The Perfect MediaStorm by Frank Lovece
Rating: 9 / 10
A high-tech visionary reimagines photojournalism. Will his model of new media bury the old, or build on it?
I have not seen the future of publishing, and it is MediaStorm.
This may take some explanation.
That begins down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass – in DUMBO, acronymically speaking. The Soho of the moment, this neighborhood on the Brooklyn waterfront is home to art galleries, photo studios, chef-owned little restaurants and high-tech entrepreneurs in subdivided former warehouses – and yuppies, or what's left of them these days, filling the expensive condos and gourmet supermarkets that inevitably follow homesteading artists, photographers, chefs and high-tech entrepreneurs.
Not that you can't be both. Brian Storm, 38, founded his idea-machine company MediaStorm (http://mediastorm.org) while a college student in the '90s, then put it aside for years while being director of this and vice president of that at Microsoft, Corbis and MSNBC.com. In 2005, he restarted the company in his cavernous Manhattan apartment, and later moved it into this new, gleaming space at 55 Washington Street – a creative hive of studios, galleries, an art council, the alternative Brooklyn Paper, Spike Lee's ad agency, Spike DDB, and, in a nod to the area's industrial past, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers AFL-CIO local. As it happened, MediaStorm wound up relocating to a sizeable space that's nonetheless smaller than Storm's own home. "Well, I was a vice president at Microsoft," Storm says with a half-embarrassed smile.
View from inside the front door
Yet for the son of a steel-mill worker and a housewife, Storm is less about the money than he is about the mission. The money's part of it, sure: Storm, an affably apple-cheeked bear, has enough business savvy that he's attracted such name-brand sponsors as The Washington Post, such clients as the AARP, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Sports Illustrated, and such world-class photojournalists as Jonathan Torgovnik. (http://www.torgovnik.com/) The company's advisory board includes such media luminaries as Merrill Brown and David Elliot Cohen. That MediaStorm has won News & Documentary Emmy Awards in 2007 and 2008 only solidifies that Storm walks the walk and doesn't just talk the talk.
Although he does that, too: An interview with him in MediaStorm's conference room/photo studio begins less as an interview than it does as a sales pitch, one he's seemingly done many times before. But to his credit, Storm's a journalist at heart, and even as he spiels, he's answering my questions even before I ask them.
"There are four things we do at MediaStorm," he explains, practiced words tumbling atop each other in a rapid blend. "One: platform-agnostic publication, which means we distribute across a wide variety of platforms. Two: We're an agency, so we actually license and syndicate projects in the traditional model. Three, our big moneymaker: We're a production studio hired by other companies to produce for them. And four, what I care most about: evangelism and training – a lot of workshops, a lot of speaking."
At its most basic, MediaStorm is a Web site. Less basically, it's a collection of hybrid mini-documentaries – part magazine photojournalism, part slideshow, part TV-news segment, part first-person oral history. Twenty-four are on online so far, covering everything from the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide to an upcoming piece about the day-to-day life of a widowed family farmer. There's even one animated music video. Hey, you gotta have some fun.
Yet ultimately, essentially, it's a mission wrapped in a model. Storm's idea is to distribute challenging, socially conscious journalism that embraces – or more to the point absorbs, like through osmosis – the tools of 21st-century new media. In the process, he's pioneering a way of making serious news features palatable to a generation that gets its news, or what passes for news, from such untraditional outlets as blogs, YouTube videos and WikiNews – all of which ironically rely on traditional media, using network news clips and copious links to newspaper and magazine stories. Sure, there's a 24-hour cycle of cable-TV news, but have you looked at it? Take away the bloviating commentary and pugilistic talk shows, and you're left with celebrity fluff and sensationalism. Not everything. Not always. But when a satirical comedian like Jon Stewart asks newsmakers better and more incisive questions – with actual follow-up – than does virtually anyone on entrenched, institutional, and scared-to-offend-the-powerful TV news, then something's broken, and maybe MediaStorm is one of the fixes.
"I would call them multimedia stories," Storm says of his offerings, later amending that "multimedia" is a problematic term since "everybody is confused over what that word means." However you label them, MediaStorm's stories rely "on the same conventions as traditional journalism, but unbound by production tools and distribution. I don't have to fit [them] into a 30-minute slot for television. The gatekeepers are gone."
MediaStorm's 2007 News & Documentary Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary for Broadband ("Kingsley’s Crossing," by Olivier Jobard. Also nominated that year was MediaStorm's "Bloodline: AIDS and Family," by Kristen Ashburn)
That's true as well, of course, of the phenomenon called "citizen journalism," to use a too-ennobling phrase for – and thank goodness for the exceptions – bloggers who "report" hearsay, rumor, unverified claims, facts without context and inexpert analysis.
