Why we made Brave Today

(Full announcement here: https://brave.com/announcing-brave-today/)

My media diet is never going to be satisfied by a single publisher. That said, most of the publishers I like have useful apps and give me a lot of what I want. The good ones have some visual appeal; they’re timely, relevant, and a pleasure to use.

Any publisher app is basically going to be disappointing, though because my preferred source of international political news is very rarely the source I turn to for financial coverage which is never the source I want for coverage of my favorite basketball team. And none of those will ever give me the insights I love from super niche publications about things like woodworking or classic cars.

The aggregators are better at serving a varied media diet, but I don’t want them to know my niche interests or even my broader interests, because that would mean even more precise data about me is being harvested which I really don’t want. It’s very disturbing when you read an article and then start seeing ads about that subject everywhere you go.

The only time I’ve ever felt like I had all the media coverage I wanted the way I wanted it was back in about 2005. When we had RSS and news readers I was able to tune my media diet using an app that fed headlines from tons of different publishers into one place. I loved adding new feeds as I discovered them. Even more than that, I loved turning off a feed I didn’t like anymore knowing that it was actually gone forever. They couldn’t retarget me or send emails or sell my data because they never knew who I was in the first place.

Admittedly, those of us who valued RSS readers most back then were probably excessive consumers of news and magazines and blogs with a high tolerance for geekery, unlike the wider population that had no time for the fiddly interfaces of tools like Newsgator, Bloglines and FeedDemon and the frustratingly ever-increasing count of unread items, much less the confusing buttons used for adding a feed to a feed reader. Even Google Reader was probably a bit too awkward for most people.

But that’s not to say the market hasn’t improved. The user experiences for scanning content are far better today, and the volume and variety of coverage has grown massively. We now have volume and variety within niches of niches in terms of how we interact with media, who is producing it, what they are producing, where it’s getting distributed, and how to profit from it.

The most important breakthrough that made all this possible probably wasn’t search or social distribution. It was the adtech that adopted the service oriented architectures of 2005 and learned how to track people and target them with messaging.

While the funding that resulted from the adtech innovations made it possible to evolve content apps and services, the deal included a massive sacrifice to our privacy on the Internet. At the time that trade would’ve seemed worth it. But it’s not worth it anymore. It’s not necessary, either.

As Francois Marier describes in the blog post about Brave’s private CDN it’s possible for the app or provider to build a network-based service that knows nothing about the user consuming it and can’t know anything even if it wanted to.

In our case, to be more specific, the user’s request for content from the server gets encrypted and passed via an intermediary that can’t see what the user requested but sends the request message on behalf of the user to the server. The server can see the address of the intermediary for its reply and the contents of the encrypted message, but the server can not see the user’s address or any other data about the user. The server has no idea who sent it.

The work required to do this would’ve been total overkill back in 2005. Why would you do all that when at the time everything was clearly moving toward search and social which employed user tracking to get the most out of the ad business attached to it? Platforms and publishers wanted more data about users, not less.

Now that platforms and publishers have all been feeding this tracking ecosystem for the last 15 years the whole thing has gone way too far, but I still want my news and links to interesting things happening in the world. Can I have it with no tracking, please?

When a small team of us started working on a news reader at Brave a few months ago we were reminiscing about RSS readers and wishing the world still worked that way. We prototyped a concept that was initially going to use some APIs to gather headlines, but we found most of the feeds we needed to make it work. It turns out that most publishers are actually still using RSS. What a great surprise!

Why wouldn’t they? The format is an open standard with very basic output which makes it really simple to syndicate your content (see what I did there?). Most CMS’s generate RSS feeds automatically, anyhow.

We found the prototype to be surprisingly compelling. The only thing it needed was a modern privacy strategy and a business model. Both of those things come pretty easily to the team at Brave, and the prototype expanded into a proper news reader that we called Brave Today.

We didn’t want to wait too long to get a version into people’s hands and see how the market receives it. So, we prioritized the user experience, content delivery, privacy controls and advertising features first. But we have our eye on a fully open RSS reader that you can configure with feeds you find anywhere on the Internet. That would complete the bridge from 2005 to today which, if successful, could democratize content distribution on the Internet again as it was before Google and Facebook swallowed everything.

