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Episode 2 ● Part 2

Bryn & Molly from RYOT News

Building engagement and purpose into journalism

When RYOT News decides to report about dolphins, the Los Angeles-based news organization doesn’t simply use stock photographs or video footage. RYOT invests in an underwater virtual reality camera that will best enable them to tell their story—and empower their readers to react in a purposeful way.

Because the future of news, according to RYOT, is an exciting, technology-driven space that goes beyond the who, what, where, when, why. A skillful news organization uses technology to make a connection between people thousands of miles apart—the type of connection that inspires a person to sign a petition or make a donation to a relevant cause.

The Future of News is engagement and purpose, and RYOT is committed to leading the charge.

Check out RYOT News: www.ryot.news

Bryn Mooser
Humanitarian / Filmmaker / International hitchhiker / Coach

Bryn Mooser co-founded RYOT News in 2012 after living in Haiti for several years as Country Director for Artists for Peace and Justice and serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa. When Bryn isn’t working extensive hours trying to improve the world, one news story or video at a time, he plays bass and saxophone in the London-based band Proud Mary. In 2012, Esquire Magazine named Bryn as one of its “Americans of the Year” for helping to form a baseball team—among other things—in Haiti in the hard years following the 2010 earthquake.

Molly DeWolf Swenson
Humanitarian / Singer / Inspirational speaker / Filmmaker

Seattle native Molly Swenson graduated from Harvard University in 2013 and joined RYOT as the organization’s COO a few years later when the company consisted of just three employees in a living room. Prior to that, she worked at the White House, auditioned for Season 10 of American Idol (making it to the top 50), and gave a TEDx talk in Berlin about the Future of News. Swenson’s no stranger to celebrity, previously coordinating philanthropic strategies for clients including Ben Stiller, Shakira, and Kobe Bryant.

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The Interview

How did RYOT form?

Bryn: My co-founder David and I had been humanitarians for the last 15 years, both of us spent a lot of time in Africa and a lot of time in Haiti on the ground. A lot of work responding to natural disasters over those last 15 years.

We’re also filmmakers, and we saw that there was an opportunity with news to find a way to take news from being depressing, or cynical or separatist, and actually use that emotion you get when you read a story that moves you; instead of using that to just sort of turn off to the world, we hope that it can be an activation point, a moment of participation.

So instead of just feeling depressed, we want to link every story to an action so that you can feel empowered, activated, participatory. The idea was really founded in Haiti post-earthquake, 2012. How do we tell a different story than the story the traditional media was telling? Certainly in Haiti that was a good example of a bleak picture that the western world was seeing, yet it was very different than what we were seeing on the ground.

And also how do we build a platform that can help empower people who maybe are marginalized, or could use help elevating their own voices?

Ultimately it’s about how do we make sure that every story we tell has an action, so that people can become empowered, they can reach people across countries, across continents, across distances, because the more we are connected through technology the more possible it is.

Molly: So Bryn and I met a number of years ago. My background is I went and worked in politics, in the White House in DC, and after that I joined a company called Global Philanthropy Group that did philanthropic consulting for celebrities. So I was working with Shakira, Kobe Bryant, Ben Stiller, helping them run their foundations, or determine organizations that they could align with based on their charitable interests. And all of Ben Stiller’s foundational work was in Haiti, and the organization that Bryn was working for when he was down there building schools was a grant T organization for the Stiller Foundation.

Every time I sent Ben on a trip down there, Bryn was on the other end of the emails. We became friends that way. And he came in to pitch me the idea of RYOT back when I was still working with Ben. The way he presented was this idea that had always been so close to my heart because I had worked with newspapers in the past, and I had always felt depressed and felt helpless when I read it. Trying to stay informed was a masochistic pursuit because it just made you feel terrible after.

This idea that you could link action to news and that you could make news empowering was so exciting to me I literally chased him out the door and down the hall and was like, “We’re going to work together on this.” And it was only a couple of weeks later that we actually started in earnest in a living room.

How does the RYOT technology work?

Bryn: I think that there is a shift that’s happened amongst young people who actually do want to get involved and want to do something about it, so we are trying to provide that opportunity. And I think that many of us feel helpless or we see something happening far away and we want to get involved, we want to do something, but I think it’s often hard to know exactly what to do.

