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April 2, 2013, 10:58 a.m.
Audience & Social

Tuesday Q&A: Storify’s Burt Herman on entrepreneurial journalism, advertising, and finding the right business model

“People have grown a little skeptical of companies that don’t seem to have a business model and you wonder when they’re going to do something.”

burthermanWhen you run a startup that leans on journalism, the hunt for a stable business model is top of mind. Burt Herman, cofounder of Storify, said he feels an urgency to find ways to monetize the service, which helps individuals and publishers collect and curates social media into stories. That’s in part because Storify is now three years old, but also because Herman has more than a decade of experience as a journalist working for the Associated Press — meaning he’s seen the disruption of the media business up close.

Last week, his company took its first step towards a business model: Storify announced the creation of Storify VIP, a new paid version of the service that offers a new tier of features and customization for users. The VIP program is designed with big publishers — who have an army of journalists and money to spend — in mind. The BBC has already signed up.

I spoke with Herman about the decision to create a premium version of Storify, how the company might explore advertising, and where he sees entrepreneurial journalism going this year. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: When you were looking at ways to monetize, were there other models or options you looked at before deciding on the premium tier?
Burt Herman: We are looking at all potential business models. There basically are two models we see as ones we could use. There’s some kind of subscription or a freemium/pro/VIP plan where we ask some of our users what they would like and offer these premium features. We’re quite fortunate in that we have users who are large publishers and brands and PR agencies, political organizations, NGOs, and all kinds of people like that. They’re interested in these features and have come to us asking for some of these things. That’s a clear way we can now give them something better that they want, and also make sure this is something sustainable.

On the other side, there’s definitely an advertising model we’ve talked about. And it’s still something we kind of have out there for the future. The idea there is to come up with a native form of ad that goes in a Storify story — that is a social ad, like other things in Storify stories. It could be a promoted quote, or a promoted video, or a promoted photo from a brand that is trying to get a certain message out there.

That’s still something we’re talking about. But that requires a larger scale, and being able to sell a specific new form of advertising. But if we do that, we’d also want to do it in a way that works together with our users, and share revenue back with the people creating the stories. That’s really the most valuable thing, and we’re really lucky we’ve gathered this community of amazing people who, everyday, find the best of what’s out there.

Ellis: One of the questions with advertising would be who controls what ads are served — if companies or brands go through Storify, or if they go through publishers directly.
Herman: Yeah, and we could do it both ways. The thing we look at is YouTube — how they have embeds all over the web, and sometimes have advertising in those as well. We would want to work, obviously, with our users on that, who are their advertisers, does it conflict with other ads on the page, and other issues.

We do think there is room for this new form of advertising. We’ve talked about different ways of doing this: It could be more like we promote content to the user creating a story, and whether they want to put that in the story is their own decision. But it’s very clear that’s promoted in some way — that someone is paying to get in front of the eyes of our valuable user base. That is something we have experimented with a little bit, and it is quite an interesting model to look at — not advertising to the masses but advertising to this more elite user base.

Ellis: You’ve said you have more than 600,000 people using Storify now. How did you think about what types of features you would bring up to the premium level? Ideally, you want to create added value in the service but not take away from the things other non-paying users want.
Herman: Well, a lot of these things are things people have asked for, like customization. We’ve offered some things and see what people do with it, and had some people use it for different events, including The New York Times, Yahoo, the BBC. They’re already doing these things, so we’re responding to what they say.

We didn’t intend to be a live-blogging platform, but people have been using us in that way, which is great. So we want to serve that need too. That’s something that can be quite expensive, to service live updates on embeds that are being viewed hundreds of thousands or billions of times around the web. That’s a pretty technically intensive thing, so just to make it sustainable to us, that’s why we’re putting that in the premium tier of features.

Ellis: What’s been most surprising to you about the ways people have found to use Storify? That idea of using Storify for live-blogging seems like a MacGyvering in a way.
Herman: We did think about live stories, in a way, from the start. I worked at the AP for 12 years and that’s what I did all the time — take stories, update them whenever news comes in, move things around, take out quotes, add new quotes. That’s always what we’ve done.

But it’s the story in place that gets changed, which I still would be interested in seeing people thinking about more. Newspapers do that, but they just don’t show you that they’re doing it. Or the next day, they’ll just post a new story, because they’re still in this daily cycle. But what if the story itself was just in one place and kept changing over time as developments occur? I think that’s the idea we had originally.

I thought, initially, journalists will use this and see, “Oh, the Supreme Court is hearing the gay marriage case,” and just see what people are saying in general and mine the best — look for who’s reacting, and kind of pull things in. The thing I did not expect to see, which people have used Storify for, is to say, “Hey, we’re just starting this story, send us what you think about it and use this hashtag on Instagram, on Twitter, respond to us on Facebook, we’ll take the best thing you do and put them in a story and publish it.” It’s much more of an engaging way of creating a story — where it’s not just gathering reaction, but tell us what we should put in the story, we’re going to include what our audience is doing.

The New York Times has done some really interesting things with Instagram — like during storms, the big winter storm in February, or Fashion Week in New York, asking their readers, “Hey, send photos on Instagram, tag them #NYTfashionweek and we’ll put the best ones on The New York Times.” I think it’s really cool to see journalists getting this idea that yes, this is not just a one-way thing anymore — we don’t just decide what we write and call the people we want and put it out there. Now it’s really working collaboratively with the audience to create something bigger.

Ellis: As a journalist, what’s it been like for you to watch news organizations embrace new ways to create stories?

