Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #9: Gavin Sheridan

Why Gavin Sheridan’s ‘nerdy journalism’ is good for democracy and human rights

uvy2wjk_400x400Gavin Sheridan was ahead of the curve as one of Ireland’s first bloggers in 2002 when he wrote about “anything and everything” in Gavin’s Blog. He’s remained on the cusp ever since, innovating at the nexus of tech and journalism—motivated by the idea that free-flowing information contributes to democracy. He was in on the early days of Storyful, considered the first social media news agency, and he has pioneered the uses of Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) around the world. Now he’s trying, through his startup Vizlegal, to do for law what he did for journalism. He came to Berkeley this year to talk about a new era in human rights investigations that uses open sources to document international crimes and pursue justice.

Q. You have been on the cutting edge of journalism and tech throughout your life. Why do you think you’ve been able to see ahead?

A. I’m nearly 35 and I started using the internet in 1996 on a Windows 95 machine. It was dial up. I never studied computer science. I never learned how to program. But I was always very interested in taking a computer apart and seeing how to put it together and was curious about how the internet works. You become a nerd and are nerdy about these different things. And that dovetailed well with how the internet was affecting publishing. The more nerdy you were about tech and the internet, the more prepared you were for the disruption that was coming to the publishing industry. I didn’t plan it that way, but it was a happy coincidence.

You have this lovely thing at the end called ‘comments’ where people tell you, ‘Gavin you’re talking bullshit,’ or ‘Gavin this is a really good post,’ or nobody reads your blog post and you think, ‘What did I do wrong?’

Q. You were one of Ireland’s first bloggers. What did you learn by blogging so early on?

A. Owning your own blog makes you want to learn. You understand about SEO [Search Engine Optimization]. You start learning what blog posts work and what ones don’t. You watch your own traffic. You understand ranking and how Google works, how servers work. If I need to backup my database how do I do it? Over time, you get better and better at it. You start learning about Excel and data journalism and Access and you start arming yourself for what’s changing. That experimentation was missing from a lot of journalists I knew in the industry— ‘We have done it this way for 50 years and why would we change it, everything is OK.’ A little bit of head-in-the-sand attitude from managers in newsrooms who would just say this is an interesting toy. I’d say no, this is a fundamental thing. You need to start looking at this now. There is a lot of inertia in any organization, not just newsrooms, about change coming down the road.

Q. What is the relationship between blogging and journalism?

A. Long before I worked as a journalist, I was blogging about journalism. I was writing about and critiquing the press that I knew. I didn’t know many journalists at the time. I would write blog posts saying, ‘This is silly.’ I would write about niche areas that I knew very well. And I would blog about it for free and say, ‘This is my take and here’s why.’ I was publishing original documents or analysis that you wouldn’t get from traditional newspapers. And that builds traffic, builds an audience. I had a reasonably loyal readership for Gavin’s Blog over 10 years, and I built connections through it. You have this lovely thing at the end called ‘comments’ where people tell you, ‘Gavin you’re talking bullshit,’ or ‘Gavin this is a really good post,’ or nobody reads your blog post and you think, ‘What did I do wrong?’ That direct relationship with the audience is something newspapers were missing. They were just, ‘Here’s our content, it’s fantastic, now read it,’ which doesn’t work in an internet world. It’s not sustainable.

Q. When did you realize the relevance of social media to journalism?

A. 2009 was the year of experimentation and meeting people. I went to conferences to see what people were doing. The Iranian revolution had happened that June. I had been at the Obama election in October/November ’08, and I was experimenting with mobile journalism: how you use phones and cameras and livestreaming. I had been in Georgia—in the Caucasus—the previous month, just after the Russian invasion doing the same thing. At the time, Flips were popular video cameras, and notebooks were just becoming popular. I joined Twitter in August 2008 when it was still the butt of jokes for journalists. My moment for Twitter was when I was in Cleveland, Ohio, at a stump speech for Obama with Springsteen just before the election and I was, ‘Oh, Twitter is actually a thing.’ I went back for the inauguration in January 2009 and they had an iPhone at the stage. I was experimenting with livestreaming. That summer it was like, ‘What’s going on with this digital stuff and what’s going on with FOI [Freedom of Information]? I started experimenting with both.

