An Outstanding Way to Tell Stories: An Interview with the Co-Founder at HashtagOurStories, Yusuf Omar

Omar, a multi-award-winning journalist, has been using his smartphone for almost a decade to report on big stories from around the globe, including the war in Syria. He is a Co-founder of HashtagOurStories, which empowers mobile storytelling communities with social media and video skills. In this interview, Omar explains what is Mobile Journalism (MoJo), the ways it changes storytelling and how people use their smartphones.

Yusuf Omar, MoJo Journalist

Nowadays there are various things you can do with your smart phone. Probably, a great many of you are reading this interview on such a device.

Even though I was well aware of this, it was not until August of last summer that I truly understood the gigantic world of things that can be accomplished through a phone screen. This thanks to a master class I attended, led by Yusuf Omar.

Omar, a multi-award-winning journalist, has been using his smartphone for almost a decade to report on big stories from around the globe, including the war in Syria. He has been a senior social reporter at CNN International (UK), a mobile editor at the Hindustan Times (India) and a foreign correspondent at eNCA (South Africa).

Today, his name appears on the platform HashtagOurStories, which empowers mobile storytelling communities with social media and video skills. This is what is known as MoJo (Mobile Journalism). In this interview, we will introduce you to MoJo.

Even if you are not a professional journalist, Omar believes that journalism can be creative, in a completely new form, and that we can all learn from and use it in our day-to-day lives.


What is the main purpose of MOJO (Mobile Journalism)? How does it essentially differ from ‘conventional journalism’?

MOJO democratizes the voices of everyone, everywhere who has a mobile device or any kind of camera to tell a story independently. It should not differ from conventional journalism in its ethics and principles. Therefore, it should be factual, accurate, balanced, and accountable. These basics of journalism boil down to being practically accurate, and essentially these things should not change.


Besides, which are some of the biggest challenges you face just because of this particular line of work?

I think the biggest challenge of being a MOJO journalist is that this industry is only now convincing people of its value. It is also the fact that it can produce valuable content with, or without, traditional forms of equipment. Out in the field, being able to validate and verify that you are professional and you are covering a riot or a protest when the police question your authenticity.


Global Stories gather people’s perspectives, stories of change makers, and innovators and unsung heroes. Can you please share with us one interesting story or experience that has happened to you?

We have told stories of people changing the world, and I think some of my favorite stories are actually mostly about processes. When you see a series of steps taking place while converting one thing to another. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Zimbabwe, and I saw a community that was taking old tires, burning them and turning them into furniture. I think small innovations like this, local innovations solving global problems, are really interesting.


How and to what degree is MOJO changing the way people use their smart phones: from passive users to active voices?

I think that MOJO is fundamentally changing the way people use their phones, by taking photos and videos that are primarily to communicate. People are moving away from text messages in favor of voice-based communication. If we want to send a message, we take a photo or a video, and that is a perfect example of MOJO journalism.


Last August I had the pleasure to attend your masterclass in Kosovo, and I can recall that your stay was very time-limited as you are constantly traveling. Since your work is not geographically restricted, how does it feel to have such an impact all around the world?

It has been an absolute privilege to be able to travel and train communities in 140 countries. Obviously I am very conscious of the environmental impact that this potentially has in terms of the number of flights taken and the amount of fossil fuel burnt. I am trying to be aware and reduce the amount of travel as much as possible. It has been an amazing chance to see the very best and worst of humanity. I visited places I would have never imagined coming to, such as Kosovo. I think it was in those places, where I had the least expectations, that I actually found the most rewarding, most valuable stories.


Also, how has it all affected your lifestyle?

As a lifestyle, this is incredibly exciting, meeting new people and seeing new things every day. Of course it takes a toll on your ability to have the long term friendships you would have by seeing people on a regular basis. You come across all these people while missing lots of routine and family events, but that is a sacrifice that you make. Overall I think it is positive. But I think after two years of traveling this intensively we are planning to lock down. To focus a little bit more on building a team in a singular location like our offices in Durban and Johannesburg, and launching one in Cape Town, South Africa soon.


What would be your advice to young people who might be struggling to achieve their great aims?

I think perseverance, dedication. I think that it takes practice to make more and more videos and see how the audience relates to the content, and improve over time. Nowadays there are so many analytics to help us better understand why something did or did not perform as was expected.


About Yusuf Omar

Yusuf Omar is a multi-award-winning journalist and Co-founder of HashtagOurStories, a TEDx speaker. He is also a former CNN Senior Social Media Reporter on Snapchat and a former Mobile Editor at the Hindustan Times in India. At the Hindustan Times, he empowered 750 journalists to tell stories with their phones. He has been a foreign correspondent with just his phone since 2010 and has covered the Syrian civil war. At HashtagOurStories, he’s empowering mobile video storytelling communities around the world, creating shows in every language. You can follow him on Twitter @YusufOmarSA.

Photos: From the personal archive of Yusuf Omar

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