Lessons from the era are coming back to me as we progress, such as the importance of a great cold-start experience, the value of relevance and personalization in reducing the noise, constraining configuration options so it’s not confusing but offering enough to make the feed feel like your own. And then there are so many new capabilities available to us now that can make this old idea so much better this time around, particularly through mobile devices but also with other media formats. User behavior norms have evolved, as well, which means people are now totally comfortable with and perhaps even prefer having infinitely scrolling lists.

I’m pretty sure this is going to scratch an itch for a lot of people. It definitely will in my case, and I can’t be the only one who wants a modern news reader that preserves your privacy.

Data pattern-hunting makes everything boring

Digital platforms have finally become the economic powerhouses many of us whose careers have spanned a few technology waves always knew was possible.

Among other things I’m quite interested in how their use of statistics and cohort analysis is driving conformity in society at scale. Admittedly, this is a subjective chicken and egg question, really, but it seems to me that being unique and different today is harder and riskier than ever before while the rewards for being normal become greater and greater.

There was a weird moment somewhere around peak Simon Cowell when everyone realized we were complicit in pop music’s boringness. His show eliminates outliers to form a cohort of pretty good but mostly forgettable performers. Then we vote for the least worst one.

This is happening everywhere. Cars all look the same. News outlets report the same news. Even fashion brands who trade on being different are literally losing their edge.

Is there a better sign of the times than the full embrace of the color gray?!

Guitar solos, roadsters, columnists and fashion icons reminded us that we can step out of the machine if we want to. Now we don’t even try. Instead we blend everything interesting until the mass has no distinctive color at all.

Normalizing everything didn’t happen because of Internet platforms. It started decades before they were even invented. But the Internet platforms mastered the art and became commercial juggernauts, as a result.

What makes them good at it? It’s too simple to say they’re good at computers. That may be true, but it’s really all about how they manage the information flowing in and out of their computers.

Marc Andreesen was right. Software ate the world.

The people who are looking at that data and making software that feeds the computers are assessing patterns. They’re not looking for exceptional data or data that sits outside the norm. There’s so much data flowing through these computers that they can only handle data that looks the same. They literally throw away unusual signals. They call it noise. Sometimes they call a weird data signal an ‘error’.

It’s much easier to make sense of large clusters of common behaviors and then to focus on those clusters. If you can drop people doing the same thing through a conversion funnel and get transactions at the bottom then you have a business model.

Startups have a lot of pressure to scale quickly, so there’s really no time to waste on the anomalies. They have no incentive for handling unusual activity other than to find a way to shove anomalies or ‘errors’ back through the funnel somehow. They are looking for normal patterns and doing everything they can to make all the data they collect fit in the same bucket.

To be honest, I find it unfair to blame the platforms for this market dynamic.

I remember very clearly the dismissive tones from the non-techies in the late ’90s every time an amazing Internet startup would appear, “Yeah, but nobody’s making money, yet. It’s just hype.” That went on for years.

Then things started to work. But let’s be clear. The platforms weren’t intentionally employing nefarious data manipulation to exploit us. They were optimising ads. That’s all it was in the beginning.

Equally, the dotcom leaders need to acknowledge their moral obligations today. Their businesses have become part of our lives. They sold it that way and we bought it. That deal needs to change now, just like their terms and conditions change all the time.

The problem is that outliers and anomalies are easy to ignore. And until trolling or misinformation or abuse or fraud or whatever else infiltrates and distorts the normal patterns of behavior in large enough quantities these digital spaces that want our time and attention really just don’t care.

It’s not just the bad behavior they don’t care about. They don’t care about good behavior that is non-normal, either.

Journalism is a great example. Performance of news on Facebook declined for several consecutive months in 2017 and instead of looking at how to embrace news they turned it off. Large numbers of people valued getting news via Facebook, but the nuances of trust, a very human value, by the way, were considered too hard to address.

I refuse to believe that these non-normal patterns are too expensive to identify and serve in a sensible way. The same machines and statistics that are so good at finding normal patterns are just as good at finding things that are not normal. But rather than build the tooling and reporting and insights that value the non-normal they build error handling systems and quantify them with negative terms.

Can a digital business succeed by serving the outliers? Of course they can! It’s crazy to think they don’t have the creativity, manpower or computing resources to value the things that are different. They choose not to because it requires some thinking. It’s easier to encourage the outliers to behave like everything else and just ignore those that don’t.

