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11 Oct

Q&A with Storify and Hacks/Hackers founder Burt Herman

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NOTE: Originally ran on Online Journalism Review: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/people/webjournalist/201010/1894/

For this week’s post, I “sat down” with Burt Herman (@burtherman), entrepreneurial journalist who is the CEO of Storify and founder of Hacks/Hackers.

NOTE: We did the Q&A-style interview over a collaborative document and one of my favorite tools: typewith.me. You can see the raw interview and play it back here: http://typewith.me/ep/pad/view/ojrqa01-bherman/latest

Burt HermanBurt, you have an incredible journalistic background and really, in my opinion, you truly represent the new type of tech/entrepreneur journalist we’ve all heard about. Tell me a little bit about your background at the Associated Press and how you evolved from reporter to entrepreneur.

Thanks, you’re too kind :)

Yes, I started off in a fairly typical journalism role — I went to work for the AP because I wanted to work overseas as a foreign correspondent, and they had the most opportunities to do that. So after graduating, my first journalism job was as a temp hire at AP and things went from there — a couple years in Detroit and then a post as an editor on the International Desk in New York before I was sent overseas to Berlin. From there, I went to Moscow and then to Uzbekistan to start a new bureau for AP covering the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. My last AP job was a bureau chief in Korea. In between, I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Asian tsunami, Pakistan and many other stories.

I returned to the US in late 2008 for a Knight fellowship at Stanford, where I had gone as an undergrad. With all the changes in journalism, I wanted to explore the secret sauce of innovation in Silicon Valley and see how that could be applied to journalism. I took classes at the Graduate School of Business, Design School, computer science department and explored how this could be applied to journalism. In the end, I wound up deciding to extend my sabbatical from the AP to have a go at doing a startup on my own, building a company around the future of storytelling and digital publishing from a clean slate.

From being a foreign correspondent to being an innovator, you must have seen a lot of changes along the way. What stands out for you when you look back at that decision to make the transition?

It’s still very much in progress, and I’m learning more about it all the time. The first big difference is that being a journalist gives you a daily sense of accomplishing something by writing a story and having it be published. You then move on to the next story and get constant feedback. Trying to create a business and develop Internet applications is a much longer process, filled with many ups and downs along the way. It’s exciting to be your own boss but also can be terrifying at the same time. I suppose dropping into crisis zones and new countries was a decent preparation for this, and also just being open to always leaning new things.

That was going to be one of my questions. Which is harder: being a CEO of a startup or a foreign correspondent?

I worked for 12 years at AP and nearly 10 of those overseas, and along the way I had a lot of great mentors and advice. I’m still new at the startup thing, so that’s definitely more challenging right now. Also it’s having to do much more with less when you’re not part of a larger organization. Everyone has to contribute in many ways. Both come with a lot of freedom and lack of oversight, again which is wonderful but also requires a lot of drive and passion to keep going.

Your startup is called Storify… can you describe it and tell me how the idea came about?
The idea comes from thinking about the future of journalism and the fact that everyone now is creating so much content. We’re flooded with Tweets, YouTube videos, Flickr photos and everything else. Everyone can be a “reporter” when an event happens. But not everyone is a “journalist” — making sense of an issue and giving the context. So we built a system to help people do this, take the best of social media and make it into a story — to “storify” it. The word itself is actually in the dictionary, and also comes from my AP days when editors would send messages to bureaus asking them to “storify” something.

Talk about the process of going from an idea… or even a word… to a startup. Where are you in the process now? What is your current challenge since you already have a working product.

The first thing I needed was to find a cofounder who had the technical ability to work with me, and also was passionate about the topic. The idea I began with was actually something different relating to news and social media, this evolved over time.

So to find a cofounder, I basically started going to any tech events that I could around here and was talking about what I was doing to find people interested, and there were several false starts with people who didn’t work out. I eventually found my now-co-founder Xavier [Damman] when he was presenting at a Twitter application meetup.

Part of that was also the reason for starting Hacks/Hackers — indeed.

So, Hacks/Hackers was a means to this end? Or was it a resulting side project from your process?
Hacks/Hackers was part of this, trying to find people passionate about media and technology. But it also was born from my experience at the fellowship at Stanford, seeing all the amazing work that computer scientists were doing and wanting to bring that energy to journalism for the sake of helping quality journalism survive. I do believe strongly that democracies need information to function and journalists have fulfilled that role. Meanwhile, media and technology are converging, and the way that we get this information is changing. We need to make sure that we bring together journalism and technology at the start of this storytelling process to build the future of media, not as an afterthought as has often been the case. And we should work together to make that happen, rather than the somewhat contentious relationship we have seen at times between media and technology companies.

As I reflect on my career, I see that I have been working under the H/H “framework” … working with engineers and designers to advance journalism. Seeing — and attending — a couple of H/H meetups, I have to say I’m really l glad this is going on… are you surprised by its success? It’s international, right?

