Alive in Baghdad: Can Citizen Journalism Done Right Pay the Bills?


Alive in Baghdad is arguably the best-positioned citizen news video outfit in the world. It boasts not only an on-the-ground team shooting unfiltered interviews in a highly relevant place like Iraq, but constructive goodwill from videobloggers and video startups like and Next New Networks, and even acknowledgment from the mainstream media. It won six prizes, including best vlog, at the inaugural Vloggies awards last year, was recently featured on Good Morning America, and landed on the page-view mine of the YouTube homepage today.

Check out this week’s episode, about how it’s difficult and expensive in Iraq, of all places, to get gas (embedded below).

But attracting regular viewers and financial backers to anti-soundbite journalism is not an easy task.

Brian Conley and Steve Wyshywaniuk, the Philadelphia-based U.S. team managing the show, have set up a company called Small World News and started their first franchise, Alive in Mexico. But as Conley readily admits, it’s a shoestring operation. “Financially it’s pretty rough right now,” he said in a recent phone interview. “At $2,500 an episode, four episodes a month, it’s a little more than $10,000 a month for the Baghdad project, so we’re sort of hemorrhaging money all the time.”

The team has been able to sustain so far itself on donations, subscriptions, prize money, and licensing. However, a recent three-month deal to produce a show called AiB Uncut for Next New Networks was not renewed. “We loved the episodes that they did but unfortunately, for whatever reason, Uncut just didn’t connect with the particular audience that we’ve been building on Veracifier,” said Tim Shey, N3 founder and head of network development.

In the larger scheme of things, said Conley, “It’s more than people don’t know we’re in a financial crisis almost constantly, but that people don’t know that Alive in Baghdad exists.” The team expects to see approximately 175,000 views across its episodes in the month of August.

Sarah Szalavitz, who works as director of content development at Veoh by day but also spends much of her time deal-making pro bono for AiB, admitted that the show has to be especially creative about finding ways to make money. “If I were a VC, it’s not what I would be investing in either, but I think it’s important to support,” she said.

And that, really, is the point. “We didn’t start Alive in Baghdad because we thought we were going to make a profit and be at the forefront of Web 2.0 Internet journalism,” said Conley. “We started it because we thought it needed to be done.”

If you’d like to continue this conversation in person (and perhaps see a clip of Alive in Baghdad, which entered this month’s contest), please join us tomorrow night in San Francisco for our final Pier Screening of the summer, on the topic of citizen news.


robbie marks


How about Alive in Kosovo?

A million people got chased from there the past 2 decades by the albanians and the Kristallnach (this one made the german one look like a picnic), then our bombing helped chased another 300,000 serbs, jews, gypsies and other dirty races and now you have pockets of the remainder which live like cattle behind barbed wires.

How about Alive in Haiti were we kidnapped that countries president and supported armed murderers *who we armed)?
Kevin Pina does an amazing job there but of course he is not going by the party line so he might not be ripe for this..

Things are hard in Baghdad? No shit?
Nothing to see or hear there, bomb the crap out of country and that’s what happens.

Maybe its good in a way to see the misery the US instills in countries around teh world (my best man is chilean so sept11 has a different meaning to them).
We play god in so many countries that we totally forget the effects of our lies in places like the balkans or persian gulf.

Short of a couple of bombing raids over Boston, maybe seeing what we brought will kick someone into realizing what happened.

Then I remember that there is probably half the country taht still believes taht Saddam was responsible for 911, so probably not.

Brian - Alive in Baghdad, etc

We are not actively licensing our content to anyone at the moment. We are pursuing deals with a variety of companies in the UK and here in the US.

In the past Sky News, the BBC, and ITN all approached us about licensing content. We struck a deal with BBC Newsnight to co-produce a documentary with them, and with SkyNews we licensed 5 of our episodes, with creative control, both for a hefty sum.

Right now we are trying to figure out the best ways to approach these and other organizations and are working on possibilities for establishing an ongoing relationship with one or more companies, depending on the rights therein.

We drive a pretty hard bargain because we work in a pretty tough environment and, in my opinion, are producing work you can’t find ANYWHERE else, aside from some Arab media companies(not Al-Jazeera) and local Iraqi TV stations.

Our goal is to make this work and continue expanding to other bureaus, we are right now considering a local project here in Philadelphia where we’re based, as well as a number of other options overseas.

I can’t speak about Sarah’s role at Veoh, but with Small World News she has been essential to helping us learn to cut deals that are beneficial to both parties and has been aggressive in the pursuit of new deals and publicity.


I thought sara would write in to clarify her double role at two companies ;-) great write up and show. who are they licensing their content to at the moment and does anyone know how those deals are set up? i’d love to hear more.


Thanks for featuring the show. I do hope that they’ll find some business model that will keep them alive, in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Justin Kownacki

AiB is one of the most important creations in the nascent social media movement, and yet it can barely stay afloat. Ironically, it’s both the easiest to promote through word-of-mouth and, understandably, the hardest to monetize, because American companies don’t want to invest in war journalism any more than insulated web viewers want to see war journalism.

But the solution is simple (on paper): Individuals need to be able to micro-pay for the news, information and entertainment they consume online, as a way to keep these media creators in business. If we hadn’t began with the concept of “web = free,” it would be much easier to make the transition to micro-paid personalized networks.

Let’s take the power from the advertisers and invest our resources directly in the media creators who power our lives. (And, as in the case of AiB, let’s strive to power our lives with knowledge, not fluff.)

Kathleen Mazzocco

Fantastic program, thanks for raising to to our attention, even if the post is about not so good news. There certainly is potential for a lot more eyeballs through links etc. and then hopefully a business model will follow. I’ll be watching from now on.

Liz Gannes

Sarah Szalavitz, the producing partner for Alive in Baghdad, asked to clarify the quote we used from her in our story. She writes via email,

“Alive in Baghdad is a challenging project to support financially particularly in the VC community; it just requires creative models for financing. We are looking at every source we can!”

Marshall Kirkpatrick

Great post, Liz. This is certainly one of the key questions about the hope that new media offers, perhaps that goes without saying. If the nonprofit world weren’t so maddening I’d say that foundations of some sort would be the most logical supporters of this project – that’s probably still the case. I’ll tag this post “nptech” in to share it with the community of nonprofit tech folks that I know, perhaps someone will have some brilliant ideas. Good luck AiB crew! Keep up the great work!

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