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Shorthand illustrates the power of storytelling

Few professions have been hit as hard by digital disruption as journalism. While print will hopefully stick around for a while yet, and there’s proof that newspapers have adapted through avenues such as real estate listings, the consumption of online news is only growing and journalistic practices are racing, frantically, to keep up.

This explosion of online news has naturally lead to an increase in journalism startups. There’s Medium for writers, ImageBrief and Newzulu for photojournalists, and even Brisbane-based platforms like Newscube and Jirno.

But the local storytelling startup to watch is undoubtedly Shorthand, the platform used by online news giants such as the BBC, Fairfax and The Telegraph. While cynics claim the internet has replaced quality journalism with listicles and slideshows, the multimedia editing platform has found success by tapping into one of the most powerful, lasting commodities: engrossing, visually gorgeous storytelling.

“There’s recognition even amongst those sites that are chastised for their clickbait, even those guys are seeing that long-form, or deep, investigative features, are really important in building trust in their audience,” Shorthand CEO and founder of TSJ Ricky Robinson said. “So you can see that in The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, all of these guys have launched long-form sites.”

“Shorthand stories, they exude quality, they exude care,” he said. “Our customers, people who use Shorthand, are first and foremost storytellers, and these people, they really care about their craft.”

The journey thus far

Founded and funded in 2013 by Wotif’s Graeme Wood and brought to MVP by a contracted development team led by ex-CEO Ben Fogarty, Shorthand has evolved into a high-quality publishing platform that incorporates multimedia features such as text-over-photos, animated maps and graphs, and imaging tools like their newly-released aspect ratio feature.

Stories are created in Shorthand, where they can be edited without any coding requirements, and once finished can be hosted by customer servers or through Shorthand with a custom domain.

The startup’s customers range from NGOs to travel companiesbut for our money the most impressive applications can be found in long-form, multimedia journalism, if only because their news stories best illustrates how journalism can be improved by new technologies.

For example, The Telegraph piece “Fleeing Syria for Europe: Safaa’s fatal journey is a harrowing but immersive recount of a doomed refugee family’s expedition, and includes maps of the journey and immigration statistics that update as the reader progresses through the story. It also incorporates Shorthand’s “reveal effect” into its imagery, which creates depth by layering photographs with scrolling technology.

Shorthand's customers range from the BBC to Save The Children to Fairfax. Image: supplied.

Shorthand’s customers range from news organisations like SMH, to NGOs like Save The Children, to universities, travel companies and government departments. Images: Shorthand.

Robinson said the company was inspired by pieces such as The New York Times’ lauded “Snow Fall”, and, while Shorthand’s revenues have steadily grown over the last six months with February sales well in excess of $100,000, the quality of the team’s work is best reflected by their customers and page views.

While they don’t track stories from some of their largest customers, Shorthand doubled their December 2015 stats when they hit over two million unique views in January. Robinson also points out that one of their most recent stories, The Telegraph’s What Africa will look like in 100 years,” lit up Reddit over the March 12-13th weekend, topping both the Data is Beautiful and Internet is Beautiful subreddits.

Robinson is a strikingly good fit for Shorthand, and vice-versa. The founder and former editor of TSJ, he’s clued into all things entrepreneurial and journalistic, with the discussion riffing between local startup news and LinkedIn’s newfound focus on US state workforce economics (reports of which are created in Shorthand). Robinson also speaks about his startup with a tangible fondness; the man loves what he does.

A Brisbane entrepreneur with research experience at NICTA and UQ, he joined the Shorthand team in April 2015 as a software engineer, shortly after local entrepreneur Stephen Phillips replaced Fogarty as interim CEO. After being promoted to CEO in October that year, Robinson refocused the company squarely on professional storytelling in lieu of consumer-focused products.

And as he points out, the focus on features has paid off in terms of both readership and critical success; in December, the team won Startup of the Year at the Professional Publishers Association Digital Awards in London.

“The one change that I’ve made is just taking stock and thinking about what do we really want to be?” Robinson said. “Was that a consumer-focused brand or was that just crafting the best tools for professional storytellers? We bet on the latter.”

“It was one thing figuring out who we were, really saying what we are good at is creating an awesome product for professional storytellers,” he said. “But then along with that we needed to make a bet, we had to take a gamble that multimedia, complex storytelling was going to become a bigger thing in 2015 and beyond.

“And that’s a gamble that’s really starting to pay off, which you can see just from the increase in our our story numbers, and I feel that, amongst our customers at least, the availability of Shorthand has actually been a big reason for that increase.”

Looking to the future

Shorthand is currently working to make their product more accessible throughout the publishing process, a focus which has been informed by customer feedback and their self-professed main competitor: internal development teams. Because Shorthand works with the coding and technical aspects of digital storytelling, they are naturally in competition with developers already working at larger media organisations.

In order to continue to grow and compete with these developers, Robinson hopes to transition Shorthand from being just a point product to something journalists can earlier in their workflow. For example, while the team is currently focused on the visual side of storytelling, Robinson spoke of eventually incorporating smarter editing tools such as entity linking.

Lead by Robinson (centre-fight), Shorthand has team members across Australia, the UK and the USA.

Led by CEO Ricky Robinson (centre-right), Shorthand has team members across Australia, the UK and the USA.

The Shorthand team launched transparent pricing in January, which complements the existing direct sales model and adds options for less-frequent publishers. They have now moved onto their current goals: broader story distribution and theme customisation.

“Two things we’re focusing on in 2016 are the distribution side of things, we understand that the customer’s website is not always the ultimate destination for a story,” Robinson said. “It could be Facebook Instant, Apple News, it could be a bunch of different things.”

“And the other side of things in that is customising stories, like how do we make it possible for customers to deliver stories that are obviously a Telegraph story or obviously an SMH story?”, he said, alluding to the way individual stories look and feel in relation to their brand.

The team are also looking at international markets, which naturally includes a growing physical presence. Their headquarters and product team are currently based out of Brisbane, but, with a bulk of their existing customers in the UK, they also have a sales and marketing team in London.

And while Shorthand’s US team is currently confined to a community manager in Denver, with clients like New York Daily News, the Dow Jones and LinkedIn they are definitely looking at expanding their presence in the States.

“We haven’t done enough, not by a long shot, we’ve barely dipped our toe [into the US market],” Robinson said. “We’ve done one exploratory sales expedition to New York, where we gained a number of customers, and that’s kind of been the extent of it.”

“But without pre-empting anything, New York is media central, so we need to be there in some way, shape or form.”

About Chris Woods

Chris Woods (@tophermwoods) is the Tech Street Journal's Editor-in-Chief. He lives in Brisbane, has worked in places like Sydney and New York (State of), and will someday update his media-news blog.