Sunday 28 December 2014

Irish people should not be charged TV licence fee to pay for RTE's films: Mark Little

Published 09/02/2014 | 02:30

Mark Little
Mark Little

The entire Irish population should not be charged a TV licence fee to pay for RTE's movie broadcasts, former RTE News and Prime Time anchor Mark Little has said.

While Little believes that the future of media is glorious, he says this future doesn't necessarily lie with Pat Rabbitte's universal broadcasting charge.

Charging a licence fee while allowing RTE to advertise doesn't work, the Storyful founder says.

"The entire population shouldn't be charged so that RTE can broadcast movies," he told the Sunday Independent.

"Maybe splitting up RTE should be considered: a licence fee-funded division that produces news and current affairs issues – maybe even sports – and an ad-funded division that does the rest."

Little left a cushy job in RTE, embarking on a journey to build the media verification business Storyful.

The news before Christmas that four-year-old Storyful had sold to media empire News Corp for €18m, just months after lurching into profitability, generated a collective shiver of excitement in newsrooms across the country.

Little (45) had ventured out into a highly technical field in which he had no real prior experience –and came up smelling of roses.

But the entrepreneur is critical of the country's tax regime.

One of his biggest regrets, he says, is that the Irish tax system makes it difficult to give employees a stake in a business. Storyful has an employee share option scheme, so 19 of its 30 staff have some kind of interest in the business – "investors want that, they want to see you're incentivising your staff" – but they face paying up to 50 per cent on the proceeds in tax.

The story of Storyful

Ruminating on the growth of Storyful, Little seems a little bit battle-scarred in relation to Storyful's incredible journey. It's clearly been a bumpy ride.

"There were two occasions where we were six weeks away from being unable to pay employees," he says.

"The worst point was November 2012. We had expanded rapidly, but the revenues to meet that scale just weren't coming in. We had to cut costs by 50 per cent; we lost a lot of people. It was incredibly tough, a very difficult period in my life. We got to Christmas of that year and I just thought, this has to be saved. We have to break even soon, or forget it."

It wasn't just something to do for a bored journalist with cash to spare either.

"I remortgaged my house for it," he says bluntly.

That mortgage is now safe and sound, with charismatic Little receiving a rumoured €6m from the sale. He is contractually obliged to stay on as chief executive of Storyful for the next three years and will be splitting his time between his home in Dalkey and an apartment provided by News Corp in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just off Central Park. Sounds glamorous.

"I managed to dampen the glamour on my first night there by slicing off the top of my finger with a kitchen knife," he says. "I spent my first 24 hours in New York in the emergency room at Mount Sinai hospital."

Little knew he wanted to be a journalist from the age of four; by 14, his letters were being published in national newspapers. He was clearly precocious and ambitious growing up, keen to make his mark, active in the Labour Party as a student and president of the Students' Union at Trinity College – quite a high- profile gig.

Would he ever consider going into politics, I ask? He'd be perfect for it – a trusted journalist and successful entrepreneur, turning his hand to public office. The campaign leaflets would write themselves.

"Never," he says. "I had a career pretty much mapped out for me in politics, but just fell out of love with it – and as a journalist, you can't show any bias. I'd never go back. I long ago stopped caring about Irish politics."

His life changed at 21 when his college girlfriend fell pregnant with his eldest daughter. "I grew up fast, for sure. My friends were off travelling and I was worrying about making ends meet." But a combination of drive and luck paid dividends.

He joined RTE in his early 20s after a stint at the Sunday Business Post, and was appointed to its high-profile Washington correspondent role at 26. He stayed at the State broadcaster for 18 years.

"I left RTE on what was ostensibly a career break – for tax purposes anyway – but I knew I wasn't coming back. I just had a burning desire to do something new. I made the decision in September 2009 and was out by Christmas."

Two events helped form the idea that led to Storyful – whose central idea is based on verifying news, video footage and photographs uploaded on to social networks by unknown sources, for use by media outlets.

The first was Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, which Little covered for RTE. "So much of that campaign bypassed traditional media – social networks were huge."

That was followed, in June 2009, by protests in Iran.

