News From Noise

screen print of BlackBerry story

A couple of interesting and innovative websites are being unleashed on an unwitting Irish public this summer. Although British and based in Silicon Valley, Bebo founder Michael Birch has just started doing early tests of Jolitics in Ireland. You can read more about that here.

But there is another site, Storyful, that marries two subjects closer to my heart: media and technology. You see, my first career was in journalism before I found myself in IT all those years ago.

I’ve been meaning to say something more substantial about Storyful (@storyful) since I heard Mark Little (@marklittlenews) speak at the Dublin Web Summit a couple of months ago. He spoke again at the dotconf a few weeks later. An eloquent and, at times, passionate speaker, Little clearly believes in his project and he clearly believes it can make an impact.

And now that Storyful is in alpha, and I have singed on to be an early tester, it’s probably time to give them a proper mention. (A 2011 update can be found here).

Little, himself, was a presenter on Prime Time, RTÉ’s flagship current-affairs program, until the end of 2009. (For readers outside Ireland, RTÉ is the government-run television and radio service). So it was no mean feat to step away from a secure, pensionable job in the middle of this recession to start up a new business. But he sees “a golden age in journalism” ahead.

As he noted in both talks, he recognized a fundamental shift in traditional news reporting during the Iranian Green Revolution in June 2009. Foreign correspondents were cooped up in their hotels in Tehran getting news third or fourth hand, but Little was in Dublin getting it first hand from Twitter and Twitpics, he said. The same happened again during the Hudson Plane Crash in January 2009 when Twitter was the news channel of choice.

But that explosion of data has proved to be one of Storyful’s first challenges, Little said. Citing Sturgeon’s Law that “90 percent of everything is crud,” Storyful’s engineers and journalists work to separate “news from noise.” Their solution is to “curate” everything.

For example, the image used above is a screen shot of Storyful’s take on the controversy caused by the UAE’s ban of BlackBerry devices. There is a summary of the story, then a tweet to a link of a full news article — CNN in this case — then there is a selected Twitter stream of updates and opinions.

The end result is a diverse mix of standard news reporting and arguments from the likes of Sultan Al Qassemi in the UAE, RIM, the US State Department, and bloggers and twitterers.

It’s a denoised, topical and relevant news stream.

Little is hoping to leverage that news-customer involvement to make his news more compelling. At the dotconf, he gave the example of FarmVille — an online game I paid absolutely no attention to, and have since found out there is an imitator called FarmVillain — of how people interact online. The average user there is a 46-year-old suburban woman, Little said.

The Pew Research Center in the States said 37 percent of people participate in news by commenting, email, tweeting, etc. People do it because the news is important to them and/or because they like status, he said.

Another of Little’s challenges was reconciling the journalist and techie mindsets. Journalists — and I remember it well — like to polish then publish. Their stories need to be just right and well written. Software engineers will develop a product and release it for alpha, then beta, tests to see how it can be improved. This approach horrifies reporters.

Little’s challenge has been to prise staff out of their professional comfort zones and start thinking differently about technology and journalism. As they work on their project, he said, “I think we’re on to something but we won’t know until people start joining this process.”

Image is a screen shot of Storyful’s story on the BlackBerry controversy in the Mideast. The photo in the image is by Bitchbuzz on Flickr. How convoluted is that?