There’s another question about whether this trend is bad. It would be easy to argue that more people are more educated, safer, suffering less than in pre-platform history. They bring people together and create shared understanding which probably increases peace in the world on balance.

But let’s be honest about the cost of normalizing everything and failing to value the outliers in society at large. If we want magical music like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Little Wing” and beautiful cars like the 1962 Aston Martin and intelligent perspective like Edward R. Murrow commentary then we owe it to ourselves to ensure the outliers have room to explore and push the boundaries.

The value of a cohort should not be measured exclusively by its relative proximity to the mean. We’ll keep losing the good stuff in this world if we do that.

Now that software has won and platforms drive the economy (and lots of other things, too) they must look at their role in the world with a wider field of vision. They need to be serious about diversity from the boardroom all the way down to the simplest line of code.

Where does News go from here?

The ‘stack’ or rather the ‘circuit’ of GraphQL, Elasticsearch, React Native and Firebase offers new ways of working for news orgs everywhere. It’s about making things movable and bendy and accessible to everyone (not just the dev team).

This post originally appeared on the News With Friends blog here.

Tech offers lessons about the future for every industry every year — from development tools to devices to databases to cloud services. 2018 is no exception.

Most of what’s below is about being able to change all the time. There seems to be more uncertainty in news than ever before. We’re seeing a wider range of business models, increasing reader demand from different places via different things, a constant flow of new platforms to consider, and, most importantly, new types of journalism.

That’s a good thing. It means there’s opportunity. But it also means there’s a lot of complexity. So, the emphasis should be on flexibility, things that can evolve without massive investments or commitments.

First, let’s talk about data.

We’ve been playing with GraphQL as a front end to Elasticsearch the last year or so. All I can say is “wow”. The kinds of questions I’ve been able to ask and the wonderfully convenient data formats that come back have really opened my eyes.

For example, if I want to trend the average wordcount and number of articles about Yemen published by UK newspapers I can basically just say that and get an answer.

We could build a REST API endpoint that answers my question, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to ask. GraphQL lets me keep asking in different ways until the data flowed the way I wanted it to.

It’s always significant when a layer of intelligence moves from the deep backend systems where data loves to hide up to the top-most layers of software development where people get to see the interesting stuff.

That leads to the next piece of interesting tech — React Native.

After experiencing the mobile app development process a few times in the past I was concerned about what it would take to do a new app. I was wrong to worry.

Writing the app in Javascript and componentising everything made it possible to bend and twist our idea over and over again until we got what we wanted. We had a great core idea to start with, but we needed to see it on a mobile phone in people’s hands.

Using React Native was liberating from a design perspective, too, because we could control things at both global and component levels without having to battle the framework. We tried Nativebase because we thought we had to have a framework. And then we decided, “Nah. We don’t one. Let’s just design the things that need design.”

While we didn’t find React Native flawlessly cross compatible with both iOS and Android it wasn’t a lot of work to get both working smoothly off the same code.

Another great tool that news orgs should consider is Firebase.

Firebase does a lot of different things. What we found particularly helpful was the combination of user authentication, messaging, cloud functions and data synchronisation through one system. It makes it easy to connect people and help them communicate with each other in the app.

For example, people can Suggest a story for their friends to read. They do that by tapping a star button in the React app. That event adds a record in the user’s outbox on Firebase. A cloud function fans out the Suggestion from the outbox to the inboxes of the person’s friends. Then the app for each user with a new inbox item triggers a notification.

That series of interactions would’ve been a real pain just a few years ago. But now we operate in a world where a very small team can make a ton of different types of data flow in and out and around different devices and systems.

The technology available now has a new shape to it.

We used to call things like this collection of services a stack — GraphQL on top of Elasticsearch behind a React Native front end engaging people through Firebase-powered interactions. “Stack” might still work to define that, but the effects of the combinations of those systems are much less vertical or hierarchical than previous stacks like LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP).

For one thing, it’s serverless. We have no server. But also it’s not strictly linear where the system is designed for a single model: user makes request -> server responds with data. The systems sort of talk to each other, sometimes triggered by user actions, other times triggered by changes in other data.

It’s more like a circuit than a stack.

So, what does all this mean for news orgs?

