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Get paid - quickly - for eyewitness journalism

John D. McHugh; © Hazel Dunlop

John D. McHugh speaks

VISUAL journalism is "in the ascendancy" right now, but as journalists, "we're not big multinationals we're small freelances and we need the bloody money now!" Speaking at October's LFB meeting, photographer John D. McHugh, outlined the thinking behind his Verifeye Media eyewitness news agency, which he co-founded two and a half years ago.

An LFB member, John spent years covering Afghanistan - in Helmund but also in "provinces other than Helmund" (there are 34 of them). John "didn't go to embassy pool parties with NGOs... I was barely in Kabul."

In 2011, after years "dragging a huge amont of kit... up and down mountains", he first used an iPhone to upload photos from Kandahar City, which he sold to Newsweek. The "iPhone came into itself" as a tool of visual journalism in that year, "I was not the only person in the world [who] realised how useful smartphones were."

Also noticeable was "loads of content coming out of other areas... executions of Taliban by Al Queada... filmed by local people. " He was frustrated at being unable to "get in to report on extrajudicial killing. My fixer said, give me the kit and I'll report on it," but John had to break it to him: "I can't do that... I have to vouch for it, it doesn't work like that."

In the same year, John "turned up" at the Arab Spring's Bahrain protests. He only got in because he had "no gear, just an iPhone." The Bahraini Shia protestors on the spot taught him about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). These are internet services that allow you to mask where you are when you connect to the internet, by concealing your "IP address".

All this led John to start his news agency. He "spent about a year researching" it. He and his wife had sold their flats, and "instead of buying a house I put all of our money into it, over £100k... eventually I willl get paid. I hope."

He then talked to the "digital natives" about tech, but "we're not a fucking app, we're a news agency... Journalism is about gathering information, analysising info, distilling it down into the core facts... then reassemble it... hopefully in a way that's engaging."

Verifeye Media "use a lot of tech to do it faster and... keep the bloody costs down." That's why the Verifeye app works for the iPhone operating system only. There's no Android version for the moment. He build an app: "it gathers an awful lot of info that I need." As well as metadata including the date, who took the photo, when, which direction the photographer was facing and so on, this includes a "veracity rating" showing "their digital profile for last ten years... the stories they've worked on. Is this guy a lunatic?" John also checks with his contacts, "a lot of people in the industry.".

You have to apply for an account and be approved before you can work with Verifeye. In addition to the app, there's what John calls "the human journalist algorithm. Every story is approved by me. We reject far more than we publish... the machines can't tell if it's produced by Assad's propaganda people or the Chinese government."

Who are the eyewitnesses who provide the images? "Freelance journalists, refugees, aid workers in NGOs, people living in Aleppo at the moment... anybody who has the ability to take out their smartphone and document it." When the Calais clearance happened in March, our contributor, an aid worker who lives there, was up earlier than the journalists one morning, and vidoed "60 seconds of heavily armoured cops battering a pregnant woman... Only they could get it."

While 90 per cent of contributors are freelance journalists, "eyewitnesses produce a disproportionate amount of content." On the island of Nauru, where Australia's detained its asylum-seekers, where you can't get a visa, "the entire story come from people in the camp". Verifeye currently "work with someone we don't know" from The Berm, a sealed-off strip of the Jordanian border with a refugee camp behind a vast sand wall. John was able to verify his footage and send it to Channel Four. "We anonymise all of our contributors - Channel Four know everything we do except who it's from."

One journalist in Ukraine who John knows had to come back to the UK as he'd run out money, and go round to Vice, Buzzfeed and the Guardian to chase them for money - "that's not acceptable" says John. Verifeye's clients "have to pay for it there and then... before they download it." They can look at the content "with a big fat watermark", but then they've got to pay. One outlet, which John asked us not to name, first "wanted us to become a 'preferred supplier' and so on and so on". When Verifeye declined, "they suddenly found a credit card in the office."

As a result, Verifeye's eyewitness journalists are always paid "within seven days, unsually the same day.". Journalists, says John, just want clients to "pay people fairly, pay them on time, don't mess with our copyright." (Images are exclusively Verifeye's for one week only.) Its contracts are in plain English, no "heretofore" or "wheras". They "normally sell stuff for £200." of which Verifeye takes 50 per cent.