Slack is About More Than Just Chat

November 13, 2015, 11:29 PM UTC
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Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and chief executive officer of Slack, speaks during a Bloomberg West Television interview in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. Slack, a software service company helping teams of co-workers to converse, work on projects together, and share links, pictures and more in real time, recently raised $120 million and is now valued at $1.12 billion. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg/Getty Images

It might not be quite as sexy as its consumer cousins Snapchat and WhatsApp, but the workplace-chat service Slack is highly thought of by many in the corporate world, in part because it simplifies the way that communication happens within companies. Inter-corporate communication and collaboration is something that has been broken for decades, and Slack is seen by many as the startup with the best chance of fixing it—which is a big part of why the company has a valuation of nearly $3 billion.

But replacing email or letting co-workers exchange Google documents faster isn’t all that Slack is capable of. Some media companies are starting to use it as a full-fledged content management system—that is, a way of collecting, editing, publishing and even distributing the news. So far these are just experiments, but I think it’s an interesting glimpse of where Slack and media companies might go in the future.

The most recent example of this phenomenon is Storyful, a service owned by News Corp. that specializes in verifying “viral” content from social media for publishers and news websites. As a recent post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog described, Storyful staffers use Slack—as many media companies do — to coordinate their writers and editors across different time zones. Then someone had a thought: Why not use Slack to actually collect and send stories, videos and photos to their media partners?

For some of its larger media customers, including its parent company (which acquired the Irish startup in 2013) and news organizations like ABC News and the Wall Street Journal, Storyful provides a custom application—a piece of software that pulls in the information that the service has verified and makes it easier for editors and producers to handle. For some smaller customers, it has other tools, such as a private Twitter account.

Slack fits in the middle of those two: It allows for longer messages and more rich media—video clips, photos, etc.—than Twitter, but it isn’t a large application that companies have to download and configure. Most of them have it already installed anyway, and it has cross-platform mobile apps as well.

Storyful said it is testing the Slack integration with a number of clients, including the Wall Street Journal and Mashable, and it lets those customers subscribe to channels within their version of Slack that correspond to the coverage they are tracking from Storyful (election content, weather, breaking news etc.). In Mashable’s case, editor Brian Ries told the Nieman Lab that the site already has bots within Slack that pull in stories from the Associated Press and Reuters, so now it can add a Storyful feed to that channel.

In a sense, the fact that Slack has an open API (application programming interface) that can integrate with almost any form of online service makes it easy for media companies like Storyful and Mashable to use it as a content-management system that produces content in a variety of ways. Hoodline, a hyper-local San Francisco news startup, uses Slack in a similar way as Storyful and Mashable do—to filter and aggregate news in channels.

One of the first experiments that really got me thinking about the possibilities for Slack was when the New York Times used it as a way to live-blog the first Republican presidential debate in August. Two reporters wrote their blog posts during the debate inside a Slack channel, while chatting with each other and their editor, and then another NYT staffer edited them—also within the Slack channel—and plugged the output directly into the Times‘ blogging platform, which is WordPress (which also has an open API).

“We’ve done it before, but in a Stone Age way, for other live events, with the reporter typing into Gchat, then an editor copying and pasting that text,” New York Times interactive editor Marc Lavallee told the Nieman Lab. “It looks the same after-the-fact, but we were minutes behind on events.”

Al Jazeera recently built itself a bot—a software program that runs within Slack—that tracks breaking news via a variety of Twitter accounts and other sources, and then posts them into a specific news channel on Slack for editors and reporters. And the New York Times has a bot that runs inside Slack that gives editors advice on which stories or pieces of content might do well on social networks, based on a database of machine-learning the bot has built up about what is trending.

At a time when more and more media outlets are interested in short, real-time news briefs and shareable pieces of content like videos or photos, having to rely on the kind of cumbersome content-management system that most large media companies use is like trying to do the 100-meter dash in concrete shoes. Slack could make it easier for those news providers to not just come up with more timely content, but publish and distribute it as well.


You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.

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