Innovator Q&A: Yusuf Omar on Mojo and Hashtag Our Stories

Mobile Journalism is a method Omar has learned to use to tell powerful, meaningful and truthful stories that resonated with people

Yusuf Omar. Picture: AMEEN SAEB

Mobile journalist, Yusuf Omar, has been a YouTuber, a journalist for eNCA in South Africa, for the Hindustan Times in India and CNN and was Thomson Foundation’s Mobile Journalist of the Year 2016.

He is one half of Hashtag Our Stories, an initiative dedicated to training communities around the world in using mobile tools to tell their stories. After having done a world tour, traveling to over 25 countries, Omar has returned to South Africa to launch the project on home soil calling it Hashtag Our SA. The co-founder aims to create an entire news network in all 11 South African languages, which will be created on mobile phones and also teach South African communities how to tell their own stories. Hashtag Our SA will be headquartered in Durban and will be launched in English and isiZulu.

Your mojo journey started in 2010 at eNCA, what inspired you? How did that come about?
My mobile journalism story started by hitchhiking. I had just finished a postgraduate diploma in journalism and media from Rhodes University and I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to tell stories from the African continent. Companies were cutting back on their budgets , they were curtailing their foreign correspondents and were pulling back on their bureaus and there was literally no money to send people across the continent. And on top of that, every time I wanted to tell stories from the continent, people always tried to scare me saying, “Africa is so dark, its dangerous and its scary, you don’t want to go there”. Nobody would pay for that endeavor saying that “you’re too young and too inexperienced”. So I hitchhiked. Packed a bag full of old tshirts and a head full of young dreams and I hitchhiked from South Africa to Syria. From Durban to Damascus, 12,000 km up the east coast of Africa telling stories along the way and understanding how the media landscape works on the African continent. It was a fantastic journey for three months.

I ended up getting stuck in Egypt during the first Arab Spring in January 2011. It’s a case of being in the right place at the wrong time. I ended up being able to connect with a lot of South Africans who got stranded there. And then ended up getting published on the front pages of various newspapers in South Africa, on eTV and all these stations. Maybe that was my first big break in this long journey.

Since then I joined Independent Newspapers Cadet School where I was at the Cape Argus and Cape Times for a while. I then moved to Durban at the Sunday Tribune. These were all places where I got to experiment and yet I was already producing lots and lots of video. I was sort of strapping a GoPro onto my head. In 2012 I went to Congo with Gift of the Givers and an ammunition’s depot exploded in the middle of a civil population, hundreds were killed and thousands were maimed. This time I was able to start producing point-of-view journalism, still working for a newspaper but recording video on my head.

And then I suppose I really got into the Mojo space in the foreign correspondence space in 2014 in Syria when a group of surgeons were building a hospital and this time I was working for eNCA and I had the big broadcast camera and satellite and all the fancy equipment but still ended up resorting to reporting using a mobile phone in many instances to produce some of the stories from there, because it was just faster and more intimate, it was more discreet. And I think there was really two major big breaks for me in terms of the mobile journalism space in South Africa which started to give people an appreciation of what it was about his technology.

One was when Julius Malema was ousted from the African National Congress Youth League and there were big protests outside his house in Seshego, Limpopo. I happen to be there that night and the anti-Malema parties were kind of like walking around with these “rest in peace” slogans on billboards. All the media had gone home. It was around 12 o clock or one in the morning and I was just really chilling there and factions from both sides ended up firing live ammunition into the sky and I caught it all on video and the police were running away. It was complete chaos and that was my break into eNCA.

I think after that video they first asked to buy my footage, but more formally they offered me a job. I just needed to get a new haircut and a new shirt and I was good to go.

The other major mobile journalism story that captivated the South African media landscape was on a day when I was at gym and as I was coming out, I saw this young guy watery and teary eyed, who looked like he was about to start crying. I asked him what was going on and this guy’s name was Mohammed Desai and he said, “Oh I’m wearing this BDS ( Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) T-shirt against Israeli apartheid and some of the Jewish clientele are upset with me for wearing this”. And naturally my journalistic instincts kick in and I start filming this on my phone. And as the police came to gym and I captured all of this on video and I got in touch with someone from eNCA and told them I have this amazing footage of this guy who got removed from a gym because he had a BDS T-shirt on and they were kind of slow and said to me that they will think about it.

I was impatient, young and maybe a bit dumb and I loaded it up on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and went to sleep. The next morning it had gotten hundreds and hundreds of retweets. Channels like Al Jazeera had taken the footage and turned it into an international story. I get to the office and now we’ve got international networks that are running with this story and we are playing catch up on our own story. I got a big slap on the wrist for it.

