With newspaper circulation falling across the United States over the past decade, tech entrepreneurs are betting on a new delivery method: The mobile application.
Sure, smartphone news apps from major institutions like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are nothing new, and mobile aggregator apps like Flipboard, Zite and Pulse have been around for a while, but now a new crop of aggregator apps — that is, apps that cull content from multiple news sources — is seeking to improve upon their predecessors.
Three new apps in particular are pursuing this approach: News.me, a New York City-based iPhone-specific project that includes New York Times alumni among its small team; Scoople, an iPhone app by a San-Francisco based startup founded by a Swiss entrepreneur, and Taptu, a company founded in the United Kingdom that on Thursday just released a new app designed for desktop computers and any type of mobile device. All three are available in the United States for free right now.
Although all three apps take content and pointers from social networks, they differ markedly in their approaches to collecting and presenting the news to readers on the go, reflecting distinctly different philosophies to what news will look like in the future.
News.me now processes over 40 million shares per day from Facebook and Twitter, accounting for 10 million unique news articles.
“We think that people tend to consume three different types of news — each type operates within a different community and and lends itself to a unique consumption pattern,” said News.me general manager Jake Levine told TPM in an interview in New York on Friday. He continued:
“There’s world news or national news, which people usually get from large publishers like the New York Times or CNN. The typical behavior here is a daily headline scan and the occasional deep dive into one or two stories of interest. The community at play here is your city, your democracy, your world.
Then there’s a type of news that is more specific to a person’s interests — ESPN.com for sports, Mediagazer for media, Techmeme / Hacker News for technology, for example. These sources each correspond to a particular community (sports fans, media industry, tech industry) — a “social network” that is larger than your personal network, but smaller than the world. With this type of news you want to be aware of the major stories throughout the day, and will likely jump into a few of articles for the full story.
Then there’s highly personalized news. This requires the most significant effort from the user. Producing a personalized stream of news has traditionally relied on user inputs like “Favorite Publishers,” “Favorite Categories,” of “Favorite Topics.” At News.me we believe that social news — the news shared on a person’s Twitter or Facebook feed — produces the most meaningful personalized news experience. With this type of news, you’re aware of all of the day’s major stories, and likely reading with the intent of sharing back out to the people you care about. You read the news as a means to participate in the community that’s most important to you.
So three types of news, three types of communities, and three types of consumption. We think people want to be able to consume varying amounts of all three, and that they should be able to do it in an efficient way. Today, for most people, reading the news is a fragmented and inefficient experience.”
To help make sense of these disparate modes of consumption, News.me’s iPhone app asks users to sign in with their Facebook or Twitter accounts and then presents a “stream” of the most popular (that is, most shared stories on either medium) in a vertical column.
News.me’s chief distinctions from other apps is its “Paperboy,” feature which automatically downloads a story’s content for offline viewing when no Internet connection is present.
The company launched a preset commenting system allowing users to comment within the app itself using canned responses such as “Wow!” or “Sad,” or “Awesome,” but Levine told TPM the app would be moving away from that model in future releases. An updated version will be released in the coming weeks that includes a tab showing only the top five most-shared stories of each day.
Founded in 2006 in Cambridge, UK, as a mobile search company, Taptu released its first mobile app, My Taptu, for the iPhone and Android smarphones back in 2010, taking news content from RSS feeds online and presenting it in preset categories including “Tech & Games” and “Food & Drink,” specifically adapted for mobile screen sizes.
In 2011, the company updated its app to add the concept of news “DJing” — combining different news sources, including social media like Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn, to create their own streams of mixed news content. Users can then share these streams with other users.
Last week, the company took this concept to a whole new level, launching a new desktop web app (created using the adaptable HTML5 programming language), allowing users to synch their experience across any mobile device and PC.
The company has also worked with news outlets, including The Guardian, to create an environmental news app using Taptu’s technology.
“The differentiation of our app is our underlying social search technology,” said Taptu CEO Mitch Lazar in a telephone interview with TPM. “It gives our customers a really deep experience about the content they care about. The more they tag and share streams, the smarter the technology gets.”
But perhaps the most distinctive approach towards the social-news app business is one that borrows from a completely different space: Gaming.
A deceptively simple iPhone app called Scoople, launched in a beta version at the end of 2011, attempts this approach. Again, users are invited log in using their Facebook or Twitter accounts.
But Scoople has an algorithm that actually curates its own articles on a news story from a variety of sources, plucking and stringing together sentences by different writers in different articles to combine one short summary of the news story.
Then, at the end of every article, the app presents users with a short “yes” or “no” question about the preceding story. One on The New York Times’ Stuxnet revelation reads: “Do you think a cyber attack against the US could be successful in disrupting viral services?”
Users are invited to vote on the story and then on whether the majority of other voters will agree or disagree with their pick. By correctly guessing how the majority of users will vote on that question, users earn points, and can climb up in the app’s internal leaderboard ranking system.
“People clearly like to express their opinions as they forward and share news articles on existing social media, Twitter and Facebook,” said Alain Mayer, the Swiss co-founder of Dygest, the company behind Scoople, in a phone call with TPM. Mayer and Dygest are now based in San Francisco.
“The problem,” Mayer continued, “Is that these opinions are fairly short-lived. You express an opinion on your Twitter stream, and its gone five minutes later. We wanted to find a way to make opinions count more.”
So far, Mayer’s approach appears to be working, at least internally: Over 250,000 opinions have been shared in the app so far, he told TPM. Mayer said that a Facebook app that automatically syncs with the iPhone app, retaining a user’s points and position on the Scoople leaderboard, would be released in the coming weeks.
Correction: This article originally included an earlier draft version of quotes and figures attributed to News.me’s Levine that were inaccurate. The information has since been corrected in copy, and we regret the error.