Yusuf Omar, Mobile Editor at Hindustan Times talks about building the world’s biggest mobile journalism team

Omar believes that selfie journalism is going to drive Indian news rooms, he is creating an army of 750+ journalists to think mobile and create content for the mobile audience

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“Digital is the past, Mobile is the present. Selfie journalism will rule tomorrow’s newsrooms. Apps like Snapchat are the new story telling weapons for journalists,” asserted 27-year-old Yusuf Omar in an exclusive conversation with Lighthouse Insights. The energetic young mind is training a team of more than 750 journalists at Hindustan Times (HT) on how to create content for mobile. He is also the mobile editor at HT.

“Journalism is after all just two things: storytelling and sharing. We are now exploring the space where the smartphone meets these two disciplines,” he wrote last year in the Rhodes Journalism Review 2015.

“Engagement is the key now. Counting video views is yesterday’s social media strategy.”

Last year, HT, one of India’s leading English language daily underwent a major reshuffle to get ‘digital ready’. A year later the company announced significant transformative measures to meet the digital challenge while simultaneously growing the traditional print medium. Some of the changes included integrating print and digital news operations across titles, bring Hindustan Times, Hindustan, and Mint into a single newsroom in Delhi, and share common digital asset management and content management systems.

Earlier this year, HT approached Omar to join the company to lead its digital functions.

Prior to joining HT, Omar was based in South Africa working as a Mobile Journalism Lead at eNCA, a 24-hour television news broadcaster focusing on South Africa and African stories. During his four years with the company, he was involved in challenging projects like – a 30-minute documentary following trauma surgeons into Idlib, Syria, another two-part documentary about the skills needed to survive the future world of work, among others.

Most of his crazy ground breaking work got noticed; he won the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Editor’s Choice National Award for mobile journalism stories across the African continent.

By his own admission, a lot has changed from the time he has graduated from Rhodes University with a postgraduate diploma in Journalism and Media studies.

“A lot has happened: I flirted with minefields in Congo, reported from Syria, followed the illegal rhino horn trade through Vietnam, ran a couple of Comrades Marathons and got caught up in the Arab Spring.”

When you were into such a dynamic profile, what triggered you to join the HT India office as a Mobile Editor? I asked Omar, sitting in one of the many open cabins at the HT office located in Connaught Place, Delhi.

Prior to responding to my question, he informed that HT never approached him with a mobile editor job profile. “They were looking for someone to spearhead their digital and designs arm. So I wrote my own job description and KPIs. The opening line of my job description stated – the broadest creative mandate to drive innovation in the newsroom. It also stands for do what you want as long as it is cool. Right now I am spearheading the task of training 750+ journalists to create content for mobile.”

“If I could rename my job title, then it will be Head of Cool Sh*t.”

Dressed in smart blues, Omar had landed in Delhi early morning after completing a training exercise with the Mumbai HT journalists. He showed no signs of fatigue, however. “It is quite appreciating that a legacy brand like HT is pushing itself in digital and thinking how content will be consumed tomorrow. If today is mobile, tomorrow could be virtual reality.”

Further, he said: “I saw a very digital progressive news agency with a strong leadership. But my primary reason to say yes to one of the most challenging job roles in my career is India. With the exception of China, India is the biggest video market online. If you really want to go viral with your story telling then India is the place to be now.”

Summarizing his first six months of work life at the news organization, Omar expressed that the company has given him complete freedom in experimenting and trying out new things. “I don’t think when HT was hiring me they knew exactly what they wanted from me nor did I. But this is the best news room I have ever worked at because it has given me so much flexibility to create content.”

It has been more than six months for Omar in HT. The first month basically was about building formats. This phase, he likes to call it is ‘an experience’. “Early on I was the person facing the camera. I was doing Facebook Live, YouTube explainers, among others. It was very much about building and finding out what works and testing the Indian audiences’ content consumption behavior.”

One of the experiments that needs to be mentioned is the undercover operation to search drugs in Punjab, using Snapchat.

It all started with the controversy rolled around the Bollywood movie Udta Punjab. The movie about Punjab’s youth showcased how drugs have been slowly killing the new generation. This sparked a lot of clash with politicians denying the fact that drugs are freely available in Punjab. The movie was almost banned but released soon after a month-long court battle. However, the administration stood firm about drugs not being easily available in Punjab.

Yusuf and his team investigated and in less than an hour they found two packets that seemed to be marijuana. “Chitta to hazaar rupaye me aeyga. Ganja Rs 100 ka pudiya mil jaega (The cocaine will cost a thousand bucks, you can get marijuana for Rs 100),” a rickshaw driver informed Omar and his team. The entire investigation was documented on Snapchat but the Commissioner of Police Ludhiana, Jatinder Singh Aulakh refused to admit that drugs are available in the area, and stated, “Our job is to catch the peddlers and we do that. We trap and catch them. I have got work to do, can’t talk anymore.”

In the next two months experience led to empowerment. “It was very much about passing on the skill set and trying to create the culture and the understanding I have. When I look at a story and come up with various ideas how a story can be told on various platforms. What matters is to have the instinct to know which platforms to do when with analytics and gut feeling. My job is to teach this to the journalists.”