We really wanted to use the news as the window into that. So when you go onto a RYOT article you’ll see a “take action” button and when you click that “take action” button you’ll learn a little more about the crisis, or disaster, or issue, and then you’ll be able to take one of the actions whether it’s a donation, or sign a petition. You can do something there right on the site. And sometimes it’s just sharing the stories, or sometimes it’s sending a tweet of support to that person. We’re always looking for the most impactful action that we can do so that people can start to feel empowered by their news again.

So there are a range of actions that you can take?

Molly: The ways that we link stories to action tend to be direct, right? If it’s a natural disaster somewhere that occurs, “Hey, the Nepal earthquake just happened, here’s an organization on the ground that we know because of 10+ years in the field of disaster response, and also because our co-founder David is there on the ground.”

We really see ourselves as an authority especially when it comes to disaster response because of our backgrounds there. In other cases the actions are thematically related, where there’s a little bit of creative license in there. We are just trying to come up with what’s going to be the organization or the action that’s going to be the most interesting to someone who is coming to RYOT and is using content as an entry point to discover causes they might care about.

If someone really likes watching animal videos, maybe it’s linked to a local shelter that you can volunteer at or that you can adopt from. If it’s a celebrity or some sort of entertainment news, maybe it’s linked to some organization that that talent or artist supports. So what we really try and do is just as closely as possible and as effectively as possible link the content to the best possible action—petition, pledge, donation opportunity, volunteer opportunity—it really runs the gamut.

Tell us where you come from as storytellers. You’re also documentary filmmakers, how does that play a part?

Bryn: Our approach is a little different as documentary filmmakers. We are humanitarians first and storytellers first, and sort of journalists and documentary filmmakers second. The role of aid worker has shifted so much as technology has gotten smaller and easier to use. Now everybody carries around a really high quality camera on the back of their phone, so it means that the role of aid worker, especially in the age of social media and technology, isn’t just getting rice or water or shelter to people in need. In addition to that it’s gotta be get the word out, let people understand what’s going on. Let that moment be a real activation point for donations, for continued aid supplies to come in.

I think that we’ve always looked at telling stories not from the sort of typical cause-y or nonprofit stories of pity rather, but the stories that we’re looking at are stories of hope, of resilience, of joy, which are the stories of the people that we are actually seeing on the ground. This is like a reflection of what we are lucky enough to be able to witness on the ground, since we are working on the ground.

Tell us about how RYOT helped those fisherman you spoke about in your TED talk. Can you give us another example as well?

Molly: We had a really amazing win right after the Philippine typhoon hit in Tacloban. We rallied together with Incubus, who are friends of ours, and we created a fundraising campaign where as soon as that hit we were collecting donations through the RYOT site. Any story that we posted about that disaster had a way for you to donate. We were able to raise about $100 thousand that was dispersed on the ground to the people who needed it most. In this case it was a fleet of fishing boats. These fisherman whose livelihoods had been completely destroyed by the typhoon. We rebuilt these fishing boats with them; there’s now in Tacloban a fleet of fishing boats that all say RYOT on the side which is a pretty amazing thing, and a pretty amazing story to be able to tell our readers, too. This is exactly where your donations went. You can see it physically on these crafts.

Bryn: I think maybe a more recent one would be the Body Team 12. When ebola hit West Africa my partner David was out there making chlorine for a lot of the facilities there that were helping to treat Ebola and made a film while there on the ground call Body Team 12 which won Tribeca a few months ago and has sort of played on the festival circuit.

We screened it at the White House, at the UN—we’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars with that film that is now going back to helping the children who have been orphaned by ebola. We are caring for about 300 kids that are now in and around Monrovia. And that’s a really exciting and proud moment for us where we can take a film and not just tell a horror story about it, but rather a story of resilience, a story of hope, and ultimately get people in that moment where they are feeling that to open up their pocketbooks and really help care for the next generation of Liberians who are going to be affected by ebola for these generations to come.

How can news and action work together? Doesn’t a call to action make it immediately skewed?

