With Its "Occupy" Coverage, Has Storify Become the "Backbone of News?"

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About 15 years ago, the late legal scholar and civil rights attorney Derrick Bell published an allegorical tale about an uprising among women across the US that took the form of a mass simultaneous street performance of the electric slide. In the story, Bell poses as the narrator relaying a report from  Jesse B Semple, the Harlem Everyman first imagined by Langston Hughes. Semple announces that he will give a comprehensive account of the protest, not the watered-down version broadcast on the evening news.

That story did not spark random acts of political dance in real life, (except perhaps, for this May, 2011 protest at the Constellation Energy/BGE shareholders' meeting), and his story did not envision the protestors having their own media channels. But then, Derrick Bell's work was published before the advent of social media.

occupy Minnesota proterster
Image by michael rubin via Shutterstock.com

This fall's "#Occupy" movement began with a poster campaign by the anti-corporate magazine Adbusters. However, this time, social media played a central role, not only in its organization and execution, but in driving media coverage and public debate. "Occupy" has become so ubiquitous that that week, linguist Geoff Nunberg nominated "occupy" as the 2011 Word of the Year.

Now, Jon Mitchell of ReadWriteWeb has argued that the widespread use of Storify as a tool for curating the torrent of eyewitness tweets, photos, video and news and analysis is a watershed moment for journalism, and an advance for press freedom. In particular, he noted, Storify made it possible for journalists to quickly gather and report news of the Nov. 14 police eviction of protesters from New York's Zucotti park despite the fact that professional news organizations were barred from the scene, and authorities showed no compunction about arresting credentialed journalists. As Mitchell noted, the Occupy movement reached its zenith around the same time that Storify launched a new editing interface that has won praise for its ease of use, and a new front page design, intended to make it easier to find strong content by lesser-known bloggers. That redesign had an immediate impact on news coverage, Mitchell noted:

"[T]he day after the raid on Zuccotti Park, Storify shared two student stories from the raid on its blog. Doernberg's was one. The other was by Columbia journalism grad student XinHui Lim, whose Storify post captured the grisly details from the ground and included embedded live-streamed video. At one point in the night, that amateur video stream had 23,000 viewers.

Damman says this is the perfect demonstration of the Storify redesign. These social media documents are the real story, and the NYPD's obstruction of credentialed journalists only shows how out of touch the police are. "The police in New York don't realize that it doesn't matter to not have journalists on the scene," Damman says, "because everybody is a reporter. What happened last night shows that they don't get that."

Thinking through my response to Mitchell's perceptive argument required me to unpack his argument a bit and look at some other social media curation tools for comparison. in particular, I found myself thinking about the contrast between Storify and Storyful, both in its design and approach to news curation.

Florence Pichon, writing for EditorsWeblog.com, offers this helpful description of Storyful:

The stories it focuses on are ones that are circulated on Twitter. Curators pick relevant tweets and flicker pictures. Storyful does not actually break stories itself, but cites sources and aggregates reactions in a visual friendly layout. The idea is to generate discussion and to choose "quality" tweeting that provides perspective and even adds to a reported story (after it has been verified by curators, of course).

 

Screen shot of storyful coverage of the Nov. 14, 2011 police raid on Zucotti park

 I searched for "Zucotti Park" on the Storyful site and found this roundup piece covering the November 14 raid and its aftermath. The piece opened with a photo of the nighttime raid followed by a summary lead, eyewitness tweets, photos and maps. A box on the right column identified the post's curator and its sources. The headline, "NY protestors plan fresh occupation after OWS raid," announced it as "second-day story," not breaking news - although it's possible that this was the headline that emerged after the breaking story was updated. While the story can't be embedded elsewhere, it can be tweeted or facebooked.

By contrast, the breaking news coverage by amateur curators that Mitchell alluded to in his piece is preserved, and accompanied by links and reader stats to and from the places where they have been embedded.

storify OWS

Another contrast is that while Storify features content from professional journalists and amateurs side-by-side without distinction, Storyful labels "community" posts with this disclaimer:

"This is a community story, written by a member of the public and not by a Storyful curator. If you have objections to the content in this story please contact community@storyful.com and we will investigate."

Storyful presents itself as a tool for helping journalists find credible social media content to use in its news coverage. And journalists do use it. Reuters.com' social media editor Anthony de Rosa says he monitors Storyful and Tweetdeck for breaking news, "So you don't have to."

But in its willingness to offer equal billing to community members' content, and the ease with which its posts can be embedded elsewhere, Storify's coverage of the treatment of journalists got the attention of the Washington Post.In this instance, at least, the Post's editors did not feel the need to rely solely on professional curators.

Mitchell might be right - Storify and other social news platforms could fundamentally shift the paradigm for news coverage by opening creating more channels for disseminating news, especially in the face of official press restrictions. Poynter.org's Mallory Tenore recently wrote that Storify is an especially useful tool for certain kinds of stories - breaking news, social movements, weather, internet memes and reaction stories.

That leaves out a lot of important kinds of news - explanatory stories, policy analysis and investigative pieces, for example. News organizations have long been criticized for their failing to do enough of this kind of reporting. I don't expect curation tools to be able to capture these kinds of stories. I bring this up because I wonder tools such as Storify might provide readers with an illusion of offering a comprehensive understanding of issues and events. I also wonder whether these aggregation tools will give readers the false confidence that they have received comprehensive news coverage. These are questions that I am sure communications scholars will be pondering for years to come, I am sure.

All of which brings me back to Prof. Bell and his imaginary protest dance. The former Harvard and NYU law professor was once the NAACP's chief lawyer, a man who spent the 1960s and 70s making traditional legal arguments before the courts, and before the erstwhile mainstream press.  In the 1990s, he published a series of books that blended allegorical fiction with essays on contemporary civil rights issues. The allegories were a way for him to offer a perspective on events such as the elevation of Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, or attacks on affirmative action that, to his mind, was getting short shrift in the press.

With today's tools, Bell would have had ample opportunities to post his ideas online. He could hope social media aggregation and presentation tools woud help him amplify his message. Would his storify or storyful post propel attract enough attention to elevate it to the front page? No one can say.

What is clear is that social media curation tools may not be the backbone of the news just yet, but its use will likely grow as a result of its effectiveness in covering the "Occupy" protests.

Kim Pearson
BlogHer Contributing Editor|KimPearson.net|

Blogher is non-partisan, but many of their bloggers are not.

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