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Jan. 13, 2015, 2:11 p.m.
Audience & Social puts its social-first journalism model to work covering the Charlie Hebdo attacks

The attacks in Paris brought on a wave of reporting, speculation, and chatter on social media — the sort of news environment First Look Media’s newest venture is designed to sift through when news breaks.

Andy Carvin thought would have a quiet launch.

Quiet is a relative term, and in the case of — which aims to cover the news almost entirely through social media — that meant tracking things like the first gay couples to marry in Florida and a car bombing near a police academy in Yemen.

Then gunmen opened fire at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The shootings at the satirical French newspaper and the ensuing manhunt took on the characteristics of so many major media stories in recent history: surges of information and unconfirmed reports from journalists and citizens alike, streaming out from TV, Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere on the web.

reportedly_logoTheoretically those are the places — with the exception of TV — that will thrive. Rather than publishing and aggregating news on a central site, the idea is to take the information to existing communities on the web — distributed journalism. Almost a year ago, Carvin joined First Look Media to run a real-time news product that would build on the work he was known for at NPR, namely using Twitter to cover developing stories around the globe.

Charlie Hebdo was their first big test, and it was akin to being pushed out of the tree on brand new wings. “When the first reports came in, our team had been working together officially for less than 48 hours,” Carvin told me. “But I think everyone’s instincts kicked in immediately.”

It started with the three Europe-based members of the team, who caught early tweets mentioning reports of a shooting at a newspaper. Among the more valuable tools the staff relies on are over 200 Twitter lists with specific sources around the world. Using those, they were able to locate journalists and witnesses providing information from the scene. “Every time one of these incidents happens, a pattern occurs: You have eyewitnesses from the scene reporting things happening, then reporters start buzzing, then networks start putting 2 and 2 together,” Carvin said.

Over the next 18 hours, Carvin and his small team divvied up the coverage, with an eye towards providing context but also playing to the strengths of certain channels. As Carvin told me, one of the biggest goals of is fitting coverage to the right platform — finding what kinds of storytelling works best on Twitter versus Reddit, for example.

But the work of is more than simple aggregation and amplification. A large part of their work is trying to verify and factcheck reports already circulating. Carvin recounted the first day of coverage on Medium:

While names of potential suspects began to circulate through unofficial channels, we began preparing a dossier on them. As it turned out, one of the suspects had been tried in a French court in 2008 for trying to sneak into Syria and become a militant in Iraq. We managed to find a number of English and French news articles that covered the trial, as well as academic books digitized by Google that investigated the case.

Malachy Browne,’s managing editor, said they’re applying the same standards and scrutiny to information that any journalist would use in a breaking news situation. The difference is they’re adapting the news to newer mediums where people are already talking about the news.

Browne often uses geolocation tools as a step towards verifying information, while also confirming details with reporters or locals on Twitter on the ground.’s staff makes no distinction between being a member of the audience or a contributor to an ongoing story. They’re using social feeds to, as Browne describes it, “bring together facts as reported across multiple platforms and amplify that to our community.”

Thought will report on developing stories, don’t expect it to be a breaking news service. The specific focus is on providing context around breaking stories — or, as Browne put it, “organize the chaos. Because social media is chaos.” The Charlie Hebdo attack provided a good example, as the number of sources and reporters on the story grew quickly over a number of days. That created challenges in separating true information from noise. Simultaneously, it can also makes for better conditions to look for information. “What we saw with that was very quickly lots of correspondents descending on France, lots of people providing information on different sources,” he said.

What gave an advantage in jumping into the story was that most of the staff had previous experience doing legwork through social media. Each brought their own expertise and many were familiar with the tools uses like TweetDeck, Topsy, and Gramfeed. Kim Bui, the West Coast producer for, said each team member’s history — covering events from Egypt and Greece to Hong Kong and Ukraine — meant they were up to speed quickly. “Andy did a great job of cultivating a team of people who all complement each other,” Bui said.

Even with the events in Paris, the debut of was significantly less fraught than that of would-be sibling Racket, the political satire magazine that was detonated before it officially saw the light of day. The company poured money into hiring a staff and designing Racket before editor Matt Taibbi left the magazine after reported clashes with management. First Look has had no shortage of drama since Pierre Omidyar committed $250 million to the project in 2013, originally envisioned as a collection of digital magazines. The scope and goals have shifted in the last year, and the company is beginning to explore how it might build a sustaining business model.

Carvin’s outfit is relatively lightweight: Only six staff members, each working from home in locations from Greece to California, and a tech infrastructure that largely depends on free platforms already available. Most of what produces is available on Twitter, Facebook, RebelMouse, and Storify. The team uses Medium for its in-house blog. That will change, as Carvin says First Look is developing a dedicated site for that would be a kind of dashboard displaying what news is being covered across social channels.

As the first big story for the site, the attack on Charlie Hebdo also provided a few lessons for the staff. Already they know’s reach will be limited by the size of its staff and the supply of digital information available around any given story. A staff of six working across multiple time zones will have to pick and choose its spots, trying to choose stories of significance in areas that have highly wired populations, Carvin said. In other words, they can’t look for water in areas that are digital deserts. Browne points out that one of the difficulties of covering the escalation in Boko Haram’s killings in Nigeria is the threat journalists face in reporting in the country. Fewer journalists — professional or citizen — on the ground means fewer viable sources, he said.

One of the other challenges will be how tailors the news for readers’ needs. Carvin said he thinks they need to find the right way to use Reddit during events, possibly using Reddit Live as destination for realtime updates. Another consideration is how social network usage varies by region. As Browne points out, Twitter may seem like a natural destination for news in the U.S., but in parts of Europe using Facebook might make more sense.

“We could try Ello, because it’s a thing,” Bui says. “The benefit of being so small, and the freedom we’ve gotten from First Look, is to test and test again.”

A bigger question for the future might be how will build a consistent audience outside of big events. When stories are breaking, turns into a news firehose, which may not be ideal for more passive news consumers, Bui said. “Right now the way we’re reporting, we’re not for everybody. We’re for people who are news junkies,” she said.

Then again, it’s possible won’t need to appeal to those readers at all. Practicing this kind of distributed journalism means that readers have to opt-in on whatever channel they prefer in order to see what is working on.

“It will be a while before any of our bigger social accounts have the critical mass required for those communities to work well,” Carvin said. “Given the fact that we’re starting off with our own footprint, we managed to cover a lot of ground in realtime — but hopefully we were measured and thoughtful at the same time.”

Photo from a Charlie Hebdo rally in Paris by Kenan Sabanovic used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 13, 2015, 2:11 p.m.
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