Almost Famous: Jonathan Tepper of Demotix

Never heard of Demotix? Don’t feel bad as that’s pretty typical, although the journalism start-up does operate in nearly every country in the world. We recently caught up with the nouveau photo wire service’s co-founder, Jonathan Tepper, to get the whole story on remaking media (and paying for it).

Who: Jonathan Tepper

What: COO, co-founder

Why: Jonathan left the finance sector to start what he calls a “street newswire.” Demotix continues to grow as competitors like Associated Press and Getty Images face harder times. Maybe he’s on to something.

Where: Demotix.com (Web site); @demotix (Twitter); London (analog place)

Who Else: AP, Reuters, and Getty Images, to name a few.

Five Stats You Won’t Find in His Facebook Profile:

Worst Job: The hands-down worst was as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant in college. They pretty much hired me as a go-between for the pretty waitresses and the kitchen staff, who only spoke Spanish. A close second was when I spent a year making PowerPoints for Lehman Brothers after I graduated.

Not Your Typical Home Life: I grew up in Spain, where my parents ran one of the first drug rehab centers in that country. My best friends growing up were HIV-positive ex-criminals who were in our work programs.

Newshound: I probably read 70 to 80 economic blogs a day. I use Google Reader; you have to. I also read probably 10 or so papers. Mostly the European press. It all takes me about an hour.

Inspirations: Probably my father. He created an international drug rehab center from scratch. That’s a real entrepreneur.

Uber Geekery: I’ve been reading lots of Pascal recently. Something about being restless while being alone in a room with one’s self resonates with me.


Bio in 140 Characters

He repatriated to the United States from Spain for school at UNC Chapel Hill and then received a Rhodes Scholarship. He left finance to fix the news.


The Five Questions

So you and your co-founder, Turi Munthe, decided 2007 would be a good time to get into journalism. What were you thinking?

Well, for us it was really about free speech. User-generated news is one way to do that. We are both very committed to that around the world. Turi said he had an idea; I asked if he needed a partner. We raised about a million dollars from friends and family and got it started.

The idea was to build a street newswire, one where amateur and semi-professional content could come together and the people who produce it could benefit from it. The vast majority of our outreach has been Turi traveling and meeting people. Today, we have around 14,000 contributors, 3,000 of whom I’d characterize as “active.”

Is this just another journalism business that works because it doesn’t pay contributors a living wage?

I know what you mean. Our model is different because it assumes the contributor is an amateur. That said, we do the work of promoting the images to outlets and we split the fees 50/50. Many of our contributors also live in places where the economics are different, so what would not be a living wage for you and me could be a life-changing amount of money for them. The economics are pretty interesting.

What does the process look like?

Well, of our 3,000 active contributors, I’d say we have about 200 worldwide who are what you might call “staff,” in that they contribute every day. A typical submission is 12 to 14 images. We intake them though our Web site, and then there is an editorial process where we decide what they are, if they are authentic, good, useful, etc. Turnaround time is usually 15 to 30 minutes, but can be as long as an hour. Then, they go up on the site. Once they are up, we reach out to news outlets who might want to run them.

One of the things that makes us really different is our ability to operate places that other wire services can’t. Our reporters are locals, and so when a government kicks all the AP people out, we still get images.

We just rolled out a new Web site and have started dealing in video as well, so we are looking forward to the changes those bring.

At the end of the year though, you are trying to turn a profit. Has that happened yet?

No. We’ve already done another round of funding. Mostly back to friends and family. I anticipate we will be cash-flow-positive in the next 12 to 18 months, maximum.

The whole venture capital industry seems really weird to me. To be profitable, they have to put $100 to $200 million to work, and they want to sell things for 10 times the money and have minimum size of investment, which doesn’t really make sense for us. So the angel, friends and family sort of thing makes more sense at our scale.

Has locating away from the Silicon Valley venture hub been a help or a hindrance?

I think we get a lot less press and recognition because of it. There’s a community journalism funding start-up, Spot.us, that gets just a ton of coverage. I don’t want to make it appear as though I’m dissing him in any way. He does great work, but I think Spot.us funded like 50 stories last year, and we do that in a day, and he gets a ton of coverage. I suspect it’s because he’s located in San Francisco. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, but it speaks to the coverage biases.


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