Q. Why is FOIA important and how do you use it?

A. In summer 2009, I went to a conference in London called OpenTech. I met some Freedom of Information people. I was dumbstruck. I had never done FOIA requests properly before. There was a culture in the UK that didn’t exist in Ireland. I started looking at this area and filing FOIA requests for the first time with a data-oriented approach. I don’t want stories. I want databases. And from the databases I will try to get stories. We started experimenting with systematic or tactical FOIA requesting. Traditionally journalists would say, ‘I want to search for this specific document.’ You FOIA it, you get a document, you write your story, and then it was done. We thought that was kind of crazy. FOIA shouldn’t be about stories specifically, it should be about information and intelligence gathering.

Without information, citizens are powerless. You’re voting in the dark. Participating in the dark. The state holds the monopoly on information and controls the flow. Journalism is an information flow business.

Q. What exactly is Storyful?

A. I joined Storyful in February 2010. The next four or five years, FOIA was a hobby and Storyful was my full-time job. In 2010, we were trying to build a social news-telling or storytelling application…to take a Tweet or YouTube video or an Instagram post into a narrative and try to build a new form of narrative for a story. It was similar to another organization in San Francisco called Storify—similarly named. We had similar ideas. But Storyful went a different direction, which was toward professional services to find and verify content for news organizations.

Q. What was Storyful’s introduction to human rights?

A. It was right around the time of the Arab Spring. [Storyful founder] Mark [Little] had raised some money from angel investors. We had to build a team, build a newsroom from scratch, 24-7, monitor all news events globally using only social tools, verify that they were real, and sell that as a wire service to news organizations. Only social content. Mark [Little called it the first social media news agency. Ostensibly our competitors were AP [Associated Press] and Reuters. But AP and Reuters, at the time, didn’t see social as a big thing. Video content was driving it. You had an enormous growth of content coming from Arab Spring countries. You had entire revolutions being documented more or less on YouTube. And that year, you had the Japanese tsunamis, the London riots, the capture of Osama bin Laden. It was a big news year for user-generated content. Our objective was to try to put some kind of filter on it [social media]—get permission to use the content and sell that back to our clients. Algorithms only get you so far.

Q. The work seems so labor intensive. Were you a big team?

A. At the start, it was me, Mark, and Dermot [Casey]. By the end of 2010, we had nine or ten. By 2011, we were maybe 25 people. I hired a lot of former colleagues actually, like Malachy Browne, who has gone to The New York Times. At the time we had to build a small team and leverage tech as much as we could. There had to be a lot of tech savvy within the team. And if you didn’t have it, you had to learn it fast…We identified fairly early that tech was going to have to be something we used so that we didn’t have to hire more humans.

Q. What was it like at Storyful on a typical day? 

A. We’d have multiple shifts. We hired in multiple time zones. Typically, we would get up at 6 and go to work, all at our own machines. Everything was in the cloud. Nothing was stored on the computers. You’d open Tweetdeck and have 60 lists to monitor for what was going on. You’d prioritize among the team: What are the news events that are rich in UGC [User Generated Content] that we need to monitor? And then there were unanticipated events: breaking news events, where all hands were on deck. You had two roles: persistent monitoring of global news and acting fast and accurately with breaking news. We would identify an interesting video: Where was it shot? When was it shot? Who took it? What can we establish before we even contact the person who took it to see if we can get permission to use it? And that would all go into a content management system and then be accessed by our clients around the world.