"I had been travelling to Iran for years, I know it well, but that year I was at home and following it all through videos uploaded by locals. The journalists were all locked up in their hotel rooms, told it was too unsafe to be outside." he says.

"What that made me realise is that everyone is a journalist now. But how do you sort out the news from the noise? That's the paying point."

Storyful's first customer was ABC News. "It was like having a baby, we were dancing round the office when the deal was signed." The New York Times, YouTube and several others came on board the following year.

"Here's an example of where our service comes in," he explains. "One night in 2012, a gunman walked into a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, and started shooting. ABC News came to us in the middle of the night with unsubstantiated footage of that shooting and told us we had 90 minutes to verify it. From a little office in Sheriff Street, we did that." ABC led its morning news show, broadcast across the US, with that clip.

"It's as much about debunking stories as anything," he adds. "Take the shooting of US congresswoman Gabby Gifford in 2011. Within hours, several news organisations were reporting that she had died. But we were tracking tweets coming from the hospital which said differently – so our clients got the story right. Some of our value is in stopping news, not starting it."

Is this really journalism, though? Is it not just video management? His voice raises slightly.

"We absolutely see this as journalism. It's good old-fashioned investigative reporting in its purist sense, just with new tools. Do we miss putting words on paper sometimes? Of course. Sometimes it would be nice to write the story, not just supply the idea. But you get over that."

Storyful is on the verge of signing a deal to supply Vice Media, the innovative youth-orientated media group that was founded as a punk fanzine in Nineties Montreal, with breaking news video. But demand for its services has moved beyond media clients. Impressively it now works with international criminal courts, verifying evidence used to convict war criminals. It has also developed a more commercial arm, licensing video that it thinks has the potential to go viral and finding clips that might be useful to big brands for promotional purposes.

Little left RTE before he had actually secured any investors for Storyful. "I was naive, but in a way that helped. I drew up a list of 20 people who I thought might consider investing and just approached them. I literally did Dragon's Den-style pitches." He secured about €3.5m- worth of funding from Enterprise Ireland and private investors like serial technology backer Ray Nolan, who founded and later sold travel website Hostelworld for €220m, and Dragon's Den star Sean O'Sullivan's investment firm SOS Ventures.

Not all of the company's early investors worked out. "I'll never forget Christmas Eve, 2010. I had realised that one particular consortium of investors was just not right – but that left us €150,000 short. I sent the email saying it wasn't working and then had to drive through the snow to Galway with my wife. I couldn't even face talking about it."

Somewhere around Athlone he had an epiphany. "This feeling of elation came over me. You just realise that it will all be fine. If everything goes to hell you will get a new job, it's never the end of the world." He arrived in Galway to an email from Nolan, promising to shore up the shortfall.

There were times when he regretted ever starting the business. "It would have been infinitely easier to go off and be a consultant. At times it was incredibly psychologically tough. You really do get a daily kick in the b****cks running a startup," he says.

So why put in all that blood sweat and tears in, just to sell? Why build up a truly innovative David in a world of Goliaths – and then sell to News Corp, the most notorious media empire in the world? Especially given that multiple organisations were interested in buying Storyful.

"We certainly had our critics," he says. "People told us News Corp would eat us up. But look, I sit in a room with these executives and they are the smartest people in the world."

When he first began talking to News Corp it was in the middle of a huge reinvention, spinning off Fox News into a separate entity. "They have a startup mentality now, they're journalists with something to prove who I really respect".

Timing was also a factor. "We were three years ahead of anyone else with this idea but I knew someone else would come along. Without a big backer, I don't think we could protect our lead."

He's an admirer of Rupert Murdoch. "He's an innovator. He realised early on that you can't give news away for free on the internet."

Meanwhile, the Irish Government, Little adds, still hasn't figured out how to turbo-charge startups.

"There's something missing, a lack of infrastructure," he says. "Ireland is short on mature, senior talent, for example – it's incredibly difficult to find good chief financial officers and good marketing directors, while software developers are impossible because Google snaps them all up."

Still, he thinks there's never been a better time to start a company in Ireland. "It doesn't matter if you're 20 or 50, now is the time. There are so many great startups appearing. Starting your own business is suddenly glamorous, and Dublin has become really cool."

Irish Independent

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