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Episode 4 ● Part 2
Rethinking the brand in the era of news aggregation
There’s no denying that content aggregation is yet another challenge for news publishers who have already survived significant changes within their industry. With major companies like Apple, Facebook and Twitter getting into the game by investing in their own aggregation platforms, it looks like content aggregation is here to stay. The challenge that publishers face is how to leverage these new opportunities while maintaining control of their brand and destiny.
Rich Jaroslovsky, Vice President for Content & Chief Journalist at SmartNews, suggests that publishers need to rethink the meaning and value of their brands in order to thrive in the freshly disintermediated publishing world. This will require publishers to re-envision the meaning of their brands, which are no longer destinations, but meaningful marks of quality. Jaroslovsky contends that those publishers who adapt to the changing nature of journalism will remain ahead within their evolving industry.
Chief Journalist at SmartNews
Rich Jaroslovsky is Vice President for Content and Chief Journalist at SmartNews, a news aggregation app that originated in Japan and launched in the United States in the Fall of 2014. Twenty-two years ago, Jaroslovsky plunged headlong into the world of digital media, helping design, launch and run the Wall Street Journal Online as its first managing editor. He also founded and was the first president of the Online News Association. From 2004 to 2009, he was executive editor of Bloomberg News, then became its technology columnist until 2013, and now writes a tech column for the New York Observer. His chief concern is harnessing the power of digital journalism to create a well-informed populace.
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Any particular area of interest over your long career?
So it seems like for you, things have always been changing, even going back to the ’70s.
At the same time some things remain constant. The story is always central. Journalists by nature are storytellers, and we as human beings are consumers of stories. So in some respects it’s changed radically and in some respects it hasn’t changed at all.
Over the last decade the journalism industry has been saying, “The sky is falling.” Is the industry changing more rapidly now?
Now, in 1994 I don’t think that any of us thought that people would be consuming news on a device like an iPhone, but we all clearly knew that something fundamental had changed. The people at the top of the industry back then, I think, did not have quite the same level of conviction as those of us in the trenches did, that this was a permanent and profound change. So in that regard, I think that the current situation was building for a long time, and to a certain extent maybe we in the media industry brought the crisis on ourselves by not embracing change more fully and more rapidly.
That having been said, I think that today, everyone in media is totally focused and consumed by where things are going and trying to adapt to this constantly changing environment. So while I think it’s fair to say that journalism and the media business and the news business have been in crisis for a number of years, maybe we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Some things have stabilized, new opportunities are opening up constantly, organizations, both new organizations that are rising to take advantage of those opportunities and legacy organizations that are proving to be nimble enough to adapt are finding that, yes, there are multiple ways forward.
What were the things that really shook the foundation of journalism?
I would probably pinpoint [the rise of the web] at Marc Andreessen and Netscape. Netscape was a very clear demarcation where everything that everybody “knew” up until that moment suddenly became not only something that had to be questioned but in some cases became a handicap. Companies that viewed the world through the print prism were not able to understand that this was an entirely new medium taking shape that did a lot of things that print could do but did it better than print. Those companies found themselves in very, very murky waters very, very quickly. I think the rise of the web was clearly one major pivot point.
The second major pivot point was probably the arrival of the iPhone and the rise of mobile devices as serious platforms for consuming news and information. Again, a lot of publishers were just starting to get used to the last digital transformation and now here comes along another digital transformation. I have a lot of sympathy for publishers because the landscape is so constantly changing and just when you think you’ve adapted to the last change, something new comes along.
Change is the only constant is a great way to put it.
What problem is SmartNews trying to solve?
When tablets came out, publishers thought apps were going to be the solution: “I just have to have my own app and my own app will be the analog of my former print product and we’ll be able to go back to the way things were.” It didn’t work out that way, and the reason it didn’t work out that way was because people consume information differently on a mobile device. Instead of going from place to place, from website to website on a computer, or from app to app, people want the information brought together. They want to get information in one place. SmartNews by virtue of the vast range of content that we have from so many different publishers, brings news together in one place in one consistent interface.
The second problem that SmartNews is addressing is one that I think dates back to some of the earlier days of web-based publishing and digital publishing. For a long time everybody thought that the holy grail was the ultimate customized newspaper—the daily me. You used to hear that phrase an awful lot. “I only want the news that I care about and nothing else and this technology allows the news to be filtered and customized so it’s exclusively me, it’s very personal.”
