Storyhunter launches an Airbnb-style platform for freelance foreign correspondents

The life of a freelance foreign correspondent can be a difficult one, combining the risk of personal danger — being shot at, kidnapped etc. — with the difficulty of finding steady work, not to mention getting paid. So former Current TV and New York Times freelancer Jaron Gilinsky decided to create a kind of Airbnb-style platform for freelancers, where they could post their pitches and be commissioned, or where they could search for job offers they might be interested in.

The result of that brainstorm is Storyhunter, a website that Jaron and his partner Alex Ragir founded in 2012, which has been in private beta with a number of media clients for the past year or so. The project came out of stealth mode on Tuesday at the Web Summit conference in Dublin, and is now a public beta.

“My big frustration was: how do I reach all of these publishers who would probably be interested in the story I’m producing, but they don’t even know that I exist, and I don’t know them either — why isn’t there a platform where I can do that? Then I saw Airbnb, and it was a real inspiration for me, just seeing how they created this marketplace of buyers and sellers and then matched them up. So I thought why not create something similar and see what happens?”

Matching buyers and sellers

Because Gilinsky’s background is in video journalism, that was the initial focus of Storyhunter, and also what most of the company’s initial beta testers — including the Fusion Network (ABC/Univision), MSNBC and AJ+ (Al Jazeera) — were using it for. But Gilinsky said in an interview that the company is broadening its approach to include photography and also text, in part because that’s what its clients and potential clients are asking for.

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In a nutshell, the platform allows freelance journalists who have been accepted and verified by Storyhunter to post videos or photo packages or stories they have done, or pitches for ones they would like to do, and then networks can either pick one they want to use that’s already finished, or ask the journalist to complete one to their specifications. On the other side of the marketplace, broadcasters — or brands — can search the database looking for someone in a specific place or with a specific background and then commission them to do a job.

Not only does Storyhunter handle the transaction, including the billing and fulfillment, but the platform is also offering insurance for freelancers, something that Gilinsky said was definitely a concern while he wandered around Africa and the Middle East reporting on violent conflicts with no protection whatsoever. The company even got a shout out recently from former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson.

Gilinsky started the platform with a minimum viable product to show there was demand, and then convinced his network of fellow freelancers to try it out, and now has about 3,500 member journalists posting pitches and responding to inquiries. The company has so far raised about $1 million from angels — including friends and family — as well as a recent round of financing from a group of venture capital funds including 500 Startups and Great Oaks Venture Capital.

Helping freelancers make a living

The Storyhunter founder said that like Airbnb, he wants to remove the sources of friction between freelancer and client or broadcast network, and make it easier for journalists to make a living — but it’s also about allowing more stories to be told, and making it easier for media companies to find those stories:

“It’s about removing friction but also about unlocking capacity. What really inspires me is that there are all these stories that mainstream media could be getting and they’re not, because they’re not on the ground any more — a lot of foreign bureaus have shut down, or they’re not really what they were in the old days. This a way for anyone to have their own foreign bureau in the cloud and unlock stories that they might not even have known existed before.”

In one recent case, Gilinsky said, MSNBC wanted to get short news package of the demonstrations against the government in Hong Kong, so the broadcaster posted a call for submissions and got two pieces that ended up on its broadcast in a matter of hours.

However, while Gilinsky said that while Storyhunter wants to reach as many journalists as possible, it is not a “citizen journalism” platform. There are lots of other services that do that very well, he said — including CNN iReport, Storyful and so on — so there isn’t really a market need for another one. Professional freelancers, however, are a group that needs all the help it can get. “I want to make it easier for people to make a living at doing this,” he said.