Storify founder Burt Herman on how design fuels start-ups, disruptive change and what journalists need to know

Berlin, Moscow, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, North Korea. War, tsunamis, nuclear programs.

Burt Herman was a real foreign correspondent. As a reporter and bureau chief for the AP, Herman covered the world beat for 12 years. The front page of his website features a photo of him crouching behind a stone wall next to a man holding a gun the size of a fourth grader.

His tagline? “Entrepreneurial journalist stoking media revolution.”

A few years ago, Herman took a leave from his AP job, to become a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford. He met Xavier Damman and the two of them co-founded Storify, an online tool used to curate bits and pieces of social media into one story.

I talked to Herman a few weeks ago about Storify, start-ups and journalism. Here are some nuggets from that conversation.

I’m kind of old school. I still use RSS readers.

I spent a lot of time that year at the Stanford design school. Design was very important to the fellowship and doing a start-up. [At Stanford] design is not so much about graphic design or interface design. It’s very much about thinking about design as a process to fuel innovation.

Things are more complicated now. News organizations are still so focused on the front page. And page one meaning where you decide what’s going to be the news for the front page the next day. And that’s interesting … but there is no front page now.

On Stanford and Storify

This was the number one thing drilled into my head at the design school at Stanford. For anything creative, you have to try lots of things and take risks. You’re going to fail, but you keep learning and iterating and eventually you get to something that works.

We talk more about curation than aggregation. Aggregation is automated. Curation is human. Computers are not going to replace editors.

I was kind of thinking about what would the AP be like if you were to create it today? How would you build a news organization given that now you have social media and all these new tools. And Xavier was very much thinking about how to make a social media understandable to normal people. And Storify came out and evolved from that.

The idea behind Storify is that we are in the age of media overload. We’ve come from blogs where we had to write a few hundred words, to twitter where we only have to write 140 characters to Instagram where all you have to do is push one button on your phone to take an awesome photo.

It’s so easy for people to be creators. That means we’re all drowning in media. So it’s more important than ever for people to have tools to go out there, find the best stuff and amplify what is important and what matters.

It’s kind of funny because people see things that are going well and they think, “Oh they must’ve had an overnight success. And it all just worked perfectly.”

You have no idea that what you’re doing. Or if people will actually care about it. You hope that you’re creating something based on what people want and you’re solving a real problem and creating something that’s useful. And trying to get people to use it, and just give it a try, and get feedback.

Things took a while. We started off thinking about journalism, but we don’t necessarily want to be only about journalism.

It’s amazing how quickly you can put things out there that reach millions of people and anybody can do that now. It used to be that only newspapers had access to so many people at once, but they’ve lost that monopoly power. So you’ve got to figure out how to get there and quickly experiment with things, otherwise someone else will do it faster and do it first.

On experimentation and disruption

Set up something separate that’s like a lab to foster experimentation. But you have some freedom to do that. You can’t have hundreds of meetings with every department involved and wait months and months to figure out what you’re going to do.

We’re in this time of disruption that I think is as fundamental as when the printing press was invented. We’ve barely figured out where we’re going. It’s still pretty early in the life of the web. It’s going to be more fragmented. It’s not going to be big monopolies. It’s going to be be small niche players who can get the best stuff about certain niche topics. That’s the power of the internet. We’re not constrained by geography. We can touch people based on their interest no matter where they live.

On Hacks/Hackers, a group Herman co-founded that brings together journalists and technologists

I really felt the two groups were talking at each other but not working together. Now, given that the web is where you publish things, so if you’re publishing on the web, how do you publish on the web? You publish on the web using code. So you’ve got to understand the possibilities.

It started with a meetup. Then a hackathon. And now there are chapters springing up all of the world.

I think there was a real hunger for Hacks/Hackers. Right now, I think it’s more a hunger on the journalism side to get to know technologists. And I think we need to be careful that journalists just don’t think, “I have this awesome idea. I’m gonna find my coder person to build it for me.” We really need to have both groups working and thinking together because developers know a lot about interactive technology and what it’s possible to build and how to leverage APIs and frameworks. It really needs to be a cooperative process. This should be hacks AND hackers. Not the hacks getting the hackers to do their stuff for them.

Larry Buchanan is a designer, illustrator and columnist living in Bloomington, Indiana. You can see more of his work here.

About Larry Buchanan

is a freelance designer and developer living in Brooklyn, NY.

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