I thought as this trend was taking shape, and I continue to think, that excessive personalization is a rabbit hole. It at some point becomes an active negative, because what ends up happening is that you never discover anything new, you never discover anything that didn’t know ahead of time you would be interested in, and instead your worldview gets narrower and narrower. I think that is a real problem, and it ultimately leads people to being dissatisfied with the news that they’re getting because they are just constantly being fed the same content and the same kind of content.
SmartNews originally set out to be a news discovery tool rather than a news customization tool. And one of the great charms of SmartNews, for me, is that I’m constantly discovering things that I didn’t know I would be interested in, but I really am interested in. And ironically enough if you go back to the pre-digital era and ask yourself, in the newspaper age what made a good newspaper? The answer to that, in my mind, was always: there’s something for everyone, and you were discovering things through a process of serendipity. That story on page A8 that you stumbled across, that you didn’t know you’d be interested in, but you turned out to be interested in. Those were the kinds of things that made newspapers great back when newspapers were great. When we launched WSJ.com, one of my conclusions was, serendipity is very hard to do in a digital environment. One of the great charms of SmartNews is that it has reintroduced that concept of serendipity, of finding things that you didn’t know you’d be interested in, and they turn out to be very interesting.
The third issue that SmartNews really addresses is scalability. SmartNews is algorithmically driven. One of my titles at SmartNews is chief journalist, and that isn’t because I’m making editorial decisions about what’s going in or whether they get played, but it means that I get to work with engineers to help make the algorithm journalistically smarter. And we are able to use machine learning to take in and analyze, far, far more content than any human team of editors, no matter how big, could look at in a day, and evaluate those stories to say, “Is this going to be interesting? Is this going to be compelling? Here are two stories on the same subject; can we analyze these and figure out if this story is better than that story?” Those are all things that computers are really good at doing. SmartNews casts the net far wider than any human version of the news could do.
But there is still the human component. There are still publishers and editors who are still commissioning stories, right?
What do news apps do better than print or the web?
I understand avoiding dreck, but people want a lot of crap, right?
The way the algorithm works, we take in millions of URLs and social signals a day, and we’re looking at those stories for things like how widely a story is being shared, how rapidly it is being shared, but we’re also analyzing the contents of the story and weighting the story for importance. Understanding that this is a story about something important and thus it gets weighted more heavily than a lighter story in terms of where it gets placed in the app. And so all those things machines are very good at and can do very, very quickly. And the ability to detect an important story, and to get it out to people quickly—I find the algorithm sometimes quite remarkable.
A year or so ago before we launched in the US—about a year and a half ago—I was in Tokyo walking down a sidewalk looking at SmartNews—the beta of SmartNews US on my phone—and suddenly a story popped up that the house Republican leader had lost his primary which nobody saw coming. And that story popped up very quickly on SmartNews. I’m not sure if I had fully decided to join the company, and that was one of those moments where I said, okay, wow, the algorithm picked up this story, which nobody could have expected or planned for, concluded that this was important news, found the Politico story—so it was a very high quality story about it—and popped it on top of the Top channel in remarkably short order. When something like that happens, you sort of see the power behind the scenes we were able to bring to bear.
One of the pleasures, the appeals of SmartNews, is that it’s a very simple product. It’s an easy product to use, but under the hood there is an incredible amount of very sophisticated technology going on, but that is all hidden from the user. The user doesn’t need to know, and actually doesn’t really care how you’re finding that news and elevating that news. The user wants to know, when I open SmartNews I find out what is important in the world, I find out what’s fun in the world, what’s interesting in the world, and it’s always right there at my fingertips.
It seems like at a very early time you were concerned about the quality control in digital.
In the early days of digital journalism, when I’d get together with colleagues who were running other digital news organizations, we’d sit around and complain. And let’s face it, I was probably one of the biggest complainers. At some point I said rather than just sit around and complain to each other in a disorganized fashion let’s create something where we can complain about something in an organized fashion. That was a big part of the original impetus for ONA, was I went through my contact list, I sent out invitations to a bunch of people that I knew who were running other online news organizations and said, “Let’s hold a meeting in Chicago—centrally located—and talk about what we are going to do about this.” And out of that grew ONA.
We’re world class whiners and it’s part of our charm.
What does winning look like for SmartNews when there’s a lot of competition out there?
