Fresco News CEO John H. Meyer on Citizen Journalism
Welcome to our Industry Insight blog series, where we will be interviewing the industry’s most influential thought leaders working to make an impact on the future of storytelling. For this month’s Industry Insights interview, we sat down with the CEO and founder of Fresco News, John H. Meyer. We learned about how Fresco is helping publishers keep up with the increasing demand for video by building and supporting a community of citizen journalists and videographers, and what we should be expecting from the media industry in the very near future.
Tell us a bit about what Fresco News is, and how it came to be.
Fresco started in late 2014 after a conversation I had with a photo editor from the New York Times. She was telling me how hard it is for her to pull in high-quality photos and videos from the scene of news events around country, so I started thinking… there has to be a way to mobilize anyone with a smartphone to shoot what we call broadcast-quality content at the scene of an event.
Fast forward to today and we are seeing Fresco used by local news stations, national news organizations like CNN and as of late, some newer digital news websites. Each are using Fresco as a means of pulling raw footage from the scene of an event, which they can then package as they see fit. The benefits in a nutshell are vast expansion of news coverage while still saving costs — because you don’t have to fly people to the scene of an event in order to cover it.
How do you build a loyal, engaged, responsive community that contributes on an ongoing basis?
When we got started in March of 2016, our biggest challenge other than building the product was creating a community of videographers. To date we have about 150,000 registered videographers and we have a much smaller group of really, really committed people using Fresco on a daily basis.
Most of our footage providers fall into two demographics: stay-at-home parents and Uber/Lyft drivers. These groups have a few common denominators: their availability, desire to make money and desire to be out and about within the community.
We continue to build our community with very targeted marketing to find people that are interested and feel a need to be out there in the community. This is the part of Fresco that retains most of our users — way beyond that money making aspect, it is feeling closer to the community they live in.
We recently interviewed Andrew Haeg from Groundsource. He explained how engagement should be built as a continuous cycle between news organizations and their audience, in order to build trust and make sure everyone feels heard. How do you feel Fresco has developed its own engagement cycle?
We definitely have an engagement cycle going. When we launch in new cities, we kickstart with Facebook ads and we then have a whole internal loop where we onboard people, give them training, introduce them into our community via Facebook groups and Slack channels. From there it become autonomous in a way.
After a publisher chooses footage a user uploads based on an assignment created, publishers will of course have to credit the videographers. Many times if it is a TV station they will request to interact with that person on air, which ends up being a really exciting method of engagement for our videographers.
We try to push that engagement as much as possible. If someone’s video is used in, let’s say, a station in Philly, we will send them a clip of their footage being used within 24 hours so they can share it with friends and family. When we ask videographers the main reason they stay, that closeness they feel between Fresco and the publishers is usually their response.
What types of footage do you see getting the most response from publishers?
When I started the company I thought it would all be breaking news events. However, those types of events only make up about 30–40% of our intake and usage, with 60–70% coming from community event coverage. Which is great because that’s also what most of our videographers prefer to cover.
How does Fresco create harmony between media, technology, and your community?
We’ve tried to merge it all together in the product. In the main mobile app, we have built-in channels where our team can communicate and share best practices with our citizen journalists. On the opposite side of the spectrum we have online communities like our Facebook group or Slack channels where we try to interact on a constant basis with the community. We’ve found it to be more personable to interact with our community in closed groups — plus we don’t have to worry about being trolled.
We have also spent more than what is usually spent on customer support and we have a 24/7 hotline for anyone on an assignment. They can call us up and we will guide them through the process and give them tips about how to best shoot the content. We are always going to try to expand on that community side of things, it has been our most important element in retaining the high activity.
How do you filter media to ensure brand safety and make sure publishers are spreading accurate messages?
Part of what our 24/7 editorial team does is approve everything that comes in. To make things more efficient we have built automatic suggestions that the platform gives employees. A big part of the approval process takes into account each videographer’s history with Fresco.
We had a situation a few days ago where a brand new user uploaded a case of police brutality in LA. We knew that would blow up once we approved it but knew we had to conduct some additional verification and fact checking. As the user had no history, we had to contact LAPD to find out more information about the incident. In this case, it ended up getting approved and the Fox LA station immediately bought it.
How has the media landscape shifted since Fresco began? Where do you see it heading?
There is way more demand for video in general — it is what consumers want. On the publisher’s side, they are finally catching up. The problem is that trends for video consumption are growing and changing at every angle, and the methods of producing it are still quite unclear for many legacy companies like newspapers and TV stations. So much of our business development and sales side is focused on educating these legacy companies who have been doing the same thing for decades.
Especially from the local broadcast space — that is an area that has not changed at all, and we are hearing firsthand that these local station companies are experiencing a real decline in revenue. I think where this is going is certainly what Wibbitz has been focusing on, using short-form, social-first video to deliver anything from news to lifestyle content. We are seeing that style of video being used beyond social, on websites and OTT platforms. I think tech companies like ours have to be there to support these transitioning legacy companies as they try to go along with the video trend.
So Fresco is contributing to where future is headed by providing that needed content?
Yeah, it is all about providing that content that’s needed at far lower price and making it much more available. Our prime customers are local stations or local newspaper groups. Instead of sending out a whole truck with expensive equipment to shoot footage, all they have to do now is go on our site, drop a pin and boom they have access to a full array of video assets to cover that story in half an hour. We are working with local newspapers who are going from having zero video content to having just as much, if not more, than the stations.
This opens up a blank slate for these guys to be more innovative, perhaps more innovative than broadcast stations, in figuring out how they can use local video content that they never had before. From a trend standpoint these newspaper companies have done a great job in converting formal print readership to digital, but they started to plateau because they lack that video content that everyone wants right now.
The groups being the most innovative are the newspapers gaining access to video that they did not have before and desperately needed. It will be very exciting over the next few years to see how the broadcast side, that is only now starting to decline, will evolve.
Where do you want Fresco to be in a few years from now?
Our theme for next year or two is really automating and increasing quality and frequency of content we are pulling in and we are in middle of that now. From there, we will have this total end to end engine of high quality video of all different types. From interviews to different shots of a scene. At that point we’ll easily be able to grow our network of publishers, which we are doing now but at a slower rate. We will then also experiment with what we think the ‘next gen’ of news delivery can look like. Anyone can start a channel of their own through Facebook live or OTT platforms. You don’t need to be on cable that is the bottom line. Because we are creating so much of this content it will be interesting to experiment how to put it back out there rather than just work with existing publishers. So we will do both — continue to build the publisher side and the content side but also experiment with what we can do on our own with delivering news itself.