Molly: Especially early on when we launched RYOT we got asked this question a lot of how do we consider ourselves news in the traditional sense of the word when we are by definition not objective—not practicing objective journalism because we are giving a call to action at the end of every single story. And we loved fielding that question because like Bryn said, first we are humanitarians and we are storytellers, and then we are journalists. We see a duty and a responsibility to empower people when you give them that news, first of all.

Second of all, I think that question and the skepticism behind it presupposes too great a difference between the role of the humanitarian and the role of the journalist. There isn’t actually anything in the current code of ethics of journalists that says you can’t get involved at all; it just says seek the truth and report it. For us that seeking of the truth goes a little bit beyond who, what, when, where. It’s also, “Then what? Now What? How do you get involved?”

Bryn: I think that 95% of the stories out there there is a pretty clear action that we can all agree on. I think we can all agree that we can fight together on the side of alleviating poverty, or of human rights, or some social justice, and on issues that are deep issues within our society where through religious beliefs people differ or through deep culture beliefs people differ; we don’t give an action that’s sort of one way or another on that, but rather we give people an opportunity to reach out and have their own voices heard to their congressman or their representatives.

I’m a deep believer of the power of civic engagement. I’m a deep believer in the power of politics, and that people actually can make a difference if they’re going through the right avenues. I don’t think any of us would try and push a social agenda on anybody that would go against a deep held cultural or religious belief, but in those moments we do try and give somebody the opportunity to have their voice heard, which I think can be really powerful.

Molly: And that actually too is the basis of the word Ryot. The word itself is a Hindi word that means peasant. Ryot, as it is spelled with a “Y” is derived actually from a Hindi word. It means peasant, or the lowest caste, and also of course from the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

It’s based around this idea that if you are a marginalized member of society the only way that you can be heard is creating chaos, turning over cars, breaking windows, and the idea that we can give a voice to the voiceless or make people understand that no matter who they are or where they are they can make a difference, because technology is this great equalizer.

Speak to the idea of telling stories from the ground up, from people in the field who are not necessarily journalists.

Bryn: We are kind of trying to change the model in media.You’re seeing technology disrupt every single industry across the board, but media hasn’t yet had a full disruption of it. There’s kind of the digital media, but digital media is still just traditional media on a website. But there is something greater that is coming, and we’re excited about that.

I think when it comes to who’s telling the story is where we get excited—I’ll show an example. We’re using right now iPhones with a rig like this. It’s basically just an iPhone 6 with a lens. There’s a mic that goes on right here. A light, and a handle. This is like what a news van was five years ago. Everything that was in a news van is in this thing right now. Everything that is in the camera crew that follows Anderson Cooper is right here. But even better it has all of your social media, able to log in, upload to the cloud—everything is right here.

We are giving these out to activists, journalists all over the world. Next week we go to Syria, we go to Iraq, we go to Bangladesh, Somalia, and we are putting these in the hands of people who are already telling their stories. We think these tool will help empower people to tell their own stories.

We now are connected through technology and through social media. We have the ability to shoot and the ability to publish on a totally decentralized kind of publishing and democratized distribution. Now anybody can tell their own stories, and those are the people we want to hear from. We want them to be able to tell their own stories in their own languages in their own style; stories that matter to them rather than stories that we think are important for them to tell. It’s a flipping of the model, but we are excited to see where it goes.

Do you think that other publishers, the larger ones like MSNBC, can adopt this strategy (news + action), or is that a different game altogether?

Bryn: I think that the advantage is in the court of the small publishers; it’s not in the big legacy publishers. The smaller publishers don’t have the overhead, they don’t have the corporate sponsors, they don’t have the corporate ties, they don’t have the lobbyists going in there. The smaller publishers are nimble enough to try and put iPhones in activist’s hands all over the world, and shoot in virtual reality, and play around and experiment. That’s the advantage of it right now. It’s better to be small and nimble right now than to be sort of a big ogre. That’s how Malcolm Gladwell talks about David and Goliath, in this switch of the narrative where Goliath isn’t going to beat David because he is bigger, but David is going to beat Goliath because he is faster and stronger.

What are the biggest challenges to overcome for RYOT?