When GitHub came along a lot of devs working in news orgs were inspired by social version control and began thinking about editorial workflow systems a little differently. Contributoria and later Publish.org were partially GitHub-inspired. There were some interesting journalism projects checking for diffs on published documents, too. GitHub inspired different ways of working and operating.

Today’s tools should do the same.

GraphQL means journalists can explore large datasets and observe patterns or look for anomalies rather than hunt for things in the data that they believe must exist. React-style serverlessness means publishers can think about delivering full digital experiences wholesale directly to a customer rather than forcing everything through a website. Distributed messaging systems like Firebase means communication can be decentralised and virality can be offered as a feature, not something you rent from another platform.

Key to all this is designing systems that can adjust and bend without physical limitations. That way publishers can be prepared for shifts in the market as they come, responding to new demands from readers, creating new forms of journalism and opening up new ways to earn money.

Crucially, the systems need to be open to everyone in the org. I wouldn’t consider myself a professional developer, but these tools made it possible for me to write code and to contribute to what we were building in a way I’ve never been able to do before.

As news orgs discovered with the platformisation of the media over the last decade or so it’s no fun having innovation done to you by someone else. These technologies can make innovation an ingredient of everything you do.

The beginning of the end of Facebook’s grip on News

2018 will be remembered as the year the news industry changed its tune about platforms

2018 was a remarkable year for news. It finally parted ways with the technology platform that had been shaping so many aspects of everyone’s work. Facebook isn’t gone, but news is free now to explore other technologies that help journalism thrive.

I have a related personal story from this year about an amazing piano. Bear with me. It will make sense by the end.

Source: The Pianola Institute

The Aeolian Duo-Art player piano of the early twentieth century was a remarkable machine. It had a crazy pump system that sucked air through a harmonica-like bar that triggered each individual key to play as a paper roll slid across the holes instructing the piano what to play with each little puncture in the paper.

Ours had music rolls from several composers including Gershwin and Rachmaninov who recorded pieces directly through these machines. The piano played back the artist’s performance in precisely the way it was originally performed on the piano. It’s truly ghost-like.

The piano was ridiculously heavy and too large for us. It had to wait in storage, and as much as I dreamed we would be able to bring it back out of the warehouse and set it up at home 2018 was the year I finally let it go.

Keeping it for a future that might never come was costing me money, and the burden of its existence was making me resentful.

I spoke to several piano experts and auction houses, and they all said the same thing, “Those things are amazing, arent’ they? Too bad nobody wants them. Good luck.”

I was the last to realise that it was in fact totally worthless to most of the rest of the world.

News people love what technology can do. A great media technology translates stories in journalists’ and editors’ heads into something real that other people can experience.

2018 was a particularly interesting year for news and technology. It wasn’t so much the faded dreams of technology like newsprint and TV. That story is unfolding nearly as slowly as the death of Aeolian’s Duo-Arts. 2018 was the beginning of the end of the relationship between news and the Internet’s big tech platforms, Facebook, in particular.

In 2015 and 2016 it seemed that Facebook was going to control the whole Internet. News publishers thought they had no choice but to fully and wholeheartedly embrace this behemoth.

Publishers could be forgiven for promoting Like buttons on their sites in 2015. What did they get in exchange for adding a little piece of code that gave Facebook full access to every news publisher’s web site traffic? The mere possibility that they might get more exposure. Somehow that seemed fair at the time.

Then in 2017 things changed.

Source: Kaleida, 2018

By the end of 2017 engagements for news on Facebook had dropped steadily for about 8 months consecutively. This decline was very public. The company must have realised that publishers weren’t just observing their own traffic referrals from Facebook; they were observing traffic patterns on Facebook itself.

Then in early 2018, Facebook announced they had plans to deprioritise news in their algorithm. To me, that announcement seemed like some sort of cover up. Was the data indicating a real problem for Facebook? Were they hiding negative network effects?

If in fact Facebook is battling negative network effects it would make a lot of sense to remove anything capable of observing the trend. That could explain why they announced the deprioritisation. But Facebook is a particularly savvy PR machine. The cleverest part of that announcement was actually that by saying they were changing the algorithm they didn’t have to change the algorithm. If someone noticed declines they could explain them away in a snap — “We deprioritised your traffic, remember? Everything’s fine.”