Once empowering was done, the next two months was all about engagement. “It is about building a culture of sharing. Today it is not just about doing a story but how are you sharing it.”

“#MondayMojo – Experience, Empower and Engagement.”

One of the reasons HT is pushing its journalists to train for the new age content creation and consumption is because of mobile proliferation. India is likely to have 314 million mobile Internet users by end of 2017 from 159 million users at present, a recent report said. With the growing smartphone penetration, content consumption behavior is on the rise. This has led to increase in mobile advertisement spends which has reflected a significant growth. In 2015, mobile advertising spends were estimated to be at INR 9 billion, is now expected to grow at a CAGR of 62.5 percent to reach INR 102.1 billion by 2020.

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According to data set provided by Omar for June-Sept – Mobile gets 3 times more views than a content piece being shot on a DSLR. “It is very bizarre since DSLR’s are more expensive and you ask the question why is it happening. The simple answer is that the people who shoot content are also thinking about how audiences are going to digest the content.”

Along with mobile and video, Omar is pretty excited with selfie journalism. He defines it as a billion active cameras over mobile phones; all potential reporters who are telling their story in a selfie kind of manner. “The future of news in India will be the aggregation and curation of all of these selfie storytellers.”

Campus calling, the world’s first Snapchat reality show, is one of the projects in this direction from HT. Six students or the campus journalists, after discussing the problems faced by every school pass-out on print, later tracked their journey on Snapchat.

Every Saturday for six weeks, these six students battled through the entire process from forms and cut-offs to trying to get seats in some of the most sought-after colleges. “The ability of your audience to become one of the content creator, is just the beginning of how news is changing.”

By 2020, Omar thinks selfie journalism will change how we see news now. Factors like growth of mobile penetration, along with better networks and finally the youth getting more and more comfortable by being live on social media from every corner of the world, will enhance selfie journalism. “Our job will be to sit in newsrooms to pick stories that are going viral, while we hold tight the pillars of good journalism and news reporting.

yusuf-omar-snapchatSnapchat, the company that quietly went for an IPO recently, is going to be the enabler for selfie journalism. Omar has a lot of faith in the medium that is completely driven by millennials and has been a major cause of concern for Facebook, globally.

In India, where everything and anything is happening on Facebook, the story changes, however. Omar understands the mighty empire that the social networking giant has created from Facebook to WhatsApp to Instagram. “Facebook family is a content distribution platform, whereas Snapchat is a blank canvas. It is the ability to create text to emojis to images that are digitally native.”

“Snapchat is like Microsoft Paint of 2016, you can do whatever you like.”

Snapchat is a photo and video sharing ephemeral app used extensively by today’s youth. Now it is also trying to do what Google Glasses failed to do with Spectacles. On the face of it most people might think that it’s for teenagers sharing nudies but Omar is looking at the medium for journalistic storytelling.

Earlier this year, using Snapchat filters he interviewed survivors of sexual abuse. Filters allowed the victims to shield their identities and open up in front of the cameras. The work went viral and was widely spoken in the media. All this while we have seen blurred faces on TV talking about their stories. Snapchat allows your face to be covered in an animated way but you can still see the human emotion and expression of the narrator. This is intimate and engaging storytelling.

He did a similar Snapchat experiment with sex slaves in Abu Dhabi, using filters and hiding their identities. “Every time I do a piece on Snapchat, it forms a part of a greater narrative. The notion that it’s too simple and short is not true. It is short but a part of a greater narrative. People overlook the storytelling aspect that Snapchat provides.”

“Snapchat is a long story made of multiple shots.”

In the near future, Omar envisions: he is sitting in his office in front of a visual dashboard with multiple selfie journalistic stories running. His job is to pull out stories that are doing good from a data point of view and journalistic ethics and run them on the portal. To achieve this he is on a mission to train the 750 plus journalists of HT to think mobile and create content for the mobile audience.

But before that he needs to overcome his biggest challenge – fragmentation in the newsroom. “When I was working in South Africa or London or US it was all easy as it was either iPhones or Samsung. In our current newsroom we have 75 different types of phone ranging from Freedom 251 to iPhone7. So I can’t have one app but 4/5 apps rolled out with different ways of editing and shooting. There is no consistency in quality, so it is the trickiest job I am doing.”

Having said that, he adds that if he does his job properly, there wouldn’t be a mobile journalism team ever. “You don’t build a team but you build capacity in the newsroom.”

“You don’t build a mojo team, you build the mojo newsroom.”

By the end of this year, he dreams about training all of the 750 journalists and expects them to do just one video a month on mobile. “It is a tiny task but if every reporter does it then I get 25 videos a day, by the end of the month we will fetch 2 million views. We obviously are looking to scale in a mad way using people’s existing phones and barely building the mobile journalism team.”

“We can be the biggest video wire service in the country,” Omar adds affirmatively before escorting me for a quick tour of the HT newsroom. Here is the man – Yusuf Omar exclusive for Lighthouse Insights readers:

A quick look of the Hindustan Media Digital news room. #yusufomar #htmedia #newsroom #mobileeditor #selfiejournalism #instavideo #video

A video posted by Lighthouse Insights (@lighthouseinsights) on