Newspaper readership in South Africa is in decline. Dailies like The Star, The Daily Sun and Beeld have all lost between 30-40% of their circulation over the last three years. The migration of readers from print to online is a well-established trend both here and overseas, but the challenge faced by journalists and media moguls is a complex one. Online, you’re not just competing against upstart young competitors (like us), you’re up against a lot of more urgent and entertaining stuff that’s all only a click a way.
Burt Herman, co-founder of Storify, is well aware of this.
“Around the time that Twitter started emerging [2008/9 – Ed]. I was doing a Knight scholarship at Stanford University, looking at how news will be covered in the future,” Herman explains, “It was around the time of the plane on the Hudson and so on. Looking around, all the students were on Facebook instead of listening to lectures, so the question I was asking was ‘how can we make news as interesting as Facebook?’.”
The result of that thinking, eventually, was Storify. Storify is an online tool that makes searching and organising social media into a story format easy. Using the web interface, anyone can search for ‘ANC Manifesto’, for example, and put together a rough timeline of events and comments from the crowd, which can then be organised and embellished with text and other links.
It launched in 2011, and has been . It’s mission ‘to make sense of social media’ has been so successful that even Twitter has taken notice, with its own customisable timelines – although Herman is keen to impress that he has a good working relationship with both Twitter and Facebook as partners, rather than competitors.
The results range from the seemingly banal to the utterly compelling, and a tool which most newsrooms all around the world – including many in South Africa like SABC, Memeburn and, on occasion, us – use in some form or another. It has been used to create obituaries, sports reports and collate updates from disaster zones and conflicts. At it’s worst, it’s a collection of random Tweets in a meaningless timeline, but at its best it’s a compelling way of adding context or breaking news to an online story.
“My co-founder, Xavier Damman, had built something for publishers to embed live feeds on their site,” explains Herman, “But what we found was that it was hard to make that interesting. It was very automatic and people didn’t pay much attention to it in the way they did when humans selected it. That gave us the idea of doing something curated, which meant we were telling a story so we needed more tools than just Twitter – we needed to add text, move things around and so on.”
Today, says Herman, Storify is used by both the British monarchy and the US White House to collect information, feedback and gauge the public tone on a daily basis. It’s also the back-end system for the live blogging feeds on several major international sites.
“It wasn’t intended to be a live blogging platform,” says Herman, “But we have had people use it as that. We intended it to be more like a live story platform.”
Some of the design ethos, says Herman, comes from his time as an international correspondent for the Associated Press (AP). His last job before founding Storify was as chief at the Korean bureau, reporting on nuclear tensions across the North/South border.
“Coming from the AP,” he says, “When something happens we sent out a news alert, which is like a Tweet. Then we start adding things to the story, details, quotes and context and piecing things together as they evolve – that was more the idea of building Storify. A conventional liveblog or Twitter is about ‘what’s the latest thing that’s on top?’”
The transition from front line reporting to back room boss has presented challenges, Herman says: there are days when he misses the chaos of the newsroom.
“I was covering stories and news which was all very exciting,” Herman says, “But with Storify we wanted to change the way people told those stories, potentially having a broader impact that will make people think about the way they tell stories.”
And Storify has changed the way people tell news. It’s finest moment, Herman says, came during the “year of protest” around Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, when social media became the only way to cover rapidly developing stories.
“So many things were happening in so many different places, journalists were being kicked out of places and arrested – it was an amazing year of protest that you couldn’t really cover it in any other way.”
And as if social media mastery wasn’t enough, the next big development for Storify, says Herman, will come as a result of the company’s acquisition by blog commenting platform Lifefyre. By combining Livefyre’s ability to aggregate comments from websites with Storify’s focus on social streams, journalists will have more ability to connect with what their readers are talking about and get them to share news stories around.
“People still talk about SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)”, says Herman, “We talk more about SMO – Social Media Optimisation. We think about how to make a story more social and encourage people to share it – things like notifying people if they get mentioned in a story, for example, encourages them to share it with their friends.
The hack becomes the hacker
As well as founding Storify, Herman’s other impressive feature of entrepreneurial journalism is that he helped to found the first chapter of journalist networking group Hacks/Hackers – an organisation which brings together software developers and storytellers to try and find ways to use technology such as data analysis in a news environment. Theoretically, the one group brings technical knowledge, while the other humanises it into something palatable for a mainstream audience. Herman is speaking tonight at a meeting of the Joburg chapter.
“The African chapters, for example, have been doing great things with transparency,” Herman says, “We need to be able to process all this data that’s out there and we need engineers to do that and journalists to tell the stories it shows.”
Herman didn’t set out with a grand vision for Hacks/Hackers beyond his own San Francisco surrounds.
“It grew and grew, all around the world,” he laughs, “The Argentina chapter in Buenos Aires is huge, they have an enormous event every year. I guess it shows there was a huge gap for something like that. There’s lots of journalist’s organisations, but they tend to be geared towards conferences once a year or awards or are something you do through your employer. They’re not about collaboration and experimenting and trying new things.”
Despite his obvious interest in technology and the changing nature of storytelling, Herman says that phones and social media won’t replace traditional news-gathering skills any time soon.
“We do still need journalists on the ground reporting in places where people aren’t Tweeting or posting photos because they can’t do it for whatever technological or political reason,” he says, “You can’t sit back and rely on Twitter for your news.”