Herman: When I talk about this, I say it’s really like what journalists have always done. We’ve always taken bits of information, whether it’s a press release, or a federal budget, or your notes, or your audio, and pieced it together to tell a story. Now we just have so many more sources potentially to mine for our stories. So many more voices of people that you can include, that you might not have otherwise heard from. I think this is something more news organizations are realizing, and I think it’s a great way to be relevant with your audience again — “Hey, we hear you, we are listening to what you say.”

How can you not want to do this? As a journalist, I was always wanting to know what are people talking about, what are the stories that I’m missing that are out there. Now you can see what people are talking about, at least a segment of people, using social media. That’s a large group of people, and growing all the time. I just think: How could you not embrace that and look at that if you’re a journalist who wants to get the stories that are out there?

Ellis: Storify also gives tweets and other social media a little more permanence. If I’m following a hashtag on the vice presidential debate, I could theoretically go back and read through it, but it’s happening so fast. You guys capture that.
Herman: We picked the name Storify because it was this word used at the AP when editors would tell you to write a story about something, to “storify” it. It really is a word that means “to make a story.” But also, sometimes people see it more here in Silicon Valley and they think “Storify, oh, you’re like a storage company.” Which, in some ways that is true too. That is a lot of what people actually use Storify for in a way we didn’t foresee: simply being able to stop time and save some stuff from this never-ending deluge of tweets and photos and videos from all these social networks. Just being able to pause, take those out, and organize them in one place is kind of valuable.

There’s not a simple way to do that and just make it look nice, or to keep it for yourself or a smaller group. That’s another reason why we’re planning to launch things now like this private story feature. We noticed people simply saving stuff without adding any text in a story, or just saving drafts and never publishing stories because they wanted to keep it somewhere and refer to something, or show it to somebody.

We’re just inundated by all this media now. Everybody has the power to create things and publish easily, instantly, all around the world. It’s great, but it’s getting harder and harder to figure out where the valuable stuff is in all of that.

Ellis: What trends do you see in Storify usage? In terms of people gearing up for big events or big stories?
Herman: We are very aligned with what you would think of as peaks on Twitter or social media, of people talking about things. Definitely the election, the Supreme Court hearing the same sex marriage cases. Certain topics are very resonant on social media and obviously for us too, those are peak things, and that seems to be when people think to use us.

We hope that people also think to use us in other cases when it isn’t just mining what’s out there when it’s a huge event — a smaller, local scale, or asking the audience to help find stories. We’re seeing more of that. That’s also why we wanted to move in this direction we’re launching, to work more closely with people and be more embedded in their organizations too, so it’s not just the social media editor who says, “Hey, there’s this Supreme Court thing — can you get a reaction thing on the blog?”

Ellis: The premium service represents a focus on establishing a business model. For some startups, finding a business model is a “further down the road” idea. How pressing has it been for you to monetize Storify?

Herman: I think there’s been a shift out here in Silicon Valley in terms of thinking about startups and business models. They just had the recent class of Y Combinator, and The Wall Street Journal wrote a post saying none of the companies are doing social media, they’re businesses, which have a built-in business model where you pay somebody for something.

I think it’s definitely kind of shifted here, people are wanting to see the business model in what you’re doing. Unless you have massive, massive scale, you have to have a business model. We are lucky the users we have, more than 600,000 people, are amazing, high-level users. That’s why, as we look at that, we say, “Okay, let’s figure out how we can make this more sustainable and work with them and hopefully help give them some of the things they want. But also make sure we can survive into the future. “

People seem to understand that now. People have grown a little skeptical of companies that don’t seem to have a business model and you wonder when they’re going to do something. So far, the reaction has been hugely positive — I think people understand why we’re doing this.

Ellis: Do you think there needs to be more support for startups that are in this kind of journalism or journalism-adjacent area like Storify? I’m thinking about something like Matter, which is sort of a combination of the Knight News Challenge and Y Combinator.
Herman: I was just at Matter earlier this week talking to the companies there. They’re doing it in a smart way. They are saying yes, it should be related to media, but you can do something that has broader relevance. It can be for-profit, it doesn’t have to be nonprofit just because it’s sort of connected with public radio. I think if you make it too narrow — just for journalism — then you might have a problem in terms of thinking really big. When you’re doing a startup, you should be thinking as big as possible. I guess it would be difficult to limit things — it’s better not to impose that on startups from the start.

We do need things related to media, but I think people will go there. It is still a huge business — billions of dollars are spent on advertising on the web, and even in print still. Startups will go there. I think there are a lot of incubators, Matter and other people, who are focusing on that.

I guess I’m worried that when you support things and force them to be nonprofit or open source, which some of the Knight News Challenge grants did earlier, that it limits the potential of some of these organizations. I love Spot.us, and Dave Cohn is a great guy, and I always think of it as he had the idea for Kickstarter before it existed. But it was limited because it had to be open source and nonprofit and only in a local area. There were all these constrictions on how he was supposed to operate. He had some success, but what could have been if he wasn’t limited in that way? I just think any of these new things should not limit people and Matter is definitely not doing that.

Ellis: Now that you’ve reached this point with Storify, is there something you know now you wish you knew when you were launching?
Herman: I guess I would say it’s different than being a journalist. Things take much longer than you would think, even though people say startups are very fast-paced — often times technology is slow and has debugging issues. Getting a process for people to work together is not an easy thing because you’re not really sure how to do things, because you’re inventing them for the first time. Be patient and realize that this is a longer journey and not a sprint. You get fooled sometimes reading these supposed overnight success stories. But when you look into them, often times it’s somebody who’s been going back for years trying to work their way through different products and pivots, and finally figuring out something that people notice. Really, if it was an overnight success, it was built over years.
POSTED     April 2, 2013, 10:58 a.m.
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