The Islamic State on TikTok. Child sex abuse on Facebook. The trolling of Meghan Markle. What do these stories — published by The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, and Sky News — have in common, besides a certain grim 2019-ness? They all used data from social media agency Storyful’s nascent investigative unit, which officially launched this month as Investigations by Storyful with an expanded editorial team and an eye toward helping newsrooms mine social media for stories around the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
“The online and the offline world have melded,” said Darren Davidson, Storyful’s editor-in-chief. “[Social media] is changing and becoming the story in and of itself, in lots of ways.”
Storyful was founded in 2010 by the Irish journalists Mark Little and David Clinch, who’d witnessed the pivotal role of Twitter in the Arab Spring and wanted to help news organizations curate news stories via social media — capturing future big events when they were just in the bubbling-up stage and verifying information. The company was acquired by News Corp for $25 million in late 2013 and over the years has expanded to work with brands (rather than just newsrooms), verify user-generated video, help companies tackle misinformation, and train journalists.
Now Storyful is expanding its investigative capabilities with a focus on three categories: breaking news analysis, deep background (analyzing communities, accounts, and posts to see how information spreads and stories evolve), and network mapping (looking at which people and groups drive online conversations and the relationships between those groups). “The advantage we offer is speed and scale,” Davidson said, the ability to spot trends quickly and broadly. (He noted that Storyful doesn’t have access to any private data: “We don’t infiltrate, from a technological or ethical point of view. Everything we look at is public.,” Storyful can’t, for instance, see links being shared in private WhatsApp chats, though it tracks the URLs shared in public WhatsApp groups.)
Storyful, which has offices in New York, London, Dublin, and Sydney, has more than 150 employees globally, including 55 journalists — 11 of them hired specifically for its investigative product launch, with one more hire on the way. (The company identified seven of them for me: Samuel Oakford, formerly of Bellingcat; Hava Pasha, formerly of Fox News; Catherine Sanz, who was at The Times of London; Laura Silver from BuzzFeed U.K.;Eoghan MacGuire from CNNi; Peter Bodkin from Journal Media; andRichard James of Buzzfeed U.K.) The company has also rearranged its newsrooms so that more of its journalists are in the U.S. ahead of the election.
Storyful clients work with the company by buying a “bank” of hours at a time; they can then draw down on those hours to enlist Storyful’s help on articles. (The company wouldn’t discuss its fees.) The Investigations unit has worked with a handful of newsrooms so far, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal; Davidson described the work process as “collaborative”; in some cases, the newsrooms approach Storyful with specific ideas or topics they need researched; in other cases, Storyful has “ideas that we look to find a home for” — that was the case, for instance, with the Journal’s story on gun sales on Facebook Marketplace. “We’re coming in as an outside collaborator and partner.”
While Storyful is eager to describe itself as a partner, the news outlets that work with it vary in their attribution of the company.
“They provide some additional research for projects we do. I wouldn’t describe it as a partnership,” said Malachy Browne, a senior producer of visual investigations at The New York Times, whose unit has worked with Storyful. “They have good news gathering and discovery tools across social platforms and good verification skills; we have that expertise in our unit as well.” In the instance of a story about missile attacks in Saudi Arabia, for instance, the news broke on a Sunday night in New York; the Times used Storyful to initially research reliable tweets and YouTube videos, then narrowed down the material it was going to use. I found a number of Timesstories with Storyful cited in the photo credits, as well.
The Wall Street Journal, by comparison — which, like Storyful, is owned by News Corp — is generally gives more credit to its use of Storyful in its reporting. In its story this week about the Islamic State’s use of TikTok, for instance, Storyful gets multiple citations and a photo credit. But despite sharing a corporate parent, Storyful is still editorially independent from the Journal and other clients, the company stressed. It didn’t specify the arrangements that it has with other News Corp companies, but said “all clients are treated equally and the terms of service are based on their specific needs.”
“This is about diving into online communities and piecing a puzzle together,” said Davidson. “That’s something that newsrooms struggle to do, due to the complexity of the task and the time that it takes.”