisation which is totally based on social media and you travel around 40 countries and how you people are doing work with these platforms? Who is your audience? And who are your storytellers?
YO: So, the primary audience was 13 to 24-year-old Americans and they are consuming that content on platforms like Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube. We're entirely social, what we call socially agnostic whereas we basically mean we publish everywhere where mobile devices are. That's our audience. Our storytellers? We travel to Australia to South Korea to Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to train thousands of people to join our network. They have all joined our Facebook group. We now have 1,800 storytellers across one hundred and fifty two countries. So, they’re effectively creating a global news network with mobile phones.
PA: Is any other platforms like Hashtag Your Stories on social media? Do you know?
YO: There’s no platform like us. There are organisations that do training like DW Academy and then there are social media companies that do publishing like Buzzfeed.
There's not many companies that took the two together that said hey let's train people to raise the quality of mobile video and let's publish amazing formats and then together you have a nice new type of media organisation and you people are mainly from London, right?
But we are. We were initially founded and launched in the UK. We then set up in South Africa following some grant funding from the Media Development Investment Fund. We then acquired an investment from SNAP Inc and we now stationed in Los Angeles California.
PA: Let’s come to very specific points like video and the video is the primary source of getting information and young people. People are consuming more videos across the platforms as well. Do you think typical formats in Instagram, Facebook would be the primary sources for consuming video?
YO: Yeah! So, video currently makes up a large pool on the internet. By 2020, 75 per cent of the internet's traffic will be made up of video. Facebook recently announced that the primary way people will consume and create content on its platform will be the story format, vertical videos by the middle of this year. So, the story format of vertical video is a reality and organisations need to get with it. Right now, you're watching a video that is 16 by 9, landscape but effectively it's going to more become like this.
By middle of this year, it's going to become more vertical.
PA: If your only and primary sources are social platforms for distribution. what are the main focus points of video story telling?
YO: The main emphasis has to be gripping the audience very early in the story. The opening three seconds have to be the most compelling if they don't get your attention. Then they skip and watch something else.
That's the most important part.
PA: And what would be your top tips for mobile journalists?
YO: Our top tips to mobile journalists are to create something that doesn't look like television. Build a new format for a mobile generation so be mobile for mobile. Be mobile for mobile.
And I also believe this idea that reality is the new quality. You don't have to be in a suit and a tie and have any tripod or whatever. You don't need an iPhone. No, you know you can use whatever you got in your pocket. You can keep it real, you can get a selfie length away, you can move around and you can even tell the whole story. Keep it real and authentic. It can be simple. Young people actually lost trust in traditional media. It’s happened in Bangladesh also.
PA: We want to talk about Bangladesh. There’re a lot of opportunities, here? So, why should Bangladesh’s news media include Mobile Journalism to their newsroom?
YO: Bangladesh needs to employ mobile journalism strategies because there is an enormous opportunity as there is so much user generated content here and the opportunity for newsrooms to curate on that will create all sorts of new products. I also think a lot of newsrooms here are quite low on resources.
You don't have big enough teams – one for Facebook team and one for YouTube and Instagram and hire a 100 different video editors. So, you need everybody in the organization to understand these skills.
They can shoot they can edit. That's right. That’s exactly taking it beyond your team.
PA: So how can we solve all of these problems?
YO: We need to realize that not all people in Bangladesh can afford high quality content, especially, the high quality video contents. And we need to create formats that are applicable to everybody whether that means telling stories in memes. So, they're very small. Making a video into GIF so you can go from a 200 Meg file to 2 Meg files. I think you need to create something for everybody here.
Many of them are from farming communities while many of them are far away from the big city. You need to create content that's relevant to them on topics that matter to them whether it's about farming, whether it's about water, whether it's about -- all of these issues are very important to people around this country.
Yeah that's one way we can solve these problems but you know the majority of peoples are conservatives and sharing the contents in social media. There are some issues like fact checking verifications of so-called PA: UGC content which is really spreading here in Bangladesh during some kind of massive protest or some which we had like the road safety movement. There are some challenges for us taking this UGC content. So what are your suggestions?
YO: There's a big problem and a big challenge in Bangladesh with fake news with people spreading information that isn't true. A fire will take place and we will share footage and we'll realize that footage was actually from three or four years ago. People were saying and somebody died in a situation and maybe nobody's died and there's a whole bunch of instances where people are sharing false information. The only way to solve this I believe by creating media literacy. We need to educate our audiences to help identify fake news so they don't spread it.
PA: There’re a lot of opportunities here in Bangladesh for the news media for the story tellers, for the social media. And so may we say, selfie storyteller is the future?
YO: There is no doubt that the future of content over the next five years it's gonna be selfie storytelling. It's going to be people with mobile phones creating amazing content and the job of Prothom Alo. And the job of groups like Prothom Alo is going to be to fact check to make sense of it all and to provide the insight, the why and the how things are happening around the world. I think it’s going to be very important.