NEW MEDIAS. Turi Munthe is a journalist turned media entrepreneur and investor. He is the Founder of Parli, a ‘wikipedia’ for opinion, and a partner at North Base Media, where he invests in media and media technologies. Turi has founded several media companies including Demotix, which became the world’s largest network of photojournalists and sold to Corbis Corporation. He sits on the board of IRIN, Index on Censorship, OpenDemocracy and The Signals Network.

Turi, you studied in Oxford and then at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and then at NYU.  You were a journalist and you did many different ventures, mostly in media.  What are you doing now?

Now I am a partner in a venture capital firm called North Base Media that invests in media, and I’ve just founded Parli.coa ‘wikipedia for opinion’.

What is North Base Media?

It is a venture capital firm which invests in media and in media technology.  We invest in early stage start-ups where technology can change the way that media work around the world, and we invest in very young media companies in growth markets.

Who are your partners?

The company was founded by Marcus Brauchli, ex-head of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post and Sasa Vucinic, founder of the Media Development Loan Fund.  Stuart Karle, ex-COO of Reuters News joined a little later, and I followed.

Are medias a good business?

Media has suffered terribly in the West over the last twenty years with Google and Facebook, and Craigslist which killed off the classifieds business for media.  So we have seen a huge decline in the number of journalists and publications as the business models changed.  That has created opportunity for a whole raft of new media to emerge, but the business models are still challenging in Europe and the US.

Where do you invest?

We invest in growth markets: Mexico, the Middle East, Africa, India and parts of South East Asia.  Huge markets with huge youth populations, where we are still seeing growth in internet and mobile penetration.  The smart phone is changing everything.

Is there no real journalism anymore?

There is more “Real Journalism” than ever, and ever larger audiences all over the world consuming media in ever-more diverse and ever-more immediate ways  With these changes come major challenges the Facebook news algorithm has a lot to answer for but we have found enormous appetite for news and new media around the world. In India, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Middle East, we’ve invested in great new media businesses with multiple different business models, and we have seen extremely impressive growth. We are helping to build journalism and media businesses for these younger demographic countries where the opportunities are growing faster than in Europe and the US.

Are you based in London?

I am, but my partners are in the US and South Korea.  Our Headquarters are in Washington DC.

“We need to be able to talk across the divide.”

A screen grab of Turi Munthe’s current venture Parli.co, described as a ‘wikipedia’ for opinions.

According to your CV you are quite an eclectic man with a renaissance tendency.  What else are you interested in?

I have really only ever been interested in media.  I was a journalist in the Middle East, I put together a book on Saddam Hussein, and I founded the hubristically named Beirut Review of Books.  Then in 2008 I founded what I hoped was going to be a gigantic free speech platform called Demotix.  I was trying to build a platform for everybody to tell the news.  This was when all the big media organisations were pulling back from international coverage because the foreign bureaus were so expensive to maintain.  I wanted to build Reuters or the Associated Press, but from the bottom up: I thought we could put together a place for local journalists and civilians to tell their news stories.  We became the biggest network of photo journalists, there were 75,000 people on the platform, and we sold the company in 2012 to Corbis.

What now?

Equally hubristically, I am trying to build something like an encyclopaedia of opinion. It is a ‘wiki’ – which means anyone can edit it. I have called it Parliwww.parli.co.  In English it is an old world for a negotiation, a ‘parley’.   Of course in Romance languages it means just to talk.

Why do you try to create an encyclopaedia in this time of Google?

In the aftermath of 2016 – Brexit, Trump, the Renzi referendum  – where billions of words arguing for one side or another were spilled across all media types, it finally struck me that there is in fact a very limited number of arguments and opinions on any side of any debate.  Most of my friends could list the reasons for and against Brexit on the back of an envelope.  There has been so much repetition, so much rhetoric, so much wasted time, with no visible improvement on the quality of the debate.  So I thought if I can map the arguments around Brexit, then I can map the arguments around abortion, I can map the arguments for and against belief in the existence of God  I imagined Parli: a platform that could map all opinions about everything.

A bit confusing?

If we get it right, my hope is that by mapping the major opinions about these subjects we make them much less confusing. Parli.co should help us work out what we think, and stop us going around in circles.

We live as you know in the media in a world that is more and more simplified.  Plurality seems out of fashion vis a vis populism? 