Now you have Apple News, Facebook instant articles. You’ve got a very crowded environment with very big players. And you’re a fool if you don’t take what those very big players are doing very, very seriously. On the other hand, we have a lot going for us. One is that for a Facebook or an Apple, news is not central to what they do. It is absolutely central to what we do. We also have a very publisher-friendly business model. Every time I talk to a publisher about some of the big players they are totally conflicted, because on the one hand the numbers are so huge, or the potential numbers are so huge, in terms of potential audience, that they have to pay attention, they have to feel that they need to be in the place where all those eyeballs are.
On the other hand, every publisher I talk to is terrified of losing control of their own destiny. And if they throw in with some of those other players and those other players decide that news is not as important as it was to them, or that they’ve moved on, then where are those publishers that have grown dependent on them? I think from the publisher’s standpoint we offer a different and refreshing model that is really intended to work and play well with them, as opposed to try and, what’s the word from Star Trek, the borg—assimilate them—you know, resistance is futile when you’re dealing with one of these behemoths. We’re not trying to assimilate publishers into SmartNews. We are trying to work with them to get their content to a mobile audience that can be quite difficult to reach. That’s what success looks like in terms of dealing with publishers.
One of your key areas of responsibility is creating those partnerships with publishers. How’s it going?
Before we launched in the US, no one had ever heard of us before, and I think I told Ken and Kaisei, the co-founders of the company, that after a year if we got up to 30 or 35 publishers, publishing partners, I think we would feel good about that. I am guilty of setting the bar way too low. And on our first anniversary we had over 100 media partners, and we now have, I think we are closing in on 130 or so media partners, which is far more than I thought we would have at this point.
And it isn’t just the numbers, it’s great partners. It’s CNN, and the Huffington Post, and NBC, and Time, and People among the sort of bigger names. And it’s also Vice and Vox and Bleacher Report, and Bro Bible, and new sources that we’re finding that I would have never known about myself.
And we’re continuing to talk to and sign on important publishers not only in the US but recently around the world.As we do expand SmartNews and we do expand internationally as well as in the US and Japan, what I’m hearing from publishers around the world is that they are hungry for someone to come in and do what we are doing. Every couple of weeks I get an inquiry from an Indian publisher. “When are you coming to India?” We’ve got a lot of interest in the UK. We’re still a small company and we are trying to do things in a logical and orderly way, but the opportunities out there I think are tremendous.
I’ve had many epiphanies over the years about digital journalism and how it’s different than print journalism, and one of them is that there is a craving in the audience for authenticity, for hearing things as close to the original source as possible. There are people who want to be able to access content that is from international sources, even when they are reading about stories that are being heavily covered by US media because it provides a different viewpoint. So when we are talking to international publishers—and we’re talking to some now; I was on the phone with one the other day that will probably be coming into the app fairly shortly—one of the questions that we always ask is, “What are you after? Are you after more eyeballs in your own country, or other parts of the world? Are you after a US audience?” And sometimes that informs how we position that publisher and how we work with them to promote their channel when the channel launches.
Are there any holdouts?
The other category is that a lot of publishers are resource constrained right now—we pride ourselves on being very low friction, but it does require a little bit of attention with a publisher working with us to get the channel up and running. And every news organization I have ever encountered runs on the same basic system. There’s a top 10 list of our ten biggest priorities, only two or three of those priorities are being worked on at any given time, and if you’re number 2 this week you may be number 6 next week. Every publisher works the same way so there are some publishers that are just, you know, “We’re dealing with, how are we going to publish to Apple News, or we’re dealing with, the standards that we have to meet in order to publish with Facebook or Google’s new amp standard, what’s that going to mean for us?” And it’s simply a question of those are our top 3 priorities. So we’re on the list, but things are moving slowly.
There’s another category that we need to and are constantly looking at, trying to figure out how do we best work with those publishers and those are publishers with paywalls, including my old employer, the Wall Street Journal. Ironically I was one of the strongest voices advocating the creation of a paywall when we launched back in the mid ’90s. But that does create complications—understandable for the publisher in terms of how do we work with SmartNews which is a totally free app, and from our standpoint how do we best work with publishers because working with publishers is in our DNA it’s what we do—what’s the best way to handle paywall content? Those are things that we are looking at constantly and talking about constantly, and I’m convinced that we’ll come up with some good solutions, but it’s going to require some good solutions before we can bring some of those in, at least as full partners. They may come in as limited partners or something like that.
