How Storyful CEO Mark Little Sees The Future Of Journalism As Influenced By Social Innovation

Mark Little, CEO and founder of Storyful, posed a deceptively simple question to today's journalists: “What do you want to be as a journalist?” He didn't ask whether sports or politics or entertainment was your thing; he asked whether you were ready to step up to the new role that journalists everywhere have.

As the founder of the world’s first true social media news agency, Little’s appearance at The Innovators Series by the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications couldn't have been more fitting.

He kicked off the series of six speakers on September 18 by citing the new challenges journalism faces in a market, given the buzz of social media – a phrase, that by the way, he’d like everyone to stop using.

Little recalled the post-9/11 era of journalism as a “tumultuous and strange time” during which it wasn’t very authentic. He spoke of the amount of equipment he needed as a foreign correspondent in Iraq and the stress attached to running to find a rotary phone while covering a plane crash in 1990.

Today, Little said, he is liberated.

It used to be that we had the monopoly on news... We had TV cameras. We had printing presses. And nobody else did, so we could pretty much tell people how they were going to consume news. Then, something changed.

The camera phone showed up on the scene. Social networks came next, and suddenly, anybody could tell a story.

We were kind of overthrown, he said. We don’t have the monopoly anymore.

With everyone sharing the same story again and again, journalists are faced with the duty to tell people what’s actually worth hearing. Little said people are looking now for trust, authenticity and context, and this search has made journalism more important than ever before.

We’re no longer sort of above the people... We’re no longer authority figures, gate-keepers. We have to be judged by our engagement with this whole new democracy that’s emerging on social media, and I think that’s going to force us to do things very differently.

Little went to UF with questions to which he genuinely did not know the answers. Moving forward, he hopes that some of the answers, for which he and others in the industry are searching, may become clearer.

Storyful is now working on an initiative focused on the use of UGC, or user-generated content – another term Little dislikes and which he’d like to see become “eye-witness media.” The goal is to create industry-wide standards for the use of UGC and to gain support not only from the journalism community, but also from the social networks themselves.

Little hopes to see something like an industry-wide ombudsperson to sort out these issues within the next six months – an ambitiously tall order, but not one he sees as out-of-reach.

Even beyond the concept of creating UGC standards, Little said social networks present the opportunity to archive hours upon hours of eyewitness content. This opportunity, though, has been wasted, in his eyes.

Think of social networks as Little does: Facebook is like the telephone company. Facebook provides the service, but it won't tell people what they can say over the phone, nor will it tell people how to evaluate that content. The people end up with a lot of information, and no one to say what’s worth their time.

That’s exactly where Little sees the chance for media to meet the social networks.

There’s a cultural problem because all of these social networks are based on the idea that you don’t ever take a choice between two pieces of content... Everyone shares and everyone’s equal. So, [social networks] can’t intervene to say, ‘This is better than that.’ It’s against their terms and conditions. It’s against their DNA. So, they kind of need us to help them.

As The Innovators Series sets out to engage in the conversation on media innovation and new ways of communicating, Little sees promise in the innovative approach the UF College of Journalism and Communications has taken to teach the next generation of news gatherers.

He visited the college’s WUFT newsroom, housed within the appropriately titled Innovation News Center and found a place where journalists can “think and do and try.”

With multiple web, radio and television news products hosted under the same roof and appearances by pioneers like himself, Little said the series is “just the perfect meeting of the minds.” There is openness in the INC, he said and this openness seems to be a step in the right direction.

Yet, even in the most innovative of newsrooms, there remains the temptation to be the first that follows a story. Being first often means being wrong, and ultimately, people aren't constantly watching CNN in case breaking news appears.

Verification is key, even if news organizations are still slow to mobilize when they might not be leading the coverage. Little said the trick is not to simply be the first, but to be the first to provide a context for the chaos.

The concept of breaking news, he said, is broken.

The Innovators Series at UF continues on Nov. 12 and 13 with Melissa Bell, cofounder of The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provides funding for the series. Live updates from each of the speakers’ talks can be found on Twitter under #InnovatorsUF.

Photo Courtesy: Storyful