Molly: To us, the biggest challenge has always been wanting to do so much more than we have the bandwidth or capacity to. From when it was three of us in an office wanting to take on documentary filmmaking, wanting to take on news making, wanting to take on nonprofits and grant making. I mean our ambitions were always so much bigger than our brick and mortar, than our team. It is finally getting to the point where we have enough people to realize some of the real goals that we’ve had all along.

What are you currently working on and what are your plans over the next 6 months?

Bryn: The next three months, six months are going to be really exciting for us. We’re going to be shooting in virtual reality. This is an underwater virtual reality camera right here. This is a technology that just in the last couple of months has really been made available. This is an extraordinary type of tool that we hope to use. It can transport people from where they sit to anywhere in the world if you use it right and use it for documentaries.

Is the VR tech the same technology you used for the Nepal Earthquake Oculus piece?

Molly: The interesting thing about the virtual reality experience is when you have that headset on, is in addition to seeing somewhere you might never get a chance to visit if you don’t have a plane ticket and a passport, when filming, if someone makes eye contact with the camera and you’re seeing that in the headset, there’s nothing in your brain that’s not processing that as eye contact. So the creation of compassion and empathy is completely possible without needing to actually travel there. You can really be immersed in it. For the first time I think this medium lets you experience something as close to being there in person as we’ve ever seen.

People submit their content to RYOT. Is there a code of ethics, or guidelines that you follow?

Bryn: We work really hard not to be earnest here, which I think can be a death rattle. We work really hard not to be cynical, and somewhere in the middle is honesty and authenticity, and I think that is really important for us. We don’t run paparazzi pictures or make fun of people because that was what worked with Generation X and it doesn’t work with millennials and it certainly won’t with us who are in this room. It’s not what any of us want to dedicate our lives to.

We are working here almost around the clock at RYOT and all of us see each other more than we see our pets or our girlfriends or boyfriends or family. So we want to dedicate our time to trying to move the needle in a positive way. This is an incredibly dynamic moment that’s happening on our planet, in our country. Social agendas are moving, climate is changing rapidly. It’s arguably one of the most dynamic times that’s happened for us. It’s an exciting time to be in news and to be storytellers and I think that it means that there’s a greater opportunity than ever before to actually use it as a moment for participation rather than as a moment to tune out.

Molly: Something that people don’t realize often is that their clicks matter, and their clicks and what they are reading is creating the economy of content that they’re being given. So sometimes you’ll get into this hole where you’ll only be reading stories that are really crazy and depressing and weird, or celebrity gossip, and you feel terrible afterwards. What we try and do at RYOT is put all of our stories through a filter of, you’re not going to have to feel bad by clicking on this story ever, because it is going to at least, even it is a viral video, teach you something maybe you didn’t know, and show you something at the end and the RYOT note—which is our take on the editor’s note at the end of every single story—give you a piece of information that you can take away that’s relevant to what you were reading in the first place and that’s informative.

What do you think about .NEWS for the industry?

Bryn: At RYOT we’re really excited about .NEWS. I think that you’re going to see every news organization adopt .NEWS. It’s what we’ve been waiting for for a long time, because I think that it really establishes a very clear vertical for news organizations which aren’t really .COM or .CO, or in our case .ORG. Really this is the opportunity to lay it down and say this is what we are, this is what we do, so it’s great for us.

What made you choose a .ORG over a .COM?

Bryn: We wanted to use RYOT.org for RYOT because it wasn’t a commercially driven kind of company when we first really started thinking about it. This was about trying to start a movement and this was about trying to include people and bring people inside. And .COM felt so ’90s and so web 1.0. Moving to .NEWS is what we’ve been waiting for for a long time.

Molly: It also makes so much sense for our audience. Originally .ORG made so much sense because our audience who’s young, they’re millennials, they are expecting the companies that they support to not only be doing no harm, but to be actively doing good. Initially at least .ORG positioned us as that, and we’ve now established our brand as socially responsible as authorities in the cause space. Now what we need to establish ourselves as is really a formidable news company and one that intends to take on the giants and one that intends to disrupt and really change an industry that’s desperately in need of it.

Bryn: But we’re still on the waitlist for .NEWS, are we going to get .NEWS?

Molly: We better get .NEWS!

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