What do publishers get most excited about with SmartNews?
What is the killer feature for today’s news aggregators?
What do you hope the future of journalism looks like?
My greatest hope is the the flip side of that coin—that as journalism evolves, as new forms of journalism evolve, as new delivery mechanisms evolve, that the end product is a more informed person and a more informed populace. Because I think that an informed populace is the critical element to a successful, thriving democracy. So my great hope is that as journalism works through this period of turmoil and uncertainty, that we come out the other end with models that keep citizens informed, where people can always get the information they need to make informed decisions.
How does a venture capital backed organization maintain that priority?
Plus, startups are just fun. You know? At WSJ.com, we were very much a startup, and it was somewhat the best of both worlds, because we were a startup, but we were doing it with at least a little bit of the security blanket of a big company behind us. We were helped by the fact that a lot of people in the big company either didn’t fully understand what we were doing because it was all so new, or there were other corporate crises that were going on at the time that took higher priority. So we were left alone.
I’ve told people that probably the two or three most fun things I’ve done in my career—and I’ve had a great career: White House reporter, political editor, technology columnist, executive editor of Bloomberg, I’ve had a great run–the three most fun things I’ve probably done in my entire career are being editor the Stanford daily when I was in college, starting WSJ.com, and this. The reason my resume is so eccentric is because I’ve basically been motivated by trying to take jobs that I thought might be fun. On your LinkedIn profile, if you put, “Professional Goal: having fun,” I suspect potential employers are not looking for that. But by God that’s been my mantra from the start, and it’s been a pretty good run.
How about those kids at Stanford today? What tips do you have for them?
Today you need to know and you need to have exposure and competence in so many different aspects. The business has changed and evolved so much that you need to be comfortable with AV, you need to be familiar with being able to take a decent video on an iPhone, you need to be comfortable on camera. Viewers of this will realize that that I am not a natural performer on camera. The joke I’ve used for many years is that I have a face made for radio, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve had to become comfortable in all these different areas. You need to have multiple skills because you never know what skills a particular job demands, or a particular story will demand, because not all stories should be reported and presented the same way. So you need to be comfortable with data journalism. You need to be comfortable with all these things.
My advice to young journalists is acquire as many different skills as you can. Acquire a library of skills and then for each job, and really for each story, you’re able to pull out the skills that will allow you to tell the story the best way. That makes it very very complicated, but the good news is back in the day I only had one way to tell story. I wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal, and it appeared in print, and that was the only way I could tell that story. I was limited and constrained by the limits and constraints of print. Now you are free as a journalist to select the the best way among all these different ways, and all these different skills, to select the best ways to tell any individual story. It’s opened up huge new vistas, and it’s made journalism a much more creative endeavor than I think it was when I was starting out.
Are we going to start seeing stories about how machines are our friends? Machines are looking out for us…
You’ll see stories about how machines are our friends, but you’ll also see stories about how dystopian machines are, and in some ways that hasn’t changed. Back in the 90s when we launched WSJ.com, it seemed to me—and maybe I was biased as I was at the Journal, and the New York Times was our competition—it seemed to me that there was a period of time where any social ill would be attached to the internet and show up on the front page of New York Times. There’s child pornography on the internet! There’s hate speech on the internet!
I began to refer to that as the New York Times’ unofficial series: “The Internet. Ew.” It was like they discovered the internet, and every social phenomenon that was on the internet became a page one story in the New York Times. The internet is simply another venue to act out what humans do in all their glory and all their banality. And the internet is simply another stage, and as we know and understand, the same problems and issues that occur in the physical world occur on the internet. Whether it’s bullying or hate speech or what have you. But machines are also capable of helping humans achieve great things. So my hope is when the singularity does come, that I will be marked for survival. Resistance is futile.
Is there any technology on the horizon that will have a great impact on journalism?
I used to say that our goal was to deliver information to people wherever they were, when they needed it. And if someday people are going to get news from a chip implanted in their right rear molar, then we wanted to be there with the Wall Street Journal for dental-wear. I can’t see the future very clearly in that regard, but what is exciting to me is the fact that these new technologies are constantly evolving. And after a period of the news industry and journalists attempting to keep the new technologies at bay, so that they could keep doing what they knew how to do, we’ve moved to a point where—and maybe it’s a generational thing as the older generations and my generation of journalists start to passeth from the scene—younger journalists are embracing these technologies and embracing the possibilities.
