A new twist on news curation

We got some great advice from a brilliant entrepreneur recently. He said, “Stay small for as long as you can afford to.”

News With Friends costs us less than $500/month to operate, so we can easily test his theory if we want to.

It’s remarkable that it’s even possible to do what we’re doing at that rate. Doing this same app 5 years ago would’ve cost 10x that or more.

Our biggest cost is data processing as we look at thousands of articles a day and how editors are promoting them. That piece consists of some custom tools and Elasticsearch.

All the other costs are negligible. For one thing, the platform is serverless. We’re using React Native for the app which hits GraphQL to get the articles and Firebase to handle the social features. And we don’t need old news so we archive data pretty quickly.

We would love to have a team of editors manually tuning the curation every day, but, for now, the machines are remarkably good at story selection.

It still surprises us all the time even though we know how it works. Basically, we observe the editorial choices made by each publisher. That data is then used to rank the stories. If all the major news outlets are leading with a particular twist in the Brexit saga then that collection will be the leading story in our app until the next big story comes along.

The tools are designed to show you what the most important stories are in the news right now. And it almost always just works.

Sometimes the algo will make an odd choice, but it never lasts long and you can kind of understand why it ranked something the way it did. We had a lot of coverage of X-Factor today, for example, which most people wouldn’t consider to be “important” news. But all the leading publishers were heavily promoting articles about the X-Factor final on their web site home pages. So, yeah, that choice makes some sense.

The machines are simply reflecting the curation decisions made collectively all day every day by professional news editors at the leading news outlets.

The combination of human insights amplified by great technology works surprisingly well. It’s hard to imagine a better way to curate news today.

Our small technology investment is doing big things already.