Yeah, we already have a couple chapters in the UK and starting now in Toronto. I was a bit surprised that it spread so much. Really, it just began with me starting a meetup group and getting some 30 people to come to a bar last November, less than a year ago. Now we have more than 2,400 members on various Meetup sites and more people coming to our blogs and on an email list. I think it’s clear that there’s a hunger for this thinking, and we want to also empower journalists in newsrooms to be part of the changes that are happening. We will only figure this out by working together and experimenting, another key thing that Hacks/Hackers is about. We’ve been doing some hackathon events and want to expand that, so people have the freedom to try things away from the usual daily newsroom rush.

You wear many hats… of these — journalist, innovator, businessman — is there one role that is larger than the others?

I guess I’m not really writing so much lately, although I’ve been calling myself an “entrepreneurial journalist.” I was talking to David Cohn of spot.us and he also is in a similar space. The definition of “journalist” has changed so much, and really is about bringing together a community around a topic to enlighten and inform. So in that sense, I suppose it’s quite a bit of that, while also building a successful business and do the whole Silicon Valley startup route of getting investors, building partnerships and making things happen. It’s definitely a lot to do, I’m busier than ever nowadays! I guess that’s also the brave, future.

Like I said, you (and David) to me represent this modern journalist reflecting the needs of our times… but, in my opinion, I think you guys are a rarity. We’re not all going to be able to do this… or can we? Or should we, even? What do you think?

Well, yes, it’s quite hard to do many things and do them all well. Hacks/Hackers is about bringing together journalism and technology, but that doesn’t mean every journalist is going to be a rockstar coder or should even try. That takes years of work, just like being a great writer. But I think it’s important for everyone to understand the other side and the complete picture. That also goes for journalists now having to understand more about the business side of things, why traffic matters and how to drive it, all those other parts of media. With everything so interconnected, we all need to have a wider awareness.

Sadly, we are constantly hearing the complaints from veteran journalists lamenting <eyeroll>the end of the golden era</eyeroll> … what do you say to those people who think technology killed journalism… or to those who are feeling low about the state of things now?

It’s interesting because even though I’m quite young, my career has basically been right during this amazing shift. I think the golden era is ahead of us. We are not really still at the birth of the Internet, the Web, social media and all these amazing technologies that change the way we communicate. I became a reporter in some ways because I’m a nosy person :) — now with Twitter I can eavesdrop on the world and see what people are talking about. That’s a golden opportunity for storytelling. And reporters can now interact with their audiences more easily as well, [getting] the feedback that all writers crave — sometimes for better or worse.

We need to take the best parts of the past, like the credibility and fact-checking, context and the like and blend that with technology. It’s a rough time for sure as old models are collapsing, but I’m confident that many more exciting things will result. One quite interesting little recent development was Howard Kurtz leaving the Washington Post for The Daily Beast — the new models are taking off, so that should be encouraging.

What tip or lesson would you share/give to someone who is thinking about taking that leap and trying a startup or new experiment? And, quite honestly, dude, what drives you? What keeps you going?

Definitely experiment in whatever way you can, we need more people trying new things to figure out what works. In Silicon Valley, failure is embraced unlike anywhere else. You’re not trying hard enough if you’re not failing once in a while, we need to take chances and learn from our mistakes to move forward.

Ha — yes, good question as to motivation, it’s sometimes quite tiring! I guess I’m the type who always keeps thinking there is a better way to do something, maybe it’s the latent engineer in me. Also it’s been great to see all the feedback from people with Hacks/Hackers and realizing that this is actually bringing people together, that’s been wonderful and I’m now also getting a lot of help from local organizers in all these different cities.

With the startup, also seeing people get excited about what we’re doing and having some amazing experiences like launching our product at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference.

I couldn’t agree with you more… personally, these are extremely exciting times and it is great to see organic movements like H/Hs help facilitate that. So, my last question is one I have been asking people recently… it’s a simple one, but I always love the answers, and you touched on it earlier. In these times, with the ups and downs and the unknowns ahead… why are you a journalist? (You are clearly a journalist, sir.)

I want to say thanks for saying that, although I suppose being labeled a “journalist” these days might not always be a favorable thing. :) I guess this goes back to what I wrote when I applied to the Knight fellowship. My parents come from Romania and grew up under communism, and I spent a lot of time traveling in Eastern Europe as a student and studying the area. I do feel strongly about the importance of freedom of information as essential to democracy, and that we are incredibly lucky to have that in the United States. After reporting from many countries where that wasn’t the case and people are struggling under authoritarian regimes, I feel even more strongly about the power of open information.

Awesome. At the recent H/Hs meetup a young guy — who dabbled with journalism, but became a developer – asked, “why would a developer want to be involved in journalism when they could make more money doing something else?” I had been somewhat quiet at the time, but could not help blurt out a response…

Because we give a damn… because we care… because we’re suckers… money, decent money, would be great… but we do it for a higher calling or something that drives us. Both Hacks and Hackers related.

Yeah, I do think some developers do feel a sense of a bigger mission and giving back to the world, like with open-source code. In that way, there are a lot of things hacks and hackers have in common.

Thank you so much for taking the time and “chatting” with me in this experimental Q&A… I had a blast.

Sure, thanks again for the kind words and interviewing me. That’s another thing I’m also getting used to in the brave, new entrepreneurial world — having people interview me! It gives me much more sympathy for all the people I’ve interviewed over the years :).

HA! Thank you.

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