Right place, right time: how Newsflare built a business on thrill-seeking footage

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Driven by the creativity of sky divers, tornado chasers and opportunist citizen journalists, an idea hatched in a London pub has grown to a business that serves 800 clients in 50 countries.

Today, Newsflare oversees the video output of an army of more than 60,000 registered filmers.

From offices in Farringdon and Los Angeles, it sells to more than 200 news publishers, from The Washington Post to Mail Online, and feeds a growing demand for user-generated video (UGV) from television production companies and brands.

It splits the proceeds 50-50 with content producers.

UGV filmers can be divided into three main groups, says Newsflare chief executive and co-founder Jon Cornwell.

First, there are the thrill-seeking ‘chasers’, who might get their content by racing after extreme weather conditions or by throwing themselves from a cliff and filming the view from a wingsuit. Next are the ‘creators’, social media influencers who might have built up a legion of followers on YouTube or Instagram for their make-up or cookery skills, and turn to Newsflare to spread their work across multiple platforms. And then there are the ‘chancers’ who happen to be in the right place at the right time to film something newsworthy or quirky.

Cornwell says 73% of Newsflare’s sales are generated by registered filmers, who choose to be represented by the agency rather than pitch directly to platforms. “Essentially what they are doing is granting us the position of sole agent. It’s a bit like if you sell your house, they are appointing us exclusively to sell it on their behalf,” he says.

“We pay within 24 hours for every direct sale and really focus on delivering a first class experience to filmers. I think that’s how we differ from the big publishers. It’s almost like the filmer gets in the way of the story for a lot of the journalistically focused organisations. That’s cultural and goes back a long time.”

Newsflare, which has a staff of 40, has grown quickly with the rise of amateur videography. When Cornwell and co-founder Bevan Thomas hatched the idea in The Yorkshire Grey pub in Holborn in the summer of 2010, they saw an opportunity in the emergence of high quality phone cameras. “Apple had shifted about 50m units of different versions of iPhone at that point, it is now at about 3bn. It was the early days of the smartphone,” he says.

The UGV game today is much bigger than smartphones. Many filmers work with DSLR cameras, while extreme sports ‘chasers’ strap on GoPro devices or helmet cams. Material arrives at Newsflare after being shot from motor vehicle dash cams. “The benefits are that it’s perfectly framed, steady and 4K, so it’s almost the same effect as a tripod-mounted camera,” Cornwell says. A newer source of video is home security CCTV. “It will be ‘something funny my pet did while I was at work’, or ‘I caught my cleaner stealing’, all of that sort of stuff.” Then there is drone-captured footage, which he describes as “phenomenally high quality and often really quite beautiful”.

Newsflare’s initial market was the local news industry but it discovered that offering clips to publishers at £10 a time was not a scalable way to recruit filmers. So it pivoted. “We diverted our attention away from getting a member base to news-gathering from social media, especially YouTube,” Cornwell says. “The Mail Online and The Telegraph were two very early clients, closely followed by The Sun. We realised we had the beginnings of a business with potential for scale because they were paying us a licence fee for video that we were selling through our platform.”

The extreme weather conditions in the UK in the winter of 2013 raised public concerns over climate change and brought TV production companies to the door of Newsflare. It supplied the raw footage to help make the Channel 4 documentaries The Floods that Stole Christmas and the Floods that Foiled New Year. Newsflare opened its LA office 18 months ago to put it close to the action of “where the future of the film and TV industry is, being duked out between Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple and Quibi,” Cornwell explains.

Brands started coming to the platform for UGV following a bizarre parachute jump that accidentally landed on a Sunday league football pitch in Salisbury in 2013.

“The referee blows his whistle and is going nuts and this parachutist is folding his canopy next to a hoarding that says ‘Specsavers’. We sent it as a bit of a quirky clip to the Mail Online and The Guardian,” Cornwell says. Minutes after the video went online, Newsflare took a call from Specsavers asking for a quote to use the video in a commercial. Cornwell plumped for a fee of £2,450. “They didn’t even negotiate once, so we totally undersold that,” he says.

Today, many brands are still reticent to use UGV, probably due to concern over rights issues. But Cornwell senses a shift in attitude with the recent interest in Gillette’s controversial 'We Believe: The Best Men Can Be' film which used UGV footage in tackling the theme of toxic masculinity. “Sexist behaviour through the ages is professionally shot and then as soon as the new dawn arrives, it cuts to UGV of a guy breaking up a fight, and UGV of a man holding his baby,” he notes. "I think that is really significant – it is saying subliminally that this isn’t just us telling you, but that this is the way it really is and the way we are getting that across is through the use of UGV."

He claims that UGV, when used in a brand context, is associated with realism rather than doubted for its provenance. “There’s a certain authenticity you get with a video that has been shot in a candid scenario, with real people living out a real set of events, and not a narrative created by a director. Used in the right way, there is lots of evidence now to suggest that audiences and therefore consumers trust this kind of material much more than they do something shot-to-order by an agency for a client, or something that's been previously shot-to-order for a stock footage agency and then downloaded as stock to flesh out a bit of creative.”

Newsflare hopes to reassure brands over rights issues by the use of its own Trust Algorithm technology, which it uses to guarantee the lawful copyright of the material.

As for news, well that’s changed he says. “Now there are data points that prove what is of interest to the public – and it’s not the same as what editors thought it was.”

The data shows that human interest stories are the most shared, but the “sweet spot”, Cornwell says, is a human story with topicality. He cites the example of a video that showed part of a glacier falling away before creating a giant wave rolling towards the filmer. “They all scamper off the beach and get away just in time. A crucial element to a successful video is that if there is jeopardy it ends well. Videos where there is not a good outcome at the end don’t perform as well commercially.”

Because Newsflare has a diverse portfolio of news clients, it serves a wide audience. “What’s not interesting to The New York Post may well be interesting to a Japanese TV production company, and what’s not interesting to The Times in London may well be interesting to Bild in Germany.”

UGV remains attractive for many publishers, he claims, even as more news sites choose paywalled models that are less dependent on raw traffic. “A video can be that asset that is shared and brings fresh people to their platform for the first time; it can increase the dwell time of existing audience, “he says. “Crucially, it can be a route to monetisation, which they are all struggling with as digital display advertising rates have gone through the floor.”

Above all, he is confident that the quality of UGV being produced is only going to improve. “More and more fantastic footage is being uploaded by the public with ever greater production values – and because there is more of it, there is more cream on the top.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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