The lesson I learnt was huge. It was the moment where I realised that I no longer needed the big broadcasters anymore. If I had a powerful story to tell, I could literally share it and if it was meaningful and truthful and it resonated with people, it would go viral. And I no longer needed the establishments to tell powerful stories. And that for me was a huge turning point for me in my career.

What was your experience like when you worked as a mobile journalist at the Hindustan Times and CNN?
They were both very different experiences. The Hindustan Times was the most exciting and challenging job I had ever done. I was a mobile editor and had 750 journalists spread across 27 offices. India is a massive country. And my job was to train them to produce stories with a phone. The big “F” word for mobile journalism is fragmentation. If I work with a South African newsroom it is easy. Everybody has their Android or the Apple products. Its like one of two or three phones. In India in the newsroom when I did a survey on arrival, they had 75 different types of phones in one newsroom alone. So you can imagine the amount of fragmentation and how difficult that is to administer when you want everybody to use the same software or the same app.

Nonetheless, it was an amazing journey. We had the broadest creative mandate to drive innovation in news and that’s largely thanks to Nic Dawes who I was working for at the time, who gave us a lot of freedom to work with new formats and that’s where we really got to drive innovation in news. We experimented with using Snapchat face filters to hide the faces of rape survivors. Things that had never been done before in a traditional newsroom where they were unheard of.

We found that mobile video stories were performing better than conventional videos. We found that pieces shot on a phone were getting three times as many views as that of those shot on a DLSR and that didn’t make sense. We found that when you’re creating content on a mobile phone you start thinking about how a mobile audience would consume the content, consideration is made for a mobile device. So incredible successes there. It was an amazing year and I really learnt a lot. I left my heart in India because you have about 20% of the population online and they are already the biggest market in the world for Facebook. They have more Facebook users than the U.S. and they are growing twice as fast. So it’s a fascinating place. If you’re looking for an eyeball at what your phone can do, there’s no place like India right now.

From there I moved to CNN in London where I was a senior social media reporter primarily on Snapchat. And that was another incredible journey in a very different kind of way. This time it was much of a structured role. I was working on their discover section of their Snapchat channel and it was all about mobile optimisation. How can you change the very best content that CNN was doing on TV and online and all their other platforms and create amazing products for Snapchat for a very young audience, a completely mobile audience, an audience that is largely based on the east and west coast of the U.S. So that totally changed the way editors saw news values and the kind of stories that we did. And it focused largely on clickable formats , how to scroll through a piece of content and click on it like you do on Snapchat and Instagram stories.

CNN was very interesting. I learnt a lot about how to structure their social channels and how to manage big teams. But having said that, its kind of like when you’re young and your entire life you dream of working for an international news network and once you get there, it’s a little bit like meeting your heroes. You realise that sometimes, some of the more meaningful work that you may have been doing might have been right back in a South African township or community level journalism and that’s kind of how we transitioned into Hashtag Our Stories.

How influential do you think you were?
At the Hindustan Times, Mojo is now on the tip of, not just the Hindustan Times, but every media organisation in the country. They’re all experimenting with it. So it’s had a fundamental shift in the way Indian media houses consider creation of content. I think most big companies there are looking to scale their mobile journalism. So it had a big impact. It changes the way they think. Video not only became an after thought but is now a production process. They now use their video camera as a notepad even if they’re a print reporter. There’s been a huge cultural change and that’s been really exciting.

At CNN we were able to get their correspondents to use their mobile phones in the sky, in fighter jets in Syria and in North Korea and I think the biggest challenge working at CNN for me was that they come with a lot of broadcast habits and they often will use the very best equipment. They’d use about 10 drones and five cameras, they’d go all out for a story and really tried to show them the appreciation that with some stories you get a better and more intimate access using your mobile phone. But I think that happened to some degree.

How should newsrooms in Africa implement Mojo within their daily reporting?
The continent has been able to skip entire technological generations. Most South African’s didn’t experience dial up internet or even ADSL. Their first taste of the world wide web was on their mobile phones and they leapfrogged that. They may not even have tried 2G internet. And I think in the same way African newsrooms can bypass the era of expensive and cumbersome and slow news gathering video processes and go straight to mobile journalism. And whether that means curating and aggregating voices of people on the ground or by getting their reporters to go out there and shoot hard to reach places on their mobile phones.

I hope Africa learns from the West. They don’t need to go down the same television path and they can jump straight into social video stream.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing Mojo?
For me the advantages are firstly, costs. Most people have a phone in their pocket, so there is no real tactical expense to scale or the video output to make a big pivot for news organisations.