MediaStorm is having none of that. The nearly 15-minute "Intended Consequences" – (http://mediastorm.org/0024.htm) in which impregnated survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and war-rape speak over photos and video about their lives and their children – is by no less a light than Torgovnik, the celebrated Newsweek photographer. The 16-minute "The Marlboro Marine," co-branded with the Los Angeles Times, takes photographer Luis Sinco's famed Iraq War image of a weary fighting man with a cigarette dangling from his lip and gives real-life subject Corporal James Blake Miller a forum to reveal the truth behind a picture politically hijacked for propaganda purposes. The 13 1/2-minute "The Ninth Floor," a study of junkies who formed a de facto dysfunctional family squatting in a Fifth Avenue apartment, is renowned photographer Jessica Dimmock's own adaptation and audio expansion of her same-name book.
Such heavy hitters are contributing, says Storm, because among other things, even famous photographers and photojournalists can have trouble getting their images and stories out in any meaningful way. Are they making money from their MediaStorm pieces? That's hard to say – MediaStorm is privately owned, and at this point, it's about getting the model down.
"I'm not trying to make revenue per se off the site," Storm maintains. "I'm trying to make revenue other places," such as producing and syndicating pieces for some of the aforementioned clients. "I could drop in advertising anytime," he says, and some Google AdSense ads do appear, below the fold, as they do all over the Web. Otherwise, "It's sort of the crack cocaine philosophy," he jokes. "You get 'em hooked first and add advertising later. We're tying to build audience now."
"So this link over here," he says, pointing to a "Link to us" button on the page for "Common Ground," (http://mediastorm.org/0023.htm) by Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante, "takes you to [a page with] multiple versions of the [title] graphic and the embed code," so that a blogger, for instance, can link to "Common Ground" with an attractive, high-gloss image as simple as 1-2-3-copy-paste.
"We know bloggers – frankly, they're lazy," says Storm. "They need the materials and they want to make a post. So we give them everything they need to do that. I spend no money on marketing – it's all word of mouth, viral, blog posts."
And he covers, as they say, the waterfront:
* YouTube: The panoply of MediaStorm clips there includes a minute-fifteen trailer for "Intended Consequences," (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqaOYV3ykPQ&feature=PlayList&p=54B62CE625BEF775&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=1) followed by promotional links. "This is how we're getting awareness. Of course we're on Vimeo, My Space – this is what I mean by platform-agnostic, I don't care where you see it, I just want to get exposure."
* Hulu, the TV-show download site: "We raised $12,000 in a single week from [a 30-second] PSA [public-service announcement]. Our goal is to put 1500 kids through secondary school through the charity Foundation Rwanda. (http://www.foundationrwanda.org/)
* Facebook: "The big one, the granddaddy of traffic driving. So I'll post that picture on my Facebook page, and everybody on my network can click on the share button. And then it spreads. Thirty-five hundred Facebook-friends all over the world now subscribe to MediaStorm as fans."
* Miscellaneous: "Twitter has become the #11 driver of traffic to our Web site in four months. Of course we have a blog, but what's important about that is it generates our RSS [Real Simple Syndication] feeds, which gives us 34% of our traffic. Another big growth thing for us is mobile – this is the fastest-growing way people are watching offerings. We also have a Mac [computer] widget, so you hit F12 on your Mac, you get your widgets to come up. Ironically, we've [also] gone backward: We offer DVDs. Colleges asking to show our products in classrooms where they don't have an Internet connection need a DVD. We take the money via PayPal. It's really seamless."
After living on a farm in Lockport, Illinois, for 73 years, Harlow Cagwin sold his family land to a subdivision developer. Common Ground takes us on a journey exploring the differences and similarities of life in suburbia and life on the family farm. See the project at http://mediastorm.org/0023.htm
To do that, he founded MediaStorm in 1994 while in grad school, where he otherwise stayed busy teaching electronic photojournalism and producing CD-ROMs. The following year, he says, "Microsoft came through recruiting, and I ended up taking a job with MSN News. A year later we became MSNBC.com. I spent seven years there as director of multimedia, responsible for audio, video, photography and interactive applications" for the Web site. "It was kinda like my PhD in multimedia storytelling."
He moved to New York City in 2002 to spend two years as vice president of news, multimedia & assignment services for the photo and digital media agency Corbis, owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Then, "In late 2004, I got fired from Corbis, which is kind of a long story but a good one, and took a couple of months off and thought, 'What do I really want to do?' And what I really wanted to do was bring MediaStorm back."
Those new products are crossbred creations that, while playable in linear form on DVD, are best appreciated on the Web, where their amalgamated still photography, audio and video (and occasionally even Super8) are framed with interactivity – from simple commenting to drilling down through interactive maps, to contributing to a charity, to distributing virally.
As soldiers and marines perish in Iraq, headlines and funerals mark their passage. Never Coming Home details a deeply personal and public bereavement, and shows a portrait of grief and sacrifice of families with a hole in their lives, nothing but memory where once there was a living son and brother. See the project at http://mediastorm.org/0006.htm
"At some point, people have to stop saying that MediaStorm is the future," Storm insists. "Because the reality is we are real. We are the present" – not the future, but an amazing simulation.