My view would be different.  When I look at the media landscape I see tribalism.  The liberal consensus that we have so happily lived with for the last generation – a bit of free market, a bit of welfare state – that consensus is shot.  Polarisation itself is not a bad thing: “consensus can be another word for group think.  But if we are to take advantage of this rash of new approaches to our 21st century challenges, we need to be able to talk across the divide.  We need to be able to hear each other.

You said that with Demotix you had a very big platform of photo journalists. You had 75,000 people working with you. This new photographic world of images, lnstagram etc., what kind of symbolic world is it? And how do you handle it in your various ventures?

The biggest change aesthetically, and therefore politically, in image production over the last generation has been from the highly edited and professionally curated to the mobile snapshot: grainy, instant. We used to trust the expert photojournalist, and of course we still do in many instances, but we now also trust the hand-held footage or photo of the woman in the street.

Did we all become photo journalists because of our smart phones?

Yes, but it’s not so much about the photographer as about the audience. The audience has grown to trust this new visual language of the cellphone: there is an immediacy and an authenticity that we have grown used to because of our own power over the image, and we trust it when we see it.

Is it now about words or images?

For me, always words.

Trump has understood that well with his Tweets. Salvini, Macron, they all use brief messages as a way of communicating inconsistently and without journalists?

Trump in that sense is the arch citizen-journalist. He runs his own news cycle. I think of the despair of the mainstream media in the US after his election. It was despair framed as a mea culpa: “how could we have not stopped this?” Their presumption was that they had any impact at all…

Now cynically the media enjoys Trump as he is a constant show and therefore they sell more copies and have a larger audience?

It is a devil’s wager. Trump tempts the media to perjure its own principles in exchange for audience: CNN for example may have damaged itself irreparably, but others I am sure will thrive, even after Trump.

What happened at the Washington Post?

This is a time of fantastic journalism at a national and global scale: gigantic audiences at no additional cost. The great disaster is in local journalism (which serves such a critical democratic function), where we still haven’t found a sustainable business model.

If these populistic regimes will lead the world of tomorrow, are you afraid that the freedom of the press will be in danger? 

Extremely. North Base Media invested in Rappler in the Philippines, which has been attacked in every underhand way by President Duterte for its reporting on his drug hit squads. The CEO, Maria Ressa, was Time Person of the Year but the pressure is immense. We see those same pressures even in Europe today.

“Every new technology is a kind of virus.”

Turi Munthe

Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler. The Filipina journalist, businesswoman, and author was chosen as one of Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, along with murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

A screen grab of Demotix, the free speech platform which Turi founded and sold to Corbis Corporation.

Anonymous protesters in Bahrain 2011 thank Demotix for their coverage. 

When he was a journalist in the Middle East, Turi put together the Saddam Hussein Reader.

“There is huge greediness for news.”

Things always change, but if there is no freedom is digital media a big problem?

The last 30 years have seen a destruction of the media business model of media, selling papers and advertisements, but there is a younger generation who are used to paying for digital products like Netflix and Spotify, they buy music and videos, and now they start paying for subscriptions to the New York Times or the FT, or even membership fees to The Guardian.  There are the beginnings of a turnaround of the business model of these companies, and I hope it is in time to face down the kind of politics of a Jaroslaw Kaczynski or Viktor Orban.  We have a free press to guard against those kinds of politics.

You decided in your early days to be a journalist and have had an adventurous life.  Is it still a profession that young people should pursue?

The profession has radically changed, the days of business class trips around the world have gone.  The former budgets of a prestige business model are no longer there, but the information still is and there are infinitely more readers and viewers as well around the world.  There is huge greediness for news. 

Any kind of news?

Every new technology is a kind of virus, and the human race needs to develop antibodies to it.  With Gutenberg’s printing press, perhaps more important than the bible was the printing of the political pamphlets that set Europe on fire all the way through the 15th and 16th centuries.  The internet is the printing press virus of today and my generation has not yet figured out how to use its power only for the good.  My children’s generation will develop the antibodies to cope with it. 

What are the antibodies?

How do I know this is true?  Is it true?  How do I corroborate? How do I tell the story that I have read from seven different sources to myself?  Who do I trust?  How do I ask?  

I hope Parli.co can be an antibody – I want to help people understand what they think, and to help people understand what the other side thinks.

 

Lead portrait photo of Turi Munthe © Heba Aly.

London, January 2019

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