When 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?”
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.
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.