Why Blink Could Save International Freelancers

By Julie Schwietert Collazo September 16th, 2015

Matt Craig was hired by The Wall Street Journal as the front-page photo editor in 2008, less than a year after News Corp. took over the paper. “It was at the very, very beginning of their visual journey,” Craig explained. “After 140 years of doing pie charts and graphs and dot drawings, they hired me and a team of other editors to go from zero to a hundred.”

Suddenly, the paper needed a massive amount of photography and videography, so management urged Craig’s team to “go out and shoot everything.”

But Craig and his in-house colleagues couldn’t be everywhere in the world; as a photo editor, he was dependent upon freelancers. This was especially true as the newspaper, like many of its competitors, started trimming staff.

“We faced a lot of problems that many other news organizations are facing,” Craig continued. “Numbers [of staff] are in flux. They’re not hiring new photographers or videographers. We were in need of producing more content than the paper had ever produced and so it was up to us to find freelancers to do all the work.”

Like any good editor, Craig had a mental black book of contacts. But as Page One editor of a newspaper that covers international news, he needed a comprehensive global network of freelance contributors. “You need to cover Fukushima, a story in Venezuela, a story in Dayton, Ohio, [and] Miami, Florida. I needed to know where every great freelancer was right now. I couldn’t put the pieces together fast enough. It was a lot of legwork, a lot of analog, a lot of offline, a lot of calling. The dots never connected.”

He also knew the situation wasn’t better or more efficient for freelancers, calling the pitch process “super broken.”

In his view, there were two fundamental problems: The first was knowing where freelance photographers and videographers were and being able to get in touch with them via up-to-date information. The second was connecting them directly with editors who were actively commissioning work.

Confident he could fix these industry-wide problems, Craig left the Journal in October 2013. By January 2014, his potential solution, Blink, had launched.

How Blink works

Blink is a platform that connects editors and publishers, who are seeking to cover breaking news around the world while containing costs, with journalists, who are trying to earn a living in a ever more densely populated field of “content creators.”

Blink proposes to connect these two groups in real-time by providing a web- and app-based marketplace where editors can find and assign seasoned journalists, photographers, and videographers quickly.

Journalists request free membership, and their portfolios are then vetted by Craig’s team before going into the global pool of freelancers available for assignments. Once reporters are in the system, editors and publishers can search for them by name, skill, or location. Freelancers, meanwhile, update their contact information as they change locations. Editors connect with the freelancers via Blink but ultimately make assignments and payments off the platform.

Eventually, Blink’s services may expand to include brokering payments, but Craig doesn’t think the timing is right just yet.

There are about 8,000 freelancers from 160 countries who have been vetted on Blink. Those freelancers log a total of about 150,000 location updates per month. Craig’s particularly proud of the fact that Blink is leveling the playing field for local photographers who would otherwise find it all but impossible to get on the radar screen of editors at outlets such as The New York Times.

He points to a “big barrier of entry that was totally unfair” for freelancers outside of urban media hubs, and especially for those who live outside the so-called first world.

“There’s so much great talent globally,” he said. “Let’s say you’re looking for a photographer in Bangladesh… We’ve got nine people in Bangladesh, and they’re updating their profiles regularly. They’re super active users.”

But the obvious questions for freelancers are: Are editors using Blink? And are freelancers getting gigs and making money?

Craig said the answers are “Yes” and “Yes,” although since Blink isn’t involved in the payment process, he couldn’t offer any data about rates.

On the editor/publisher side, there are about 700 members of Blink, including media companies and photo agencies. There’s also been demand among NGOs, non-profits, and non-news media outfits, especially those developing branded content.

But Craig’s passion, not surprisingly, is developing partnerships with global news media brands. “To date, we have about 45 partnerships with industry-leading groups at the top of the food chain,” he said.

This summer, Blink signed agreements with a few more, among them The New York Times, ESPN, Bloomberg News, AFP, and ABC News. These outlets buy Blink Pro memberships, organizational accounts that allow bureau editors around the world to collaborate directly on the platform.

As Craig explained: “If the London bureau of Bloomberg finds a great photographer in Bangladesh, that person is then added to the Bloomberg network. [Editors] can apply tags and metadata and comments about that person, and that information is shared with [editors in] L.A., D.C., and New York.”

Publishers with Blink Pro accounts also import all their existing freelancers onto the platform.

There are other benefits for publishers, including cost containment—for example, using a local photographer rather than flying a staff member overseas—and the on-the-ground cultural and historical knowledge that comes from someone who is very familiar with an area.

Craig also believes Blink can be nothing short of life-changing for freelancers, especially in the developing world. “Look at this guy in Nepal, or this one in Haiti,” Craig said, as we browsed the site in Blink’s New York office. “To get in front of these editors could change their lives.”

Potential issues remain

Some media analysts caution, however, that such changes might not necessarily be for the better.

Tracie Powell, founder of the media website All Digitocracy and a 2015-2016 Knight Fellow at Stanford University, told me that while she’s excited by the amount of experimentation coming from journalism startups, she thinks media innovators are overlooking some important issues.

“A lot of these tools and apps raise issues of privacy that should be of concern to all journalists, not just those covering war zones,” Powell said. “There’s an assumption about all journalists wanting to be on a grid of sorts, but reporters covering the hotspots around the world may not want to be easily findable because being on Blink with its geo-locator could endanger their lives.”

Because of this concern, places where it’s always been difficult to find a local stringer may continue to be underrepresented. Still, Powell is curious to see how Blink addresses this hurdle and if it fulfills its value proposition over the long haul.

Another common criticism of similar platforms is their potential to hollow out already stagnant rates by bringing more freelancers to market, though whether the pros of a streamlined job marketplace outweigh such cons remains to be seen.

For now, Craig is focused on growing the network in the weeks leading up to Blink’s version two release in October. Funded by revenue from the pro memberships and a round of angel investment closed earlier this summer, his immediate challenge is to make sure the burn rate doesn’t exceed Blink’s speed and scope of scale.

Craig, despite the challenges, is confident Blink represents the future of freelancing. “We just timed it right,” he said. “The need was there. We’ve created the service I always wanted for myself.”

Image by Anton Gvozdikov/Shutterstock
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