Intimacy is another. When you’re interviewing rape survivors to war zones, people often forget that the mobile phone is even there. It’s very very intimate. I find that you become more creative using mobile phones and you’d be really designing your content for mobile devices. And that’s massively important because most audiences have a mobile device.

The disadvantage, if you will call it that, is respect. I think you can sometimes interview a person like President Jacob Zuma with a mobile phone. But you could arrive at a big CEO or president and they’ll ask, “where is the film crew? I’m an important person. What are you doing here with an iPhone?” So I think sometimes it doesn’t warrant the same level of authority as that a big broadcast camera would have. But I think the pros far out weighs the cons.

What are some of the applications you use when working on a Mojo story?
I specialise in using existing consumer social media apps and seeing how we can use them for journalistic purposes. So for example Snapchat was never designed to help hide the faces of rape survivors but it is aneffective as a tool. And I think if you look beyond the gimmicks of social media, you find a very powerful story telling tools to do better journalism.

On a daily basis, I use LumaFusion, which is an incredible video editing app on iOS. Its like having Final Cut Pro or Premiere in your pocket. I use an app called Quik made by GoPro.

What equipment does one need to produce a good quality Mojo story?
Nothing but a phone. Often you find that there are toolkits that suggest that you need a tripod or a microphone, you need lights and all these stuff. For me, its of the very essence, if you’re going to invest any money, invest it in the best mobile phone you can use and afford. That is the priority. Believe it or not I don’t use anything. I don’t use a tripod I don’t use a microphone. I get close to people and put my phone right close to their lips. My two favourite pieces of equipment is my phone and a drone. With those two pieces of equipment I can tell pretty much tell any kind of story

What skills did you have to acquire to be able to run a Mojo storytelling business?
The number one skill that you are going to need if you are going to enter any digital video space today is to understand shareable content. It is not enough to get likes or to get comments. You need to create content that people want to share. And to understand that, you need very emotional IQ skills. You need to understand what kind of emotion your content evokes. For me that’s the most important skill set that you need right now.

This industry is evolving so much and so quickly and that today a journalist needs to be a technologist. And the greatest skill you could possibly have, is the ability to acquire more skills. I am on a daily basis having to revise what I know, revise workflows, techniques and the way I tell stories. You’ve gotta keep moving quickly.

What models should media organisations be implementing as more publications are placing a lot of focus on their digital offering?
A lot of South African news organisations are thinking digital first. And that’s fine, but the rest of the world are now talking about mobile first. And even more so they’re talking about an artificial intelligence first newsrooms. Where a lot of the decisions, the mundane, boring data are all automated by computers.

A lot of organisations for the last five to ten years have been pursuing digital strategies that are website first. They are still trying to get people to go to their dot com. And around the world we’re seeing that young people are increasingly accessing news and media on social media platforms. They’re readily on Facebook and Instagram and all these spaces. I believe that news organisations should spend less of their resources on developing and building and coding and distributing and marketing these online assets and should rather spend their time on what they’re good at, which is storytelling. So let the platforms take care of distribution.

Having said that, we now find ourselves in an ecosystem where we’re being held hostage by algorithms and platforms we have no control over. And that’s why your digital stragety needs to be diversified. We need to have our eggs in many baskets. The success of your media company should not be reliant entirely on the success of another company. You need to have a diversity of platforms which you’re playing on.

What are your thoughts on changes that Facebook will introduce to timelines?
News organisations can’t be lazy. The days of quantity over quality are over. They can’t just dump a whole bunch of made-for-tv videos online and expect them to do well. They need to be thinking about share-ability, and engagement.

Before you even produce a video or a mojo story, we should be considering the engagement strategy before you even hit the record button. “Who’s going to see this? Which groups are going to pick it up? What comments are we going to start? What conversations are we going to start?” We need to work a lot harder and that’s a good thing. I think we will end up with better quality content on our timelines.

What advice would you give other journalists/media practitioners on the African continent who’d want to venture into Mojo storytelling?

The days of just being a photographer or a videographer, or a writer or a sub-editor are over. If you’re going to survive in the media landscape today you need to have a holistic skills set and we all need to become “Robocop” journalists where you have a big array of weapons at your disposal — drone in one hand, Facebook Live in the other. I think that’s the way the landscape is moving and we all need to become better generalists when it comes to technology. So lets start avoiding it and embrace it. The only way to really get better at mobile journalism is to do it every single day. When you’re going to a friends birthday party, produce a video, when you’re going to your family’s braai, produce a video. Put those videos up on social media and look at the metrics, look at which ones do well. Look at which ones your friends comment on the most.


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