From MSNBC to NYC, a Gathering Storm

For the past seven years, Brian Storm has been one of the brains behind MSNBC.com‘s multimedia division. As director of multimedia, Storm earned an international reputation for his technical acumen.

What few know about Storm is that he’s also a big content guy, who recently announced that he’s packing his bags for New York City to serve as vice president of news & editorial photography at Corbis, a digital media agency owned by Bill Gates. Storm’s last day at MSNBC.com will be Aug. 2.

“We are really excited, and have gotten incredible response from photographers about Brian joining us,” says Charlie Borst, managing director of the Corbis newsroom in New York. “We keep hearing that he is the best possible hire that Corbis could have made.”

Under Storm’s leadership, MSNBC.com helped pioneer several innovations in multimedia production and presentation that have become industry standards:

  • The use of ambient and narrative audio combined with documentary photography, which Storm says have always been a trademark of MSNBC.com’s picture essays and interactive applications.

  • The use of sequences with a sliding control bar that allows a user to sit back and watch a linear sequence or drag the slider to look at any image in the sequence.

  • The development of internal automation tools allowing for streamlined workflow and focus on journalism in a resource-restricted, 24-7 breaking news environment.

  • The video player and the concept of integrating web page content with a video stream as well as destination pages for on-demand video (http://video.msnbc.com) and live video (http://livevideo.msnbc.com).

  • A broadband destination page (http://broadband.msnbc.com) that builds itself dynamically without dedicated people power, from assets created for the narrowband site.

In a recent e-mail to friends and colleagues, Storm wrote: “Moving forward, I believe Corbis has the ability to drive positive changes and develop new business opportunities that our industry needs to prosper. As a client to Corbis over the years, I also understand that there are issues to overcome and changes to be made to make it a top-tier destination for photojournalism. That challenge is the opportunity.”

Poynter.org asked Storm to elaborate on those thoughts in an e-mail Q&A:

Poynter.org: Looking back, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

Brian Storm: I’m proud of my team and that we brought high-end photojournalism to a mass audience. We made the still image matter in a very TV-centric environment at MSNBC and we injected a strong ethical approach into a medium that requires visual sophistication.

I’ve tried my best to represent the profession of photojournalism at MSNBC and at numerous speaking opportunities around the country. I always felt it was my responsibility to share the amazing experiences I was having with those in the rest of the profession. I know some of my crazy ideas affected others, for better or worse, but hopefully inspired them to get in the game to help make new media a great place for photojournalism:

The Week in Pictures. We created a feature that celebrates photojournalism and we built a substantial audience for a photography-driven product. It’s one of the more unique edits on the week’s events with a focused mix of the positive and negative state of the human condition. TWIP takes advantage of the medium with additional audio and video as well as the sequences that provide a richer, drill-down experience. Reader response to the quality of the photography is incredibly positive so I’m convinced that overall the general public has great respect for photojournalism. The voting process is educational for picture editors since it allows us to see the type of images our audience connect with and wants to see. Of course, we still publish the really important photographs, the ones they may not want to deal with, but they need to see and understand.

Picture Stories. One of the most satisfying experiences was working with photojournalists who invested enormous energy into personal projects. Photojournalists who initiate their own long-term projects are the ones creating bodies of work that will stand the test of time. It was an honor to help bring some of these projects to a mass audience when they weren’t finding a home elsewhere. Kari Rene Hall’s Hope at Heartbreak Motel and Ed Kashi’s Aging in America are epic productions that changed the course of how we edit and publish big packages on the site.

Made-for-the-medium original reporting. Our original reporting efforts focused on leveraging the strengths unique to our medium. The innovative work that Jim Seida and John Brecher produced during the Olympic Torch Relay is a direction I want to continue to hone at Corbis. Visual reporting with a focus on rich media presentations allows that product to be deconstructed and utilized in a print model as well. With this in mind, I’ve been working over the years to get other publications excited about the possibilities and to inspire photojournalists to gather for new media. Jim and John set an example of how to cover an event and play to the strength of a new media palette. One of my goals at Corbis is to expand on this concept with a great staff of photojournalists and a New Media Division working to create an entirely new type of content feed that can be utilized in multiple form factors including print, broadcast and new media.

Our special project efforts. These projects, with a focus on made-for-the-medium presentation, were incredibly interesting efforts because we explored so many new reporting techniques and storytelling conventions.

Poynter.org: In your opinion, has multimedia convergence reached its potential in the U.S., and how will it continue to change?

Storm: I think we are still in the first chapter of a rather lengthy novel. No medium in history has reached 50 percent penetration of U.S. households as fast the Internet. It’s hard to argue with new media’s impact on our society today.

MSNBC is a fascinating convergence model and a testament to the importance of alliance building. The core partnership between NBC and Microsoft has been very successful. The technology solutions we created in the Microsoft culture and affiliation with TV programs such as Dateline, The Today Show and Nightly News helped to drive enormous traffic and raise brand awareness. Partnering with premier content sources such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and CNBC and NBC Sports franchises raised the quality of the site in profound ways over the years. In many ways, MSNBC has the most converged product in the history of journalism.

Of course, having great relationships and producing a great product doesn’t guarantee financial success. As with photojournalism, the biggest obstacle holding back the advancement of new media is the lack of a robust revenue stream. The short run is about getting to break even and that will obviously create resource constraints that slow down innovation. With that said, it’s clear to me that the next generation news consumer will be wired and will gravitate towards the experiences that meet their personalized needs in a go-go world. Much of the foundation is in place for new media to take the next step to richer storytelling, but the advertising, subscription and transaction models need to evolve before the journalism in new media can reach its full potential.

