“Pulling the news from the social media noise” - Storyful’s Markham Nolan at #cmLDN

 by Martin Belam, 26 January 2012

Last night I went to the Community Managers meet-up in London which had been organised by my colleagues Laura Oliver and Hannah Waldram. Although I’ve never directly played a community manager role, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years working with people who are, acted as “host” on the BBC’s Points of View message board, and as resident “token techie” on Comment Is Free at the Guardian. I’ve also done my fair share of designing social interactions for apps and the web.

This was the second time the group has got together. Laura explained that community managers are quite a rare breed, and often find themselves either working in isolation in a business, or doing the job but not realising that there is a job title for what they do. The point of the meet-up, she said, was not to be a formal conference set-up, but a place where people working in community within different areas could meet and share tips, ideas and support. I met people who worked at other media companies, but also people working in charities, the games industry, and students. Crayon hosted, and Markham Nolan gave a talk about Storyful

Markham Nolan: Pulling the news from the social media noise

“We have a small core community of people who had value to the news.”

Markham Nolan was talking about the social media curation service Storyful. They’d shifted their business model in a significant way since starting out - something I really admire when I see a company be flexible enough to change their mission when they spot an opportunity. The company was born out of a frustration of seeing journalists filming pieces to camera on a rooftop miles away from the action in a war zone, when you knew that at the heart of the battle many people were armed with cameraphones. The original plan of “bringing together a community of active citizen journalists” had become one of sourcing citizen journalism and packaging the content and contacts for mainstream network clients.

Their mission now is to “pull the news from the noise.” They have built up reliable communities in a range of countries, so that when news breaks, they have contacts they can call on to help verify locally-originated social media content. This was important, as Markham said “We don’t want to be first, we want to be the first to be accurate.”

They’ve also developed an expertise at surfacing this content, whether that means the ability to search in Arabic, or having developed knowledge of advanced search techniques. As Markham put it, their dashboard “distills a global community of people, who, with their cameraphones, are making the news, and they don’t even know it.”

Markham explained that for every news story, a community forms around it. Their trick is to identify those communities. When news breaks they go to their existing contacts, or build a new set by making and refining Twitter lists, and working out who the authoritative tweeters and original sources are. And, importantly, they keep a relationship with them. They have, for example, a panel of people in Syria who they have regular contact with, to help keep them informed about the situation there.

This wasn’t all new-fangled and revolutionary though. Markham said “All we’re doing is applying old journalism to new media.” He compared sizing up a source on social media to the way you might size up a new contact in real life - look them up and down, work out if they “feel” genuine, make a couple of calls to corroborate who they say they are.

It was an intriguing talk, which also touched a lot on the ethics of contacting the people providing the content. Questions were asked about the sensitivity of trying to contact people who have witnessed and filmed some kind of disaster in the immediate aftermath of it, the duty of care owed when contacting someone who might be at risk from retribution by an oppressive regime, and local resentment if someone got paid for their content and was thought to be exploiting the misery of others.

Another question from the audience asked how sustainable their business is, and whether they risk teaching people how to use social media more effectively in a way that means clients can dispense with their services. Markham admitted they were working in a “window of ignorance”, and said that any news business that wasn’t investing in data journalists and the ability to make deep and meaningful searches of the social web was missing a trick. He was also confident that however much news organisations learned, Storyful would always be six months ahead. I tend to agree with that view, not least because a smaller company is always likely to move more nimbly into new social and digital arenas before big media companies have even got them on their radar.

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