Farewell, informed sources; hello Twitter

With the help of ex-spooks, Israeli-U.S. media startup Vocativ shuns traditional newsgathering and instead mines social networks.

Mati Kochavi, left
Mati Kochavi, left: 'You need the technology used by hedge funds to monitor what's happening.' /
By Eytan Avriel
Published 10:41 28.11.13

The richer businessmen get, the more infatuated they usually become with the media industry.

They want the pull and the ability to open doors that media magnates have. They want to be part of the thrill of making news, of getting scoops.

Mati Kochavi, in the white shirt, at Vocativ's New York studios
Mati Kochavi, in the white shirt, at Vocativ's New York studios. /

It’s easy to see why. The more sophisticated among the rich have long understood that the media help the public see what goes on behind the scenes. And a media outlet with a reputation for credibility is more effective in swaying the public and influencing government decisions.

There’s just one problem. Acquiring a reputable media outlet has become an expensive endeavor, as shrinking newspaper and TV revenues inevitably spell heavy losses.

One alternative is to create a new outlet, but developing one that can stand out from the crowd and building a large following isn’t cheap either.

Mati Kochavi, the Israeli businessman behind the Zurich-based AGT International, whose safety and security control systems are sold worldwide, as well as the Israel-based high-tech company Logic, came up with the idea of bringing together experienced American journalists, Israeli technology and intelligence analysts to generate original and genuinely exclusive content. His online news site, Vocativ.com, launched last month.

From the company’s newsroom, located on 13th Street in Manhattan, Kochavi explains what got him to spend millions on a new media venture and how it differs from countless other U.S. news services.

Amazed that two key global events - the 2008 economic crisis and the Arab Spring - erupted without anyone predicting them, Kochavi says he decided to look into ways of predicting such events. His solution was to find a way of discovering what hundreds of millions of people were thinking by mining social media networks and smartphones using “Big Data” technology.

“In classic journalism, to find out what’s happening the reporter calls politicians and bankers,” Kochavi explains. “He needs to make 20 phone calls and get the opinions of several experts. But when they want an answer to the question ‘what are people thinking,’ who can they call? That’s the reason I founded Vocativ – to find out what people are thinking.”

Vocativ has developed a method to pull data for analysis from social media and the so-called deep web. The company believes that 80% of all public data on the Internet is effectively invisible to ordinary web users because it doesn’t get picked up in popular search engines like Google. This includes content from social media and blogs as well as the databases of organizations and government agencies that are closed to search engines.

“We can identify weak signals that others don’t see, to reach the individuals sending them,” explains Kochavi. “Using this technology and analyzing the results, we search for nuggets of information that bring us to something new on which to build a groundbreaking news item or story that nobody else has.”

‘Ninjas’ from 
Military Intelligence

As befitting someone coming from the field of computer systems and security services, Kochavi often hires analysts - he calls them “ninjas” with a background in Israeli intelligence. We met former Google analysts, people with multi-language fluency and people who served in the Israel Defense Forces’ signal intelligence unit, Unit 8200.

In one demonstration during our visit, analysts reviewed all the Twitter messages sent in Saudi Arabia during a specific period. They identified the tweets that were most dominant on social media and then zeroed in on a single tweet they found interesting - sent, in Arabic, by a Saudi professor with hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers.

The news staff gets down to work as soon as an interesting bit of information is identified. The idea is to contact the source and, using traditional investigative methods, develop the data into what they hope will be an attention-grabbing story.

At first glance it seems Kochavi is trying to apply the tools of intelligence agencies to journalism. Indeed, the Vocativ newsroom looks like a cross between a regular newspaper office and a high-tech espionage agency, but Kochavi rejects this suggestion.

“We have nothing in common with the methods used by the NSA, which hacks into classified or private data. We don’t want to go there, and aren’t trying to hack anything. We use big data to try to discover what people are thinking.”

Time is key, Kochavi says. “Everything happens much faster today due to the media and social networks. It took Polish labor leader Lech Walesa 11 years to overturn the government while in Tunisia, in the Arab Spring, the revolution happened within nine months after the first protests. You need the technology used by hedge funds, banks and governments to monitor what’s happening. That’s what we developed.”

Does your reporter write what the information systems analyst found in his data?

“Once we’ve analyzed the data and found something interesting, then comes the stage for reporters. The key is integration. They sit together and write the story. This ensures that the team approaches the story from an entirely different angle than that of a traditional reporter. We want to get the final story to as many people as possible, with special emphasis on the social networks. It’s set up so readers can easily send our stories to their friends on the networks and through smartphones. For example, the headline, which serves as the article’s teaser, is written differently for each social channel and platform. These are insights we gathered from the advertising world.”

You’ve been in beta mode for a year and live for a month. Have you had any big scoops?

“Our greatest achievement so far is something called the ‘livability index’ that we created, based on detailed data from the Pew Research Center survey on social and demographic trends in the United States. Many leading media outlets have quoted us and our findings, and they gave us credit.

“Another success is a story on weapons. We tracked an arms dealer and tried to find him but couldn’t obtain anything interesting. But we did come across a U.S. soldier searching guerilla fighters in Africa, and from a posting by him we discovered a contest on Facebook where the top prize was a free assault rifle. Facebook was completely unaware of this. We spoke with them and they took down the ad. We reported everything on our website and from there it gathered momentum like a snowball. Our luck was that there a public storm in the United States at the time over weapons sales and ownership. In another instance we went over all the video clips uploaded to Youtube from Syria and found someone interesting we interviewed via Skype.”

Who built your system?

“Our management and newsroom are in New York, while R&D is in Israel. We can work with many social networks, including those that aren’t in English. The staff can identify subject matter, hashtags, people and geographic locations, and knows how to present things graphically. They check the connections between people and the strength of these connections. We can predict, for instance, who might become the most popular singer in India in two years.”

Are your reports text-only?

“We also do video. We invested lots of money in studios and in video capabilities. Our plan is to produce very high-level films and we’ve hired an experienced team for this. We recruited writers and producers from such media outlets as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Reuters, and also from TV networks like NBC, Fox and CNN.”

What is your business plan?

“We plan to use the syndication model. We’ll sell our video clips, for example, to the traditional TV networks. We’re already in touch with establishments in Hollywood and plan to bring in a partner from this field. I’m not a tycoon, I’m not a philanthropist, and I’m not looking for influence. We also aren’t anarchists. This is a profit-seeking business.”