Whether driven intentionally by Facebook’s changes or organically by negative network effects the declines didn’t matter. There was a collective sigh of relief followed by a brief panic about a lost future where social media would save journalism. That imagined future living inside Facebook’s circle of life was a house of cards, anyhow. Everyone knew it. They were allowed to admit it to each other, finally.

It was the best thing that could’ve happened to news. News was free to move on.

This is the point in the story where we should talk about what came next, but I’m going to save that for another post. The impact of January 2018 is worth more reflection.

In 2015 when Facebook gave a talk at the Perugia Journalism Festival people I spoke to there were a bit in awe of the company. Journalists were really trying to understand what to do about it. They weren’t fawning over the company, but they weren’t resisting it, either.

In 2015 many people in news appreciated the historical significance of Facebook’s achievements as a company and still wanted to ride the wave. It had momentum on it side.

That sentiment is not dissimilar to the Trump phenomenon today. As my Republican friends like to say, “Whether you like him or not you have to appreciate the man’s total domination of everything.” Yes, actually, it is truly remarkable. We are living a moment that history will not soon forget. That we can agree.

Three years later at the same event in Spring 2018 most of the people I spoke to in Perugia about Facebook had nothing positive to say about the company. If they did have something to say it was angry, sometimes spiteful. But mostly they didn’t care anymore.

The new relationship was on display at the presentation by Nick Wrenn head of news partnerships for Facebook EMEA. He was solemn, apologetic. But there were hardly any people there to apologise to.

Looking back on their efforts over the years it seems that the news ecosystem was an inconvenience to the company. It may have been a helpful source of free content to keep their users on the platform, but they didn’t understand the nuances of journalism and why publishers were frustrated. When they did try to work with others they seemed tone-deaf.

They just wanted more cowbell.


In 1929 the Wall Street crash killed sales of Duo-Arts. The phonograph technology and music catalog had improved enough to reclaim its place in people’s living rooms. The player piano market was reduced to enthusiasts only by the early 1930s.

One of the Aeolian Duo-Art piano enthusiasts found our little gem eventually. When I went to the storage facility to prepare it for its new owner, I opened it up to take some photos and to hear it once more. I found hinges dangling and had to prop up the lid with another part. Some keys were stuck. Cords were split, some broken. There was rust here and there. Parts worn down. A few cracks in the wood.

My piano wasn’t the picture I had imagined in my head at all. This was a heavy box of strings and gears.

I have to admit, it wasn’t easy sending that piano off with someone else. It had been in my family a long time, and I felt everyone’s disappointment and the piano’s own long history weighing on my shoulders.

There was some relief when the sounds it made failed to qualify as music. And even more when I watched them struggle to load the beast on their truck. It was truly from another time.

When I returned home that day my daughter was teaching herself a new song on the little keyboard that sits comfortably in the corner of our living room. She was playing along with somebody’s how-to video she found on YouTube.

The beat goes on.

People are in denial about news

The way people think about news is very different from how they behave. I think it’s because they don’t feel connected to news anymore.

When I speak to people about being in the news business there’s often an eyeroll or maybe a condescending tone that follows. But when I ask how they get their news most people are suddenly eager to tell me about an app, a podcast, or a story they recently discovered on social media that they really care about and follow closely.

More recently, people have told me they’ve contributed to The Guardian, subscribed to The New York Times or they’ve started paying for news from another trusted source.

We know people are interested in news. The research shows a huge appetite for it. But for some reason people are in denial about that.

Why the disconnect? Why do people think news is dying when in fact they can’t get enough of it? It’s not a supply and demand problem. There’s plenty of both for a healthy market.

In my opinion, the problem is that people don’t feel connected to the news. And most of the news experiences out there today are making things worse.

Personalised experiences are isolating us and reducing our field of vision, and generalist news sources are overwhelming us with unprioritised lists that go on forever.

I find myself not tapping on stories in some news apps because I’m worried I’ll get bombarded with stories that I don’t care about.

Brexit is a good example. I’m generally really interested in stories about Brexit, but I don’t want to know every single story referencing the word. I want to know about the big stories.

I want the professional editors at reputable news orgs who are employed for the purpose of knowing what’s important to decide that for me. I want to know about the news stories appearing across all the news media website home pages, both left and right leaning. When that happens I’m paying attention.

