News is social glue

Newsrewired held their 8th annual event at the Reuters offices in London’s Canary Warf, and I was given the opportunity to give a quick talk. There’s a lot to be optimistic about for the future of news, and I wanted to share what we’ve seen and what we’ve been working on as these changes have been unfolding. Below is a version of what I said.

Whereas in previous eras the news industry has been working out how to put “content” in a box and deliver it to people, we seem to be in a new era now where news is connecting people and bringing them together.

Our research shows this. And we’re demonstrating it ourselves with the News With Friends app.

Earlier this year we did a big study on the relationship between news publishers and Internet platforms. We surveyed about 3,000 people in the US, France and Germany, and asked them several questions about news.

One of the most surprising yet not surprising results was the high level of interest in news amongst all age groups. Asked to rate their interest in news on a scale of 1 to 10 the average answer was 8. Older groups were slightly higher and younger groups were slightly lower. But most people registered a very high interest in news.

We asked them how often they get news online, too. Most people get news online multiple times a day. In fact, if you exclude people who are not interested in news you find just about everybody (96%) gets news online multiple times a day.


Source: Kaleida’s News Ecosystem Report 2018

Let there be no doubt, demand for news is high. It makes you wonder if the news industry is actually underserving the market.

We also asked about news brands. Again, surprising but not surprising, people are much more likely to click on a story that has been shared with them if it is from a publisher that they recognise.

Of course, we all know now that people have been sharing news on messaging apps more and more, and our research showed this, too. Interestingly, email is still a strong sharing environment for older age groups whom publishers must not ignore given that demographic’s voracious appetite for news.

This research taught us a few things.

First, demand for news is high. Really high. Sometimes news publishers forget that when they compare themselves to Internet platforms. They should never forget that. People want news.

Second, the source of the story, the source of the shared link and the environment where a link was shared all matter a lot to people. Links to stories by trusted news brands shared by friends and family in private spaces are going to perform well in this new era. That’s the high value action today.

Third, sharing is happening despite the fact it’s still pretty awkward to do it. Fussing around with a link and getting it over to the right app isn’t as easy as it should be. Yet, people are doing it. All day long.

We found the research very inspiring. It validated some things we were thinking about that we wanted to do.

Graham built some internal tools for analysing news toward the end of 2016. We thought his stuff would make a great consumer product, but we also knew Facebook was too dominant. The timing was bad. That changed in 2017 as Facebook and news started going separate ways. Suddenly in 2018 the timing became very good.

And we had some ideas that would make a news app for this new era unique.

Putting news brands together would expose people to alternative perspectives. Seeing a story by The Guardian next to similar coverage by Fox News would be eye opening. It seems the appetite is there for more news, so why not feed it something different.

Ranking stories should be more human. Professional news editors are deciding all day what is most important, and they express that in the way they promote their stories on their own web sites. So, that data seemed very useful in finding a new way to order things.

And we wanted to streamline sharing in a way that was totally fluid and effortless. Maybe we can make it feel like we’re in the same room sharing pages of a newspaper together.

That then became the backbone for our app. And we decided to call it “News With Friends”.

The algorithm collects data about articles and clusters similar stories together. It also collects data about home page placement to derive editorial importance. It then generates a ranked list of stories clustered together that are about the same thing.

Some interesting effects start happening in this app.

For me, I’ve really enjoyed seeing opposing views of a story. I’ve started understanding what my Trump-supporting friends think and why they believe certain things. We don’t have to believe the same things, but we don’t have to try and convince each other that the other one is wrong. I think it’s helping to bring us closer after a tough couple of years.


It’s also making news more fun. When I’ve seen that my friends are reading something then I go and read it, too, even if it’s from a source I wouldn’t normally seek out. I find myself reading the full article more often, too. I’m not sure why that happens, but it does. And I love knowing that sometimes the reading breadcrumbs I leave behind for my friends lead them to find the same thing.

The shared reading experience is connecting us.

And that’s what makes me hopeful about news again.

Platforms tend to think about news as “content”, something that you package and deliver. It needs to be put into a container and sent from one place to the next. You win by being the best at monetising the content and packaging of it.

News has always been so much more than that.

News brings people together.

It helps them understand the world and what’s happening.

It educates and informs.

It gives us a sense of being part of something.

News is social glue.

It’s encouraging to see the market naturally moving in a direction that supports that. It’s about time.