US troops air assault into Barg-e Matal village in Nuristan, Afghanistan, May 2007.

I left my dream job to build something new

John D McHugh
Jun 2, 2015 · 6 min read

Eighteen months ago I walked away from a career in journalism that I loved, to build a startup, Verifeye Media.

For almost a decade I worked as a photojournalist and filmmaker on the front of the frontlines. I covered the wars in Iraq and Sudan, the turbulence of the Arab Spring, but mostly I worked in Afghanistan.

In a way, the Afghan war became my war. In 2007 I got caught in an ambush and was shot through the chest. 18 Afghan soldiers were killed, and 7 Americans were injured. Pinned down and surrounded, bleeding badly, I was sure I was going to die. But I survived, recovered, and six months later I was back again.

My photographs appeared on the front pages of Newsweek, The New York Times, The Times of London, The Guardian, and many more. I produced ever more video, and Al Jazeera commissioned me to make a series of half hour documentaries in Afghanistan. My career was a dream come true.

Over the years though, I watched the news industry change. In 2011, as a wave of excitement swept the Arab world, a new generation of aspiring journalists appeared. Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt were easy to get to, and no accreditation was needed. These young hopefuls believed, as many have before, that covering war was a fast-track to success.

Often armed only with iPhones and dreams, many ended up in difficult situations. As a result, publishers and agencies began to distance themselves from the “rookie” freelancers.

But for the first time in history, reporters on the ground didn’t need the old media companies. Now these fresh faced, recently blooded journalists could publish directly to an audience on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and of course, their own blogs.

Amongst the old guard, “iPhone warrior” became a term of derision, and anyone attempting to photograph or film with one was mocked.

I know this, because I was actively shooting with my iPhone by then. Of course, I was also shooting with DSLRs and broadcast video cameras, but I’ve always believed that cameras are tools, and different jobs require different tools.

The importance of the iPhone as a reporting tool was hammered home to me in Bahrain. In early 2011 the Arab Spring had sprung. In the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain protesters had poured into Pearl Roundabout. The government troops met them with bullets. With protesters dying on the street, it was a magnet for journalists.

Many were detained at the airport as they arrived, identified by their cameras, and denied entry, so it was down to the demonstrators to film events. At Pearl Roundabout I encountered protesters documenting their own story with their smartphones, and disseminating their photos and videos through social media.

In the midst of one revolution, I witnessed another: the iPhone’s marriage of camera and connectivity had transformed newsgathering.

Peaceful protesters wave flags and chant at Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain, February 2011.

Since then the media’s use of eyewitness photos and video has grown exponentially. It used to be called user generated content, or UGC, but there is an emerging term, eyewitness media, that I believe is much more accurate.

The importance of eyewitness media to broadcasters and publishers is undeniable: breaking news is now reported first by those present, whether they are professional journalists immersed in a story in a far flung land, or quick thinking bystanders caught up is terrible events. Think about footage from the wars in Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the street protests in Ferguson, Hong Kong, and most recently, Baltimore. Practically every report relied on eyewitness media.

Now think how often you hear this phrase: “These images can not be independently verified.”

The single greatest problem that prevents media organisations using this incredibly valuable news commodity is verification: if you don’t know who shot it, how can you trust it? Verification is the key to unlocking eyewitness media’s true value.

I mulled this a lot while on assignments. I thought about all the technology I carried. With my satellite phone I could make my security check-in calls from anywhere. I could send my coordinates regularly as I travelled through hostile lands, and sometimes I carried a tracker in case of kidnap. I concluded that technology was the solution to many of the verification questions.

Once I made that realization, my days as a field journalist were numbered. Journalism was getting ever more dangerous, with kidnappings, assassinations, and beheadings. Nobody else seemed to be doing anything to make things better for my friends and colleagues, so it was down to me.

I left Afghanistan and returned to the UK. I talked with my wife, and she agreed that the money we were going to buy our family home with should instead be used to build a startup and pursue this idea. I reached out to an old friend from Ireland, Feargal Finnegan, with the technical skills I lacked. He became my co-founder, and so, Verifeye Media was born.

Verifeye Media is a technology driven visual news agency, representing freelance journalists and accidental eyewitnesses. We have automated the verification, curation, distribution, licensing, and monetization of eyewitness media, in real time. We can deliver unique verified content from the centre of a breaking story, as it is still breaking.

We have built an iPhone camera app to gather content, and an online marketplace to sell it. But Verifeye Media is not just about technology. Verification, or old fashioned fact checking, is as old as journalism. We are an old fashioned news agency, using the very latest tools available, to create a conduit between those that capture breaking news events and those who want to publish it.

The Verifeye Media camera app is seen at a protest in London, May 2015.

I am not a serial entrepreneur. I know one subject, and one subject only, and that is journalism. But it turns out setting up a business has a lot in common with freelancing. My skills as a journalist (such as they are) meant that researching my business plan was just like researching any other story. And pitching the idea to investors was just like pitching an idea to an editor. Building the team to work with me, to trust my vision and share their knowledge, well that was just like building trust with the many military units I’ve embedded with over the years.

I miss being in the field every single day, but I LOVE what I’m doing now. My office is a box room, and my hours obscene. The workload is more punishing than foot patrols through the mountains of Nuristan and Kunar, but the excitement, and the sense of achievement, is incredible.

Verifeye Media is still in beta. I handpicked some amazing visual journalists to help test the system, while leveraging my contacts in the world’s news organizations to make sure we are delivering content in a way that enhances their reporting.

So please, visit www.verifeyemedia.com and sign up to be kept updated as we slowly roll out to more journalists and publishers. And tell your friends.

For eighteen months, we have operated in stealth mode, but finally we can shrug of that shroud of secrecy, and announce Verifeye Media to the world.

Our mission statement is simple.

We are changing journalism.

John D McHugh

Written by

Photojournalist & filmmaker. Co-founder of @verifeyemedia, a technology driven news agency for freelance journalists and accidental eyewitnesses

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