Equally, I want to know what my friends and family think is important.

If my crazy uncle is reading about Brexit I want to know if he’s getting spoonfed something bonkers or if he’s learning things that I should actually know about.

I’m happy to read Brexit stories with alternative views. I want to understand the issue from all angles. But I need a trusted source to pick out the stories to read — not a machine that’s going to assume I’m on one side of an argument when it shouldn’t assume anything at all about my actions.

There’s also a fine balance between too much and not enough news. A lot of that has to do with the medium, not the news.

Newspapers and TV broadcasts found formulas for deciding how much news to offer. The same news orgs worked out how much to put on their website home pages. But mobile devices have taken over, and news needs to find the right sized packaging for that environment.

There are plenty of reasons to feel like news is failing, but I think that has to do with a failure to recalibrate the relationship people have with news.

This is why The Guardian is succeeding with their reader funding model. They’ve reclaimed the idea of a relationship with their readers. You can see it in the way they invite ‘contributions’ from people.

Being connected to the news requires a careful balance of do’s and don’t’s.

There’s a certain amount of intimacy with a mobile app that creates opportunities for connection but also must be respected. Our friends are in there. We can pay for things with our phone. It’s always with us. It can even interrupt whatever we’re doing at any moment. Applying those capabilities the right way can make people feel connected. Doing it the wrong way is very destructive.

Being connected to the news is only a little bit about involving me. Newspapers and TV broadcasts never needed my opinion. News on my phone doesn’t need it, either. Inviting my input and my views will create loyalty with a news brand, but that’s at the deeper end of the “customer journey” as it’s called these days. That’s not what most people want from their news sources.

Clearly, there are features native to the medium that make us feel connected, but that’s just table stakes.

Being connected to the news is a feeling not a feature.

When everyone was following the Serial podcast, we all felt connected to the story. The podcast was good, but, more importantly, people were talking about it and sharing their interest in it.

We feel connected to the news when someone dies. It doesn’t matter where you get your news, when a legend like Stan Lee passes it becomes a source of conversation for people of all ages everywhere.

That’s a watercooler moment.

More recently when I’ve been talking to people about the news and that distant look in their eyes appears and the dismissive tone rises I ask about what they miss. My sense is they miss knowing what’s important and what to talk about.

News is and always has been social glue. Without the connection to other people it’s just noise.

News With Friends 2.0

The upgrade includes a friend news ticker, suggestions, a new look and feel, and an Android version. Here’s some background on how we arrived here.

Over on the News With Friends blog we have some news to share about the app we’ve been working on this summer.

The idea is pretty simple. News With Friends is for people to experience news together. Journalism.co.uk called it ”an app that does exactly what it says on the tin”.

Get it in the App Store or via Google Play

The app is based on a tool Graham built way back when we started the company two years ago — a data explorer that showed what stories news publishers think are important. And today’s upgrade applies ideas we formed while at The Guardian experimenting with social graphs and news back in 2011.

Back then Graham was working on something called Social Guardian which showed what your friends were reading in realtime. It became the inspiration for The Guardian’s official foray into social news on Facebook.

At the same time I was looking at macro trends for news media and identifying patterns that could help news businesses. I thought generative networks might hold the key to a better future for news.

The journey from there to News With Friends 2.0 today looks nothing like a straight line, and it surely has a lot of loops and twists still ahead. But we’ve arrived at something that seems pretty interesting.

The technology that made this app possible is amazing. React-native, GraphQL, Elasticsearch and Firebase are all really well suited for what we’re trying to do with News With Friends. I still can’t believe we were able to get the Android version up and running in a day.

That said, there’s a lot to do still. We want to improve the content, the social actions and the invitation/signup flows. We want to make a web version. And we haven’t thought through the advertising model that will support it yet.

But hopefully this version will make sense to everyone and that people will enjoy sharing the news experience together with their friends — like we’ve done in the past with water cooler moments in front of the TV, radio, and newspapers.Those water cooler moments for news haven’t happened in quite the same way on our phones… yet.

When news started declining on Facebook last summer and then they officially deprioritized news we felt like a big gap suddenly opened up. It’s hard to understand why news isn’t a core proposition for platforms like Facebook, but maybe that’s good news for people who want news to be THE driver of a social platform rather than a sideshow.

