Social web: how Storyful finds “the signal in the noise”

Video search page result on storyful.com.
A search video result page on storyful.com.

A news agency connected on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, Storyful sells a verified “user content” stream for editors worldwide. It also shares tools and methods to guide journalists in the jungle of the “social web.” A visit to the Dublin offices.

Snow storm, cute cat or war scene … The use of amateur photos and videos has come a long way in the newsrooms. In the late 2000s, we realised that anyone with a smartphone would almost always be faster and closer than our most responsive reporters.

Now we even agree that user generated content (UGC) could provide ambitious journalism. In Le Monde, the BBC or in the outskirts of Leicester, journalists or bloggers produce in-depth investigation, tiring out their eyes on footage shot in Egypt, Ukraine and Syria.

“Finding the signal …”

Storyful understands and knows how to take advantage of this irresistible extension of the field of journalism. Storyful is a “UGC agency” which, on Youtube, Instagram or Twitter, digs-up, verifies and edits hundreds of photos and videos for editors worldwide.

It was created in 2010 by Mark Little. This former correspondent for Irish public television is the inventor of an expression which became the definition of “social journalism”: “Finding the signal in the noise”.

The visionary startup was acquired in late 2013 by News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s company. Its customers include the New York Times, Al Jazeera and France 24. It employs 73 people in its offices in New York, Hong Kong and Dublin.

Les locaux dublinois de Storyful (©Storyful)
Storyful’s Dublin office (©Storyful)

In the Irish capital, Storyful sits a few hundred meters from “Grand Canal Dock” and the European headquarters of Google, Facebook or Twitter.

Headphones in place, journalists, developers and the marketing team share an open space which may soon become too small. “We tripled our headcount in less than a year”, says Adam Thomas, the chief product officer. He guides me through the office and the agency’s activities.

Twitter feeds in the newswire

The main product of Storyful is the “Newswire”. For those familiar with AFP and Reuters, the principle is the same. Except for a few details. The right of the screen displays two twitter feeds. The first is a pro account, visible only for subscribers. The second is a selection of accounts – media, journalists and experts – patiently maintained by the agency.

Pictures and videos are stacked to the left of the dashboard. The Newswire’s clients can sort this world news channel by region, by category (“Weather”, “Viral”) or by specific topics. The team of Storyful monitors and updates nearly a thousand of these “topics”, at any one time depending on the news. “Paris Shootings” has of course appeared on the 7th of January.

Une capture d'écran du "Newswire" de Storyful.
A screenshot of Storyful’s “Newswire.

To better explain the service, Adam shows several videos, including one showing the Charlie Hebdo’s killers shooting a police officer before fleeing. Storyful was one of the first to spot the footage on Facebook with one of its research tools.

In the agency, reflexes are always the same: to identify and, if possible, contact the “source” (called “first uploader” ), confirm the likelihood, the location, the date and the time of shooting.”

“Between being right and being first…”

“When enough lights turn green, the content goes in the stream. Each “meta information” is carefully communicated to the client. If there is any doubt about a particular item, subscribers are warned.

Une capture d'écran du "Newswire" de Storyful.
A screenshot of Storyful’s “Newswire”.

This validation process – performed very quickly and with an expert knowledge of web tools – is Storyful’s trademark. “Between being right and being first, we will always choose being right, though speed is essential to our business”, insists Adam.

In any case, chasing hoaxes and propaganda is also part of the agency’s missions. Storyful released memos demonstrating the role of Russian separatists in the destruction of the flight MH17 over Ukraine and deciphering the ascent of IS on social networks.

The Nieman Lab published in 2012 two checklists used by Storyful’s teams to verify online content.

Find the “first uploader”

From one website to another, social media investigations may take surprising directions. To validate the video shot by a runner in the attack on the Boston Marathon, the American team had to calculate the position of the athlete from her average speed, found on a website. On a more lighthearted note, Storyful’s journalists have detailed in a post how they found and contacted a One Direction’s fan, uploader of a viral video.

Finding – and quickly – the “first uploader” is one of the agency’s obsessions. Contacting the source by email or telephone provides additional information and may possibly start a collaboration. Moreover, the purpose is to clear the rights to broadcast or publish.

Brand content

“Credit, consultation and compensation is the code of honour for Storyful”, says Adam Thomas. The agency acts a bit like an agent, promoting a video, making sure its author is mentioned (or even retributed) and protecting him against piracy. Broadcasters are media but also, brands, “who want to use social content for their campaigns.” Laughing babies, funny animals… more “real” and “viral” by nature, UGC often have often more impact than scripted content.

For ethical reasons and to avoid confusion with journalistic work, the agency doesn’t advertise against videos showing death or destruction. It assumes however the proximity of mild and serious subjects, “as in most newspapers.”

Open source and collaborative

Technology selling and sharing is another area of development. “Storyful is also a high-tech company”, Adam Thomas states. The agency has created tools and high performance scripts for monitoring and research. Some of them are shared with the community in a collaborative approach. Storyful, for example, launched a free extension for Google Chrome, “Storyful Multisearch”, which allows the finding of content across multiple platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Vine, etc) from a single query. The code is available on GitHub.

More recently, the agency opened on Google+ a community called “Open newsroom”. Journalists from around the world can call content as fake, ask for a translation or a technical tip. In this way, Storyful improves its understanding of the “social web”, while promoting its own methods and good practice.

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