Technical innovation is absolutely required to be competitive in business today. Corbis is architected as a digital media agency built to partner with and promote the next generation visual journalist. Photography is the backbone of the organization but there are huge opportunities to expand reporting techniques and the packaging of the world’s events.

I’ve been helping photojournalists to adapt their coverage to the possibilities of new media for some time and that’s starting to happen now. I [recently] wrote about some of those ideas and hope to continue pushing on these concepts at Corbis.

Poynter.org: What is the greatest challenge facing photojournalism today?

Storm: Probably the top, or certainly near the top, are the business woes of our profession.

The business of photography has changed. Many don’t want to accept that change and those people will spend hours tapping out e-mails about how it used to be just a handshake. Those days are over and we all need to work hard to move the profession forward in this new era.

The Internet ushered in new publishing opportunities and also forced the corporate world to implement written contracts. Of course, many of the industry’s contracts aren’t favorable to photographers, especially in a work-for-hire scenario, but the education process is in full motion and photographers are making smarter decisions every day thanks to the global communication of e-mail and volunteer efforts like the Editorial Photographer’s Group. In the end we’ll all be better off for having a contract in place that details the relationship and we need to keep working together to create the right balance.

While the Internet created frenzy over rights I believe it will create lucrative business opportunities for photography which in turn will finance more sophisticated coverage of important stories. One of the areas I will focus on at Corbis is developing ideas I’ve had at MSNBC for leveraging the transactional capabilities of new media. My goal is to build new markets for photography that will allow clients to produce a more sophisticated product and create cash flow for photographers.

One of the keys is creating a universal standard for tagging images so that everyone in the profession, big agency or independent, can benefit. I’m anxious to partner with photographers, publications and agencies to make this a reality as it’s going to take alliance building to be successful with this model. I’m convinced we can unlock the enormous value readers place on quality photography by enabling seamless transactions.

There’s no doubt in my mind that photojournalism will continue to survive, but we can’t continue on pure passion and love for the craft alone. We need to get honest with ourselves and make some strategic and potentially radical moves to help improve the financial environment so we can keep the best people in our profession. I’m also hopeful that the right people are starting to get connected with each other, largely via e-mail, to develop solutions.

Poynter.org: What is your mission in your new role at Corbis?

Storm: My goal has always been to do what I can to improve photojournalism.

I have much to learn in my new role and am anxious to get started. I need to meet with the photographers and clients to understand their issues and take action to create solutions. I need to get to know those who make things happen at Corbis and build strong relationships with those key players to execute the vision. I need to understand Corbis’ global business with domestic offices in Seattle, New York Los Angeles and Chicago and international offices in Paris, London, Düsseldorf, Kuala Lumpur, Vienna, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

At Corbis I hope to create an environment that’s fun to work in, that handles the business side of photography fairly and empowers photographers to focus on their creative pursuits. That’s the trick really… utilize the people power, the business infrastructure, the mass distribution and technology capabilities of the corporation and the nimbleness, creativity and passion of the photojournalist to create a mutually beneficially relationship. I’d say making this happen, serving both the integrity of the profession and the responsibilities of the business, is my top goal.

I want to create a home for the best photographers in the world AND create a scenario where they make a good living practicing their craft. I want to work with people who believe their efforts are part of something that’s worth hustling to create.

Poynter.org: What motivated the decision to move on and why now?

Storm: It’s obviously very difficult to leave MSNBC because it has been such a successful product and the people I work with are super-smart, passionate journalists. We invented entirely new ways of storytelling and created a culture that merges journalism and technology in extraordinary ways. It was an incredibly fulfilling experience, but I’ve been here for seven years now and in many ways I’ve accomplished my goals in this space. It’s time to push myself to grow in new areas.

The opportunity at Corbis to affect the profession in a positive manner is the next big challenge. Corbis has made some mistakes in the past, but I believe they are positioned to make huge strides forward and become an agency that photographers aspire to work with and that publications benefit from on a daily basis. Corbis has such amazing potential with the assets they have acquired and I’m eager to help lead the organization into the next era.

Poynter.org: What is Corbis and whom does it serve?

Storm: Corbis is headquartered in Seattle and is one of the world’s leading providers of digital media assets including photography, fine art, footage, cartoons, and sound. Corbis combines advanced online technology and relationships with award-winning photographers and other artists to provide digital access to collections of contemporary, historical, rights managed and royalty free media.

Poynter.org: Can you offer some insight into what you will be doing in this new role?

Storm: I’ll be working with photographers and the Corbis team to develop a global strategy for current news and feature photography as well as celebrity portraiture for clients all over the world. Our goal is to create the next generation agency with a focus on in-depth storytelling, innovative production processes and mutually beneficial relationships with both clients and photographers. We’ll also be focused on developing new markets for digital media distribution as Corbis has done with in-home digital art and wireless telephones.

Poynter.org: What is the first thing that you will do upon arrival in New York?

Storm: The first thing I’ll do is pay the cab driver $50 for the ride!

Seriously, I’m incredibly excited to be moving to Manhattan and anxious to work with a new group of people at Corbis. My friends have told me over the years that I need to get to New York City and play ball in the big leagues of the media universe, so I felt it was time to step up to the plate.

I’ve been to NYC dozens of times over the past few years to work with my team at the MSNBC TV operation so I have a pretty good feel for the place. It’s an awesome city and the center of the domestic photography community so I’m excited to work and live in that world.


A press release on the Corbis website details Storm’s hire and his background, including his work at MSNBC.com. You can e-mail Brian Storm at brian@mediastorm.org.

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