Keep an eye out for more updates as we progress here. If you want to get in touch we’d love to hear from you. Contact either or both of us at matt@kaleida.com and tackers@kaleida.com.

Introducing News With Friends

News is the #2 reason people use social networks, according to GlobalWebIndex. So, it’s hard to understand why news isn’t a core proposition for platforms like Facebook.

We wondered if news should be THE driver of a social platform rather than a sideshow. So, we built something that does that.

It’s called News With Friends.

In our research on the News Ecosystem we found that people may be frustrated with news media for a range of reasons, but that doesn’t stop them from seeking it out. Interest in news is very high. They’re just starting to look in new places for it.

We also found people want to share it and talk about it with their friends in private spaces. Public sharing may have lost its appeal.

This project actually started 2 years ago. The very first thing Graham made when we founded this company was a simple news aggregator for our own internal use. We wanted to see the data flowing through our systems before doing the deeper analysis that we intended to offer to publishers.

We considered making that tool into a consumer product, but at the time Facebook’s dominance of news distribution seemed insurmountable.

That has changed now. News started declining on Facebook last summer, and then in January Facebook deprioritized news on the platform.

A big gap suddenly opened up. And we thought this was a great time to put a better type of news experience out there for people.

We have the perfect data for it from Kaleida. We track publishers from across the spectrum, far left to far right and compare them. Seeing multiple perspectives of the same story together is very compelling. It helps you see a broader picture and exposes you to views you’d never get otherwise.

We had to think carefully about story selection. How do you decide what to show first?

The ultimate algorithm for surfacing the news is out there every day in the collective brains of professional editors, the people who spend their days deciding what stories people should know about. Rather than reinforce filter bubbles through personalized news we decided to look at the editorial decisions made in newsrooms across the world as to what they consider important.

There’s more clever stuff happening behind the scenes around clustering stories into “topics” and identifying what stories are about. That makes it possible for us to put context around any given article, comparing it to similar articles from other publishers and placing it in a timeline amongst other recent stories about the same thing.

The app was built with React Native and gets the data from Elasticsearch via GraphQL.

We’ll write up some more notes on the stack, as well. The technology available to developers today is truly remarkable. There is no way News With Friends could have been built by 3 people in 3 months just a few years ago.

There’s much more we want to do, but we needed more people using it so we could see what works and what doesn’t. It’s live in the App Store, and the Android version will be coming soon.

Try it out. Add some friends who care about what’s going on in the world. And let us know what you think.

News consumers trade in Facebook for private messaging apps

In the latest Digital News Report from our friends at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism they found that people are gravitating toward WhatsApp and other private messaging services for many of their daily news habits.

Corroborating some of our own findings in Kaleida’s News Ecosystem Report, the new study showed that people may stumble across news via Facebook or Twitter, but they go elsewhere when they want to discuss or debate something.

People have groups for friends, family or work on private messaging apps, and they chat and post articles there because they have more freedom. One respondent explained,

The whole thing about social media is like wearing a mask. So when I am in my messaging groups with my friends the mask comes off and I feel like I can truly be myself — (F, 30–45, UK)

There has been a significant decline in usage of Facebook for news since 2016 amongst younger age groups, but even the older age groups are using Facebook less and private messaging more (See “Baby Boomers love news”).

As people move away from social media toward private messaging news discovery will become more of a challenge. Social media has been hugely beneficial for news publishers who want to reach new audiences, as the viral nature of Facebook and Twitter makes it possible to spread links to articles really quickly to a lot of people.

However, we also know that people value news publishers, and this shift in behavior may in fact open a window for new discovery and distribution methods directly from news orgs.

The transition from a news ecosystem dominated by social media to something quite different seems to be in full swing. Private messaging is clearly a key part of the new model for news. But there are many unformed pieces of this puzzle still.

Baby Boomers love news

In our survey of news consumers for Kaleida’s News Ecosystem Report the 55+ age group showed that platforms are underserving this high value demographic.

While studying demographics and behaviours for Kaleida’s News Ecosystem Report we stumbled across a fascinating number.

37% of news consumers prefer Publishers’ websites and apps as their main source of news online vs search or social media. That was twice as much as Facebook, and all the rest followed at much lower levels.

