Storify's best uses turn news into conversations

Mid-term elections, cities crippled by snow, a homicide epidemic, and hundreds of bicycles materializing in the middle of late-night traffic -- they're not just news stories, they're ongoing experiences.

That led Burt Herman, a former AP bureau chief and correspondent, to re-evaluate the way that news organizations research and assemble their stories. The result is Storify, a tool that allows editors and reporters to integrate social media into their stories faster and more interactively than ever before.

Rather than copying and pasting status updates, tweets, and Flickr photos, reporters can use Storify to rapidly compile dynamic social media elements that readers can retweet or reply to by clicking within an article.

It was the unfolding, increasingly citizen-reported nature of contemporary news events that inspired Herman to create the tool, along with co-founder Xavier Damman.

Rather than limit a story to a single report or punctuated series of updates, they wanted a format that accommodated the branching, interactive nature of social media.

Throughout its private alpha, Herman and Damman have kept a close eye on how reporters put Storify to use. "We want to learn and see how people are using it," he said.

So what have they learned?

In general, Herman explained, users tend to employ it in one of three different ways: Compiling the seemingly-random chatter of reactions to an event, quoting direct sources, and highlighting one's own social media.

Highlighting social media

A simple example of the latter use is PBS' coverage of the midterm elections. Their Storify post was a lengthy compilation of "NewsHour" tweets throughout Election Day, with an occasional tweet from local television stations.

"This is about filtering out interesting elements from noise," Herman said. PBS presented users with an easy-to-scan timeline of the day, helping readers cut through the Twitter chatter surrounding the election.

Event reactions

One of the other most common uses of Storify is the documentation of extreme weather.

The Seattle Times created a post to document a November storm, pulling in Twitpics and YouTube videos alongside the tweets. The uncredited Times reporter or reporters also added commentary and time-stamped updates regarding traffic jams and storm warnings.

The story starts with reports of sledding, but soon the tweets report jack-knifed buses and cars sliding on ice. An early Twitpic shows a dusting of snow, followed later by a video of a bus careening into a utility pole. The effect is a bit like watching a time-lapse of the storm's unfolding, as told by those in the thick of it.

On the east coast, the Washington Post used Storify to compare the winter-weather responses of two neighboring mayors. Following a December blizzard, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued vague tweets about plowing, but Newark Mayor Cory Booker used Twitter to communicate with residents about their needs.

"DOT has 240 employees working on the roads today using 126 pieces of equipment," Bloomberg wrote, while Booker wrote, "I'm patrolling with my shovel helping dig out. Let me know if any seniors or disabled need help."

He even responded to residents: "I'm delivering the diapers now. We will get her street soon RT @tmhester: @CoryBooker Highland Ave b/w My sis can't get out to get diapers."

This was a perfect opportunity to use Storify, since the story took place largely within the platform of Twitter. The Post's comparison appeared on their "Politics and Policy" blog, and followed the timeline of tweets with a play-by-play by reporter Andrea Caumont.

It's worth noting that the Post also produced a "formal" version of the story for its Politics section. That story did not use Storify, and simply placed tweets in quotes. Because the entire story is plain text, there is no easy way to retweet anything, and usernames are not clickable. One source used a heart character in her tweet, which rendered in text as an incomprehensible string of accent marks.

Aside from the lack of interaction and the broken formatting, a single static article fails to tell the whole story, Herman says. Increasingly, news organizations will want to cover stories that occur online not as isolated events, but as an ongoing conversation.

"It's crazy to think that this one snapshot at 7:11 p.m. is it," he said, pointing to the Post's print story. "What happened after that?"

Quoting direct sources

One of Storify's strengths is its ability to depict online conversations as they unfold, rather than confining them to a single, static report.

Earlier this month, an independent news site called Homicide Watch began using Storify to document ongoing community reactions to homicides in Washington, D.C.

"Its weird how life can be so short and the new year just started. RIP Bryant Morillo," writes one person. And for another victim: "R.I.P Bman da whole hood came out 2 show u love 2nite we miss u watch ova brah."

Presented without comment, the memorial media paints a vivid picture of a community that can't escape a cycle of mourning.

Documenting an experience

I wanted to take Storify for a spin, and as luck would have it, a perfect opportunity to do so presented itself. San Francisco was about to host its first Bike Party, a well-mannered and massive bike tour around the city. As the bike columnist for SF Weekly, I decided to use Storify to document the ride.

The results are pretty satisfying -- see for yourself.

It certainly would not have been possible to write this story with any other tool. Storify made it easy to search tweets for terms like "bike party" and "#sfbikeparty," and to drag-and-drop relevant results into a timeline. It took about a half-hour to scan various social media networks, compile my favorites, and then sort them chronologically to tell the story of the ride.

I deliberately didn't conduct any interviews during the ride, so that I would have to rely on social media for my information. It was risky, but fortunately it worked out well, since San Francisco's bicyclists tend to be particularly wired. Photos, comments, and videos were all immediately available to me, and I didn't have to create any of them.

I did, however, augment the social media with my own reportage on behind-the-scenes bickering and a recap of prior coverage. Though citizen journalists are adept at generating on-the-scene dispatches, there's still a need for reporters to provide context.

The experience also revealed room for improvement: My editor pointed out that she was unable to access my Storify story prior to publishing.

That may be among the features rolled out as Storify graduates from private alpha. Herman reported that they're hard at work on implementing more robust scheduling features, integration with more sources, and commenting features.

For now, he's keeping his eye on the goal -- allowing reporters to reflect the new ways in which events are documented. Every phone is a potential reporter's multimedia notebook, and the repercussions of real-life news may reverberate online for days after a story is initially reported.

Reporters, Herman says, have a duty to incorporate those online conversations, unfamiliar though they may be to traditionalists.

"It would look weird in a newspaper story if you just had one quote after another," he said. "But it's different online."

  • Matt Baume

    Writer and photographer in San Francisco, specializing in media, LGBT issues, and the environment.


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