A Primer on Innovation: The Case of Storify

“There’s a key difference between journalism and entrepreneurship: Being a journalist is being careful to never make a mistake… Doing a startup is about making mistakes all the time and not being afraid to fail.” This is probably the key message from a chat that Poynter Institute did with Burt Herman, CEO and co-founder of Storify (published in November 2011).

Storify is a tool that allows a user to compile content from various social networks, while for journalists the tool is a help in working on stories. “Learning to curate sources is an essential skill in this age of media overload, and Storify makes sure to always keep attribution to avoid plagiarism”, Herman said.

As Herman noted, “Storify is for telling stories using social media: users can easily search for Tweets, photos and video from social networks to add to their “story.” The story can then be embedded on any site.”  

“What Storify is really about is taking the best of the old and combining it with the new. We do still need the best practices of journalism, but to bring that into the Internet age”, said Herman.

Storify creators are building a platform they wish to be truly social by having a bi- directional relation with social networks – drawing from them and pushing content out to them. For instance, one can crowdsource local news and engage the audience to contribute comments or photos on the same topic using a particular hashtag.

There have been some prominent uses of Storify by media, such as Al Jazeera, which has created a show around Storify, or The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. It has also been used as a tool for Election Day reporting. However, there have been a lot of use of Storify outside of journalism, by big companies, for marketing and PR on social media, as well as political and NGO use.

Passion Stronger than Risk

Before creating Storify as a startup, Herman was a journalist with the Associated Press, after which he went on a fellowship and then spent brief time at AP again. But he really wanted to create a startup. “There was some risk, but I knew this was something that I was passionate about and wanted to innovate by bringing together journalism and social media”, Herman said.

“Given how hard it is to succeed with a startup or any new venture, it’s of course important to be pursuing something that you can’t stop thinking about. You have to be incredibly driven, but also willing to listen to feedback and adjust along the way”, Herman shared his experience.

Tips for journalists turned business people

Herman’s tips for journalists and others who have venture ideas, but are not sure how to start as they are not business people?

  1. If venture capital is involved, one should go after a huge market and solving a big problem. The key is thinking big enough so that the new enterprise will be appealing.
  2. It is ok if there is a high chance of failure as investors understand this and that is why they make a lot of bets. Most startups fail, but the investors are hoping to get big gains from a few that succeed. 
  3. Team is another key thing. Investors value it often even more than the idea because ideas may change, but a good team will adjust and create a great company.
  4. You do need to be really passionate and driven to do a startup, because it is hard work. You are doing something that no one has done before, Herman says.
  5. In terms of adequate finances, do not leap blindly off the cliff, says Herman. Take into account your personal situation. Herman had 12 years of working for AP behind him and financial resources that could sustain him for more than a year before his startup got funding.
  6. For every startup you hear about, there are dozens of others that did not get that far. 
  7. Storify is focusing first on building up a user base and distribution, while it will focus on revenue streams later. They can afford that because they are backed by venture capital. Six months after the public launch, Storify is looking at potential revenue streams, with the plan that the tool always be free for users to create stories. Moreover, they want to find ways for writers to earn money from their work on Storify.
  8. How did they develop relationships with the first users – news organisations? They reached out to journalists, as Storify was initially created for them, looking for those who were willing to experiment, such as writers from niche publications or people in charge of more innovative tasks, such as social media editors. Then they listen closely to what the first users had to say about the product, changing and adapting it according to their suggestions. 
  9. Most important idea for a journalist-turned-entrepreneur? “There’s a key difference between journalism and entrepreneurship: Being a journalist is being careful to never make a mistake and be accurate. Doing a startup is about making mistakes all the time and not being afraid to fail”, says Herman and adds:
  10. “It’s a tough switch to make and a daily challenge, but the key is just to get out there and try something new. Journalism needs innovation!”
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