That surprised us at first. So, we started digging. We found that this was true across the board, from younger news consumers (18 to 24 years) to the 55+ age group. The numbers suggested the younger demographic has more interest in news than you might expect, but then we discovered even more compelling data about the older demographic.

Source: Kaleida’s News Ecosystem Report, 2018

Baby Boomers check the news throughout the day using multiple devices. They spend twice as much time (45min +) with news in a typical day compared with U55s.

They are just as likely to share news as other age groups, but they seem to prefer sharing directly to specific people. They lean on email for sharing and show a lack of trust in social media platforms. In fact, they tend to avoid following people on social media altogether.

Given those behaviours it makes sense that they would show interest in private messaging apps. 9% said they use WhatsApp for news on a typical day. Amongst those who share news with people, 20% have used WhatsApp for that purpose.

We asked about why they get news online. They scored higher than all the other demographics on all the answers including “to keep me up-to-date”, “to suggest stories” and “to get in-depth analysis” among others.

We also asked about different types of news coverage. We found that coverage of Politics, International news, National news, Environment, Arts & Culture, and Books all scored higher than younger age groups. They are less interested in Film, Music or Fashion.

We don’t have enough data to generalise about why Baby Boomers are more interested in news than every age group in nearly every category in our survey. But after quantifying just how much they want it we were left wondering if they are in fact being underserved.

This is a big demographic with more time and money than the others. The global internet population is about 4 billion people, and if we include the more traditional “Middle Age” demographic at about 45 years old we’re talking about approximately half a billion people.*

Of course, news doesn’t get shared in isolation. Their impact is much bigger than their number when you add in the friends and family they send news to on a daily basis.

It’s always worth keeping an eye on how the younger demographics behave online. But the news ecosystem appears to be fueled primarily by a considerable force at the other end of the spectrum. A bigger mistake would be to ignore the older demographic.

With so much enthusiasm from such an important group of people the news ecosystem may have more support than it knows. Publishers and platforms alike would be wise to take advantage of the love for news coming from the Baby Boomers.

* Source: Kaleida’s News Ecosystem Report, CIA World Factbook, United Nations data and Nielsen Online. The 45+ age group constitutes 20% of the population. 76% share news with friends. 4B x 20% x 76% = 600M.

The economics of the platform-publisher-people triad demonstrate the need to work together

External sources fuelled €53M in ad revenue for news publishers in Europe in January.

News Ecosystem ReportThere are many indicators that the platform-publisher-people triad is already successful. We’ve sized the market in our News Ecosystem Report, but, more importantly, we’ve identified the hot spots. Demand for news is strong, and the way people are getting their news seems to be working for them, for the platforms, and for news publishers.

The data also gives us a clear sense of value to each constituent in this partnership. (the full report is here)

Crucially, it appears that referral traffic to news is adding a lot of value for news publishers without requiring their dependence on platforms.

News publishers earned €1.8B in Europe in 2017, or about €152M per month, according to PwC’s Global entertainment and media outlook report 2017–2021.

The value of traffic can then be considered in terms of revenue per session. At €152M per month on 21B total sessions* across news publishers’ digital properties in January we arrive at a figure of €0.007 per session.

While 7 tenths of a cent seems disturbingly small it grows very quickly given the incredible scale publishers are achieving. The idea of reaching tens of millions of readers every month would have been inconceivable to the founders of many of the leading newspapers today.

What is the value to publishers of the referral traffic we’ve measured? With 7B sessions to news initiated by clicks from 3rd party sites that means the total digital ad revenue derived from referral traffic to articles was approximately €53M or 1/3 of total monthly ad revenue.

This is not a dependent or even co-dependent relationship. Traffic generated by 3rd party sites is powerful fuel for a news business, but news can survive without it, too.

These values work in context of other metrics we already understand, too. For example, we estimate the total number of “Views” across news publishers in Europe in January at 80B (21B total sessions* x avg 3.81 views/session). That translates to an average CPM across the market of €1.90, not far off from CPMs in the US, according to eMarketer.

As benchmarks these figures become useful tools for improving the relationship between platforms and publishers.

The numbers suggest the relationship is adding real value. The challenge is working out how to continue building a healthy co-existence.

* “Total sessions” includes Referrals, Direct, Unknown and all other traffic on news publishers’ owned and operated digital properties.