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 blip.tv 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.