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“Hashtag Our Stories” Co-Founder Trains Everyday People to be Mobile Storytellers Yusuf Omar travels the world, teaching local communities to create their own shows in every language using a simple smartphone

Everything Yusuf Omar needs to shoot, edit and publish a story fits in his pocket.

Self-proclaimed “jeans journalist” Omar has spent the last near decade traveling the globe, telling some of the world’s most important stories with just a mobile phone and a few simple apps. The former Senior Social Reporter for CNN, Omar has an impressive mobile journalism (mojo) rap sheet. He has been the Mobile Journalism Lead for eNCA in South Africa, Mobile Editor for the Hundustan Times in India, a TEDx speaker, and he has covered major new stories, such as the Syrian civil war, using just his smartphone.

And it all started when Omar decided to hike on foot through Africa eight years ago.

“In 2010, I hitchhiked from South Africa to Syria – from Durban to Damascus – with a backpack of old t-shirts and a head full of young dreams, telling stories,” he said.

In 2016, Omar won the Thomson Foundation Mobile Journalist of the Year for his creative use of Snapchat filters to tell the stories and hide the identities victims of sexual violence in South Africa. And now, the co-founder of Hashtag Our Stories is making it his life’s work to train and empower local communities to tell their own multimedia stories.

“We’ve now traveled to about 40 countries over the period of five months. Everywhere we go, we are training communities how to tell stories using mobile phones and then creating shows. Effectively, Hashtag Our Stories is a global news network, made up of community storytellers, but curated and edited by journalists.”

Omar co-founded the media company with his wife who, together, are passionate about building the future of journalism. And that involves teaching everyday people how to be mojos themselves.

“It’s been incredibly exciting, but it’s also been incredibly difficult to incentivize people to continue creating after we leave. We see about 10% of the people we train become regular and active creators,” Omar said.

Because most people today consume media on mobile devices, Omar believes that recording, editing and publishing content should be done on that same platform.

“I produce content on mobiles, and it performs better on mobile devices. When you make on a phone, you think about a mobile audience,” he said.

‘Reality’ is the New ‘Quality’

And when he teaches local communities to do the same, their videos are much more likely to be viewed and consumed. Instead of highly produced content for the silver screen, or meticulously edited video for television, Omar says, “Reality is the new quality.” Which, unlike the “Good Enough Revolution,” extends far beyond shaky, handheld footage.

“It’s an entire change of format. It’s the idea that it doesn’t need to be a news anchor delivering the news in a certain way. It doesn’t need to be on a tripod. It doesn’t need to follow a set formula. Reality can mean taking away the intermediary, taking away the voiceover who’s describing a product or service or news story, and instead going directly to the source,” he said.

One prime example of this Omar’s use of Snapchat face filters to help hide the identity of sexual assault survivors in India. In 2016, it was estimated that one in every two children were sexually abused, but actual reporting of these crimes were very low. While working as the Mobile Editor at the Hindustan Times, Omar invited victims to create video confessions of their experiences using face-altering filters like a fire-breathing dragon. It was highly effective and won him the Thomson Foundation Mobile Journalist of the Year in 2016.

“We must look beyond the gimmicks of social media and find the powerful tools to do better journalism,” said Omar.

Omar says more proof of this is simply by watching the most viral, the most shared, and the most watched videos on Facebook or YouTube. They’re typically not pieces that have been produced by high-end publishers or Hollywood cameras.

“The most watched videos are generally viral clips from somebody’s mobile phone. Sometimes, it’s somebody doing something silly, sometimes it’s inspirational,” said Omar. “I really do believe mobile storytelling is one of the most accurate forms of video and content creation.”

Focusing on Original Content

So, should content creators, businesses and brands pivot to mobile-only video? Not necessarily. Instead, Omar encourages brands to focus on their audience’s emotional trigger. What encourages that person to share content? Hope? Inspiration? Fear? According to Omar, once we understand the answer to that question, we can understand the shareablitiy of online content.

But beyond this, Omar said that mobile storytelling can offer what broadcast and traditional media can’t – original, hyperlocal content.

“I really do think publishers, media houses, brands, advertisers, everyone needs to double-down on original content, and that can be very expensive and labor intensive. It be done by Netflix commissioning an original show, or it can be done by building communities that are highly engaged, that are contributing on a regular basis,” he said.

And that is exactly why Omar has created Hashtag Our Stories. By taking advantage of user generated content and empowering everyday people to thrive a new frontier of storytelling, Omar hopes to see much more original content online. Using tools such as live video, virtual reality, and nonlinear mobile video editing apps, Omar is showing the world that anyone can tell a compelling digital story, thanks to that small device in all of our pockets.

“Our future is in our ability to curate and aggregate and listen to the voices of mobile storytellers around the world. And their ability to do shit is going to get even better.”

Jon Zmikly

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