In 1989, Vaughan Smith set out to create a freelance agency he hoped would be the camera operators’ equivalent of Magnum.
During the next 15 years, he filmed in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, where he narrowly missed a sniper’s bullet, that lodged in his mobile phone. He acted as an agent for a stream of talented cameramen, including Roddy Scott who was killed in Chechnya and seven more colleagues who were killed in action. Then, when financial pressures made the business unviable, he folded it and set up a members’ club in Paddington.
Now, after four years establishing The Frontline Club, which sets out to support freelances and provide them with a place to meet, Smith believes blogs, video and mobile blogging service Twitter could now enable him to fulfil his original vision for independent journalism.
A former Captain in the Grenadier Guards, Smith spent three weeks last month in Helmand, Afghanistan, reporting on the activities of his former regiment and exploring what he could achieve with blogging, video blogging and Twitter, which he says could transform the way freelances work – once someone works out how to make money out of it.
‘What I’m trying to do is recreate the old Frontline Television News agency but in a form that has a future,’says Smith. Editorial independence, the ability to decide the agenda and thereby broaden a ‘far too narrow’news agenda, was what Smith and his colleagues were looking for when they set up The Frontline Club.
The exploits of the photo and film journalists – Smith, Rory Peck, Peter Jouvenal and Nicholas della Casa – who formed Frontline in its early days were captured in the book Frontline by David Loyn, the BBC’s developing world correspondent. The book credits them with having changed the face of war reporting.
While their work was significant, Smith believes the ‘insular’nature of broadcasting with organisations focused on promoting their own brands, made it impossible for more maverick operations like the Frontline to succeed. Problems started in the mid Nineties, when news agencies became more competitive and started offering more services, says Smith. Until then, Frontline could expect to be paid £700 a minute for film, but by 2002 this had dropped to £250.
But the main problem, he says, was that it was difficult for the agency to develop a reputation: ‘You can go and sell some excellent footage to somebody on a news desk but two desks away, they won’t even know it was you who sold it. Our biggest struggle was that the industry didn’t feel that we were making much of a contribution. Because of that, we couldn’t command better prices.”
With the development of the web comes the opportunity to ‘ignore all that and go straight to the audience,’says Smith, who is exploring how the web can be used to fulfil his original vision, by not only attracting buyers, but also by building his own audience and loyalties with coverage that he says the ‘sensation-obsessed’media often fails to cover.
‘Of course I want to try to offer my material up to the industry, but I’m not targeting the industry. I can do it exactly the way I want to do it because I’m not working for anybody else and then stick it up on YouTube and get it out that way.’
Twitter was useful in allowing people to follow his coverage and his blogs were picked up by others, Smith says. ‘I didn’t have to do very much but I’ve got an audience and I think I will expand that when I do it again.”
Having established the Frontline, Smith says he is now in a position to ‘invest’in his journalism rather than use it as a source of income.
‘The internet allows people to get out there, albeit income streams are a bit short and I haven’t worked that one out,’he says. ‘There is no income there yet. But I don’t think we are that far off. As I try to develop a larger audience, I’m going to look at how I can actually get a return for it, whether it be advertising or whatever. ‘The income streams of online journalism, for people who originate content are going to be many.”
The blogger Graham Holliday, who has been employed by Frontline to develop its blog and use of social media tools, provided backroom support, uploading pictures and video and connecting with the military blogsphere and other news sites. A site that will allow freelances to set up blogs to show their work to a wider audience is planned – Smith’s Afghanistan footage being picked by BBC’s Newsnight after his return shows it could work.
Smith says traditional broadcasting ‘obviously’still has a future, but wants to develop ‘a new model for journalism’in which Frontline will provide journalists with support in the form of legal advice and insurance while they retain their editorial independence.
‘I think the future is going to be journalist.com, Fredbloggs.com and if that’s the case, then we’re in the best position to compete with regard to providing the best services,’says Smith. ‘It’s a slow beginning but I think we have an infrastructure here that we can provide to support journalists and help them build their audiences, because we deliver the ability to be seen by the industry and by one’s peers and that, I think, is incredibly useful.
‘When we started off we wanted to have complete independence, we were paying for our own trips and we were risking our lives as well as our livelihoods but there was a problem – the only place we could get our video out and get an income was through television. That has changed.’