Q. What social media platforms did you rely on?

A. I started working on a recommendation for Twitter in May 2011 with researchers at University College Dublin to improve our ability to build lists fast because we relied on lists on Twitter quite a lot for monitoring purposes to see what was going on in the world, in whatever language. We had to find the content and in order to find the content, we had to know what was going on, especially in breaking news situations. We were able to get quite a bit done with a reasonably small team that was very well-honed on using social media tools. And then we developed methodologies around verification as a team. I built in a detection system with the same researchers to try to automatically recognize when a bomb explodes or a car accident happens through purely social mechanisms. We raised more money and hired more staff. At the start of 2013, we started moving into viral. Not just hard news, but cat videos—any videos we thought were going to get traction. You start doing licensing deals with uploaders. You might do your first and only viral video in your life and get 40 or 50 million views on YouTube. We would help that person spread that content around as fast as possible and maximize the financial return and protect it as well.

Q. Did you build apps as well?

A. We built a tool in 2013 around social discovery—searching social platforms simultaneously for keywords related to any breaking news event, in any language, to be mined simultaneously and to cut down on the work humans have to do. Translate that into an ‘evolution of the wire service.’ In summer 2013, we were approached for acquisition. And we were acquired by News Corp. It was a three-and-a-half-year sprint. I stayed on for another six months and left.

Q. Who were the clients?

A. The first couple were Google and YouTube and later ABC in New York then France24 and The New York Times, and it expanded from there. By 2013, we had Reuters as a client for breaking news and it expanded to lots of newsrooms around Europe. Some we never got as clients—like CNN.

Q. Did you break news?

A. Sometimes we would be very, very early on a breaking news event and know about it before our clients in a lot of cases. One of my breaking stories was the Anders Breivik online manifesto after the Norway attack. Because we were good Google ninjas, we found it very early and got a lot of traffic. Our modus operandi was to find content first. You are trying to scoop your customers. Faster than BBC and The New York Times.

Q. What skills beyond reporting did you need for this work?

A. All the skills you would bring to bear are all the skills you would never learn in journalism school. It was nerdy journalism. Once you find something, what steps do you take to find out if it’s a fake or something we’ve seen before? How do you describe it to another journalist. Journalists are always skeptical, so we had to build a lot of trust with clients. If they didn’t trust us, our business was finished.

Q. You’re working with some intense content. How did you protect yourselves?

A. We hired a counselor on retainer. And anyone could anonymously go to the counselor whenever they wanted. I never used it, but a lot of people found it helpful. You never forced anyone to watch content. It’s a process of volunteering.

Q. In terms of human rights, what is the value of this work?

A. Nobody I know of was systematically documenting the entire Arab Spring and watching more or less every video that had any conflict in it. We were interested in watching and documenting. We were writing shot lists, descriptions. In our CMS, we said this video was filmed at this latitude and longitude. We could monitor vast amounts of video content every day with a reasonably small team and document huge amounts of information in a systematic rigorous way.  

Q. What is your startup Vizlegal trying to do and how does it jibe with what you’ve done before?

A. Our idea was to take the philosophy from Storyful of newsgathering systemisation, take that principle, take it to judgments emanating from courts, and take all of the information flowing from legal bodies and structure it and ingest it into an API. To scratch my own itch—if a judge ever mentions FOIA—I would like to email him that day and say, ‘Here is the judgment that was mentioned.’ In an information-rich industry like law, there is little data. We want to convert text into data and build insights into jurisprudence, to look at how laws are evolving. We want to build a set of tools that lawyers, and academics and newsrooms pay for. Like all good things, we are open minded to how it evolves from a business point of view. The legal industry reminds me of the news industry 10 years ago in terms of its relationship to technology.

Q. What motivates you?

A. It’s all about information. Storyful, Right To Know, Vizlegal, FOIA stuff. It’s all information flow. It’s all about the imparting and ingesting of information. Information is what’s important for a good democracy. Really. Without information, citizens are powerless. You’re voting in the dark. Participating in the dark. The state holds the monopoly on information and controls the flow. Journalism is an information flow business. We just don’t call it that. I get information, I analyze it, parse it and write a story about it. It could be an interview or a YouTube video, a tweet, it doesn’t matter what it is. Empowering the free flow of information helps democracy, that’s the key thing. And I want to live in healthy democracies, not secretive ones.