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Can this Russian app revamp citizen journalism?

Introducing Babo.


Dylan Love


Posted on May 4, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 10:23 pm CDT

Ashot Gabrelyanov doesn’t need his bodyguards since he moved to New York City.

The 26-year-old media entrepreneur has already seen gobs of success in his native Russia, where he works as CEO of LifeNews, a 24-hour news channel and heavily-trafficked website that chronicles the goings-on of the world for a Russian audience. His latest project is a smartphone app called Babo, and it stands to turn the newsgathering world on its ear.

It’s already done so in Russia. When a prominent Russian politician denied taking a dinner meeting with a business executive, a Babo user turned in a picture of the two of them at dinner together. More notoriously, one Babo user submitted a stalker-y creepshot of Gabrelyanov himself, out in public. (Do the bodyguards make a little more sense now?)

Babo turns a smartphone into an eyes-and-ears extension for news organizations looking to instantly expand their reach at very little cost. Anyone who installs the app is incentivized to photograph and film anything they think might be newsworthy then upload it to the Babo servers, where news organizations can offer financial rewards for especially scintillating images or videos. It’s like plunging yourself into the plot of Nightcrawler.

Adding another enticing wrinkle to Babo is the fact that news agencies can offer bounties for images of specific events. Because smartphones running the app broadcast their location, news editors can identify Babo users closest to a newsworthy event and offer them incentives to capture it on their phones.

“There is some legal gray area attached to using this app,” said Gabrelyanov. “One day we got some security camera footage of soccer fans destroying a restaurant. It turned out that the person monitoring these security cameras was very poorly paid, so we basically doubled his salary that week by paying him for the footage.”

Here’s a showreel of jaw-dropping footage Babo users have already captured:

News editors can send text messages to Babo users within the app in an attempt to get the perfect shot.


Here’s what news editors see on the backend.


The service has already been used to capture some iconic shots, like this one of Edward Snowden wandering Moscow, where he currently lives with permission from the Kremlin.


And users earn real money for getting good footage, says Gabrelyanov.


Gabrelyanov perfected Babo by using it for LifeNews, but he has since moved to New York City to shop the technology around to other news organizations, which can pay to license it.

There may be some tension in U.S. newsrooms with an app developed and maintained by Gabrelyanov’s companies. LifeNews, for example, has a history of Kremlin-sympathetic propaganda accusations levied against it. Earlier this year, the site blamed the United States for the terrorist attack on French comedy magazine Charlie Hebdo. Gabrelyanov, on the other hand, says Babo is a politically agnostic platform—users are capturing photos and videos from the real world for news organizations to use as they see fit.

“I’m basically a tech guy,” said Gabrelyanov.

Babo and the technology behind it will change the way we learn about and see what’s going on in the world. It’s perhaps surprising that this is the first app of its kind, yet here we are: a civilization with smartphones, slowly making sense of the world for each other.

Photo via Babo

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*First Published: May 4, 2015, 10:06 am CDT