That’s what makes me incredibly optimistic about the future of news. We’ve gone from, “Keep this stuff away from me, I’m a print reporter,” to, “My God, there are so many ways here that I can tell this story, and I get to pick what the best ways are and use these tools.” That’s what they are. They’re tools. The fundamental goal hasn’t changed. Tell the story in an accurate and fair and compelling way. That never changes. But the ways that you can do that now are exploding, and what I see are a new generation of journalists that are embracing not only the technologies that exist today, but the technologies that may exist tomorrow like virtual reality, and the technologies that will exist the day after tomorrow that I can’t tell you what they are. But as long as journalists are willing to accept the new and embrace it and figure out how to serve these eternal verities in this new way, then I’m really optimistic about the future of news.
But here you are, active and leading. What are you fired up about personally?
I figure it doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re in an environment where you’re learning new stuff then you’ll never grow stale. And that’s the joy of working for SmartNews, I get to learn new stuff! I learn new stuff every day, and there’s no question, if I had more traditional journalistic resume, I’d be out of the business by now. I would have been caught in layoffs and buyouts and down drafts and bankruptcies, and I’d be doing PR or something. I be doing something else, but it wouldn’t be this. It’s that eccentricity of my resume, I think, and the fact that I like to learn new stuff that is what keeps me energized. And SmartNews, it’s a great bunch of people. There is respect for employees, there’s a great deal of communication, and were doing cool stuff. So what’s not to like?
So maybe for the Stanford kids, “Stay curious.” Right?
In an aggregator future, how do legacy publications survive?
Maybe there’s nothing like a few near-death experiences to focus the mind. But my biggest and happiest surprise as I began talking to publishers—and as I mentioned earlier editors like to complain about publishers, and as an editor I was no exception—one of my biggest and happiest surprises as we began to introduce people to the concept of SmartNews was how quickly they got it, how quickly publishers embraced what we’re doing, and recognized that we can do them some good. And that’s one reason why we’ve got 130 publishers and content providers as partners now, and the number is growing constantly, and I think that that makes me optimistic for their long-term survival too. I mean, God knows a lot of legacy publishers still have enormous business challenges, but the ones that are still around are only around because they’ve been able to adapt to the changing circumstances and changing environments, and as long as they maintain that adaptability I’m optimistic that they have good futures.
Is it fair to say the future of news is an app future?
When I started WSJ.com, we regarded WSJ.com as a package. It was a website that people went to and read news on our website, and the concept of the brand, the Wall Street Journal brand is a very very powerful brand. The brand was stamped on that website. And what is the Wall Street Journal Online? It is “the website.” In the 21st century, in a mobile environment, the brand is no longer a destination. The brand is a stamp of quality, and the unit of measurement is no longer “the site” or “the app,” it is “the story.”
In some ways news has been disintermediated the same way that music was. When I was in my record buying heyday and CD buying heyday, if there was a song I really liked, I had to buy the record. I had to buy the CD. And the fundamental unit was that CD, that package. I had to buy the whole package to get that one song. Now if there’s a song I like, I can buy that one song. That’s a very different model, as the music industry has learned somewhat to its despair but is adapting to. In news the same thing has happened.
The brand is no longer a destination, a place that people go to to get news. The brand is a mark of quality on that story. This is a USA Today story, I know what USA Today standards are, therefore the fact that it says USA Today, which is one of our valued partners, on top of that story—that’s a brand of quality. I know what I’m getting here. Or an NBC story, or a Huffington Post story, or a Fox News story. So it’s a very different environment, and the brand is still extremely important, but the meaning has changed quite fundamentally.
What do you think of domains that end in .NEWS?
Good question, not sure. You know, .COM has become so ingrained in people’s habits. If you ask people, “Who has the domain www.news.com?” I’m not sure people would know. It’s actually CNET, which was an early tech news pioneer. I think that the .NEWS domain an interesting idea, a lot of the determination of how important it’s going to be is sort of who chooses to embrace it. If companies gravitate towards it because it’s a more logical and user-friendly way to find news, to find information, I think it has potential there. I think a lot of news companies by now have invested a lot in .COM and you may find that they are reluctant to move to something new, but maybe ultimately … there will need to be a critical mass of people adopting it for it to really take hold.
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