By Mark Little
Founder, Storyful

Social Journalism: A Movement Whose Time Has Come

There’s no longer any doubt in my mind that the business of journalism is at a tipping point. I’ve absolutely no hard stats to back this up, but my hunch is that the number of established media brands making big, bold bets on social, mobile and video just recently exceeded those who are not. And what drives this rather manic wave of innovation is a desire to find new ways and places to engage with an audience that seems to have deserted us.

Every day brings news of a fresh partnership between a pioneering start-up and a traditional media brand. Disruptive concepts and companies are being funded, acquired or partnered with at an exponential rate. The distinction between new and old is blurring at an equally rapid clip.

Such is the speed of adoption, our language struggles to keep up. Words like engagement don’t capture the scale of the challenge ahead of us. Phrases like citizen journalism, crowdsourcing, UGC, and curation just don’t cut it anymore. It’s time we started talking of social journalism as a unified concept, playing a distinct and coherent role in a range of global media industries, from news to marketing.

To my mind, the definition of social journalism should embrace all reporting tools and workflows that treat the real-time web as both a primary source and the ultimate delivery mechanism. Any Unified Theory of Social Journalism must incorporate any person or platform that turns content created by users of social networks into stories consumed by them.

Social journalism is a direct response to a revolution in the means of production. Not so long ago, you needed a printing press or satellite dish to ‘make’ news. Today, all you need is a smart phone and a social network. In an age where everyone is telling a story, social journalists help us find the people worth listening to and rescue their stories from an ocean of noise.

Social journalists don’t work exclusively for news organizations. A wide spectrum of professional storytellers – from brands and advertisers to humanitarian groups – are increasingly reliant on social content to engage the communities that matter to them.

Social journalism has forced everyone concerned to rethink the concept of a newsroom. The most forward-thinking see it as a place where developers, coders and data junkies are an integral part of the editorial process and where editorial staff embrace a revolutionary cultural sensibility. Reporters used to be an elite speaking to a passive audience; in the social newsroom, they are only as good as the depth of engagement with their online community.

Traditional media brands initially responded to revolution with incremental steps, which is both prudent and understandable. But the rise of social journalism has allowed them to imagine what their businesses would look like if they started from scratch.

Storyful was my new beginning: a social news agency which used advanced technology and journalistic expertise to find and verify content that newsrooms and brands could quickly turn into stories that matter.

In December 2013, Storyful was acquired by News Corp and became part of a global business in the midst of reinvention. With great opportunity comes great responsibility. Storyful will fulfill its potential only if it remains a disruptive and innovative force. That means sticking close to the principles that got us this far.

Those principles group themselves rather into a ten-point list. Since they emerge from my personal experience, they are completely subjective. But I would hope they have some objective value to those who believe social journalism is a movement whose time has come:

There is Always Someone Closer to the Story:

Storyful’s founding commandment. With the advent of the social web, we never have to settle for second-hand sources. The currency of social journalism is authenticity not authority. We are not experts in every subject. We find the people who are. We cannot witness every event but we can find the person who did.

Stories Not Content:

Being the first to find a compelling tweet or image in a sea of noise is very cool, but what’s cooler is telling a story. Social journalism adds the narrative and context that transforms a unit of con-tent into a story worth listening to.

We Kill Hoaxes:

The social journalist must enjoy the sensation of killing a story as much as they relish breaking one. There is no greater joy than extinguishing the life of an internet lie.

Stop Talking, Build:

We have unanimous agreement on the need to verify social media content. Let’s move on. Time to build and scale the collaborative tools needed to do the job.

Embrace Contradiction:

Technologists and journalists occupy opposite ends of the social spectrum. The hyper-focused traits of the coder contrasts starkly with the reporter’s attention-deficit… oh look, a shiny thing!! In social journalism, those opposites attract. A newsroom where developers and journalists work side-by-side is more than the sum of its parts.

With UGC Comes Responsibilities:

Newsrooms who use User-Generated Content (UGC) have obligations. The uploader of a video deserves credit, and where appropriate, compensation. Social journalists owe a duty of care to UGC creators in hostile environments. UGC is governed by the same legal and ethical code as any other content. This is just the beginning of a very long list.

Worship the Holy Trinity:

Social, Mobile and Video. Whether you work for a newspaper or TV station, there must be a place for stories that can be watched on any digital device and shared on any social network.

It’s Not All About News:

All media businesses are storytellers. Brands share a hunger for the authenticity of content emerging from the social web. Core elements of a sustainable business model for journalism will be content marketing and native advertising.

Fail Fast:

In building out our business model, we will screw up. Own your mistakes. It’s how you learn. Take lots of small risks, fail fast and learn quickly.

Obsolescence is Success:

Social journalism is a transitional force. Its sole purpose is to help great journalism survive an age of historic disruption. When new business models are fully formed and a culture of innovation is embedded in every mainstream newsrooms, social journalism will become, simply, journalism.

Mark Little is the founder of Storyful, the world’s first social media news agency, which was acquired by News Corp. in 2013. He leads a team of journalists and technologists who discover and verify the most compelling content on platforms like YouTube and Twitter. Mark has more than two decades of experience in journalism. He was an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Irish national TV station RTE. He has covered some of the biggest stories of our age, including the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the election of Barack Obama.

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