Start-up Storyful defines its innovative culture after News Corp acquisition

By L. Carol Christopher


Pleasant Hill, California, USA


At Dublin, Ireland-headquartered Storyful, they like to say: “Innovation is not just a cool thing. It’s not just a process. It’s a culture. 

“We research. We design. We build.” 

Storyful has as the first of its internal 10 commandments, “Storyful elevates authentic voices with something original to say.” It bills itself as the first “social news agency,” acquiring newsworthy video content and selling licenses for its use to organisations such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and ABC, the U.S.-based television network. 

The top priority at Storyful: “Storyful elevates authentic voices with something original to say.”
The top priority at Storyful: “Storyful elevates authentic voices with something original to say.”

Storyful bills itself as a discovery tool on the social Web, designed to help journalists “consolidate all aspects of discovery into one experience…. Within seconds our platforms will need to answer one simple question: ‘What’s happening on the Web?’” 

Storyful’s product teams build discovery tools for both Storyful and its clients. “We have an editorial team who continually set out and iterate upon principles of social journalism, that, with a little creativity, can teach us a lot about content discovery and the tools we’ll need in 2015,” says a post on the company’s blog.

News Corp acquired the company in December 2013. That acquisition, along with support from Ireland’s Department of Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation, has led to recruitment for a number of new technology roles and the enhancement of Storyful’s technology infrastructure. 

Predictably, it has also led to growing pains. But the company’s objective was clear: Build three new teams, rebuild its core product, overhaul internal tools, and launch a new product into the market. 

“Innovation has never been something we’ve seen as being restricted to a particular team, product, or programme,” says Adam Thomas, Storyful’s chief product officer.

“As a start-up with limited resources however, the balance between maintaining and improving our tools was always a tricky one. After being acquired by News Corp, we were given the opportunity to scale our efforts and build a team capable of building the innovative products and tools we knew the business needed.” 

As part of that effort, in 2014, the company’s founder and director of innovation, Mark Little, investigated the concept of the “agile newsroom” with noted media scholar Jay Rosen and his Studio 20 team at New York University, and attempted to distill what that term means in terms of Storyful’s path.

Together they found that “everyday workflow pressures and communications problems were blocking creativity” in Storyful’s rapidly expanding organisation. 

This led Little to conclude that “an innovation roadmap for Storyful would not emerge fully formed from other newsrooms, but from our own daily grind. It helped me realise that my objective was a coherent template for innovation that was not borrowed but owned, that was distinctly Storyful.” 

He wrote in a post on the company blog: “Principles of ‘agile’ methodology are central to any process of editorial innovation. Short, determined sprints by small, multi-disciplinary teams of equals are core building blocks. But not every problem in a high-growth company has an ‘agile’ solution. That realisation led to blindingly obvious principles that are critical to a template for institutional creativity.” 

85 people make up Storyful's product team.
85 people make up Storyful's product team.

Little believes that “first is the need for Storyful to communicate as one team. When we were an early-stage start-up, ideas were shared in person with a small group of peers. When you are a team of 85 people, in New York, Dublin, Hong Kong, and Sydney, there are constant opportunities to slip off the same page.” 

He lists a second priority for Storyful — “Think inside the box.” He says that “for now, we have enough ideas circulating within our team to keep us focused. The goal is to remove any obstacles to the free flow of ideas.” 

He also lists a challenge: The limitation of expectations.

“The natural tendency of an expanding company is to do too many things at once and succumb to ‘velocity creep.’” To address the challenge, he believes that a key test of Storyful’s creative culture is the ability to make the word “no” an expression of innovation.

Lastly, he writes that Storyful’s “culture of innovation must be grounded in small but significant victories. … Innovation should not compete with the daily grind of the company, it must emerge from it,” which will lead to clear solutions.

Little believes that culture is the single most important condition for innovation, calling it “the shared language that describes where Storyful comes from and where it is going. That culture needs to be evenly applied across the team. New recruits must have the same understanding of the company’s values and goals as battle-hardened veterans. Our ability to attract, retain, and inspire the most innovative people depends on our ability to speak the same words when speaking about Storyful.” 

Thomas describes his company’s “manifesto” for its new hires: 

  • Full-stack: Several “full-stack” teams that include all aspects of development and design, with designated editorial and sales representatives involved in strategy, planning, testing, and execution. No more silos. 

  • Clear focus: Each team has an aspect of the business to focus on (news, video, discovery) with a clear, user-oriented goal.

  • Fail fast: Two-week sprints and an adherence to agile methodology ensure Storyful uses mistakes to accelerate new discovery and respond to challenges in a rapidly changing commercial environment. 

  • Time to collaborate: Dedicated time and resources given to collaborative planning, research, design, and user engagement.

  • Diversification: Actively encouraging the hiring of different types of people to give Storyful a more rounded approach to problem-solving and speed innovation.

  • Data-driven: Every aspect of the tools — from user loyalty, to feature development, to server performance — is transparently connected to metrics that drive smart decision-making. 

  • Breed culture: Storyful had a strong culture. The company believes it’s vital to keep this and help new people assimilate through team activities and onboarding. 

The execution of this can be summed up in seven bullet points:

  1. Extensive consultation as to the strengths of the business and areas for expansion. 

  2. Detailed, engaged hiring programme that involved touch points with the entire team across operations, sales, editorial, and technology. 

  3. New working structure involving two-week sprints and internal tools to facilitate an “agile” approach.

  4. Resources invested into equipment and collaborative working spaces. 

  5. Appointment of editorial and business stakeholders to engage daily with the teams. 

  6. Metrics systems put in place to chart progress. 

  7. Transparent roadmap collaboratively produced and regularly updated.

As a consequence of the strategy, Thomas says:

  1. The Storyful product was built-out with three teams (Pegasus, Atlantis, Apollo) created. It scaled from three people to 18 people in nine months.

  2. The beta version of Storyful’s new Newswire was created in eight weeks, and released to clients after three months of development. Storyful doubled its active user base compared to the old Newswire.

  3. The company released several internal tools to improve workflow and speed editorial (with clear performance increases seen in video acquisition).

  4. A brand new product went out to beta users six months after forming the team. 

The 10th company commandment? Writes Little: “A Storyful journalist is also an innovator. We each have a responsibility to constantly push boundaries and challenge convention. If you see a problem, you have an obligation to offer a solution. If you identify an opportunity, come up with a plan. Don’t assume someone else will lead. Do not fear failure. It is proof we have tried. The key is to recognise the difference between success and failure in the shortest period of time.”

Editor’s note: This is one of 17 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “How Media Companies Embrace the Process of Innovation.” 

About L. Carol Christopher

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