April Fool’s Day is always a busy day at SmartNews as our news discovery algorithm get overly excited with all the cool, interesting and unique news released that day. Here’s a running log of what we’ve had to gently remind the algorithm is actually just a joke.
When asked what we’re trying to build at SmartNews, I sometimes explain it with a department store metaphor. When algorithms are applied to online shopping, they are optimized to show you exactly what you are looking for. Amazon and Netflix are famous for perfecting the “others-that-bought-what-you-bought-also-bought-this” algorithm to great effect.
If you’re looking for a red sweater, they will show you the best red sweater. But that only works if you’re looking for a red sweater.
What if you are just browsing around? What if you are wandering around, looking for inspiration, not sure what exactly you want? Japan has a some of the world’s best department stores. They are wonderful at curating interesting things from around the world and introducing them to the sophisticated urban consumer. They have a long tradition of doing this.
Ginza has a new department store called Ginza Six that opened a couple years ago. Besides these wonderfully packaged $20 tubes of toothpaste from Italy (above) you can also check out the completely impractical spiked boots (below). It’s a curious browser’s delight.
What I’m getting at is that SmartNews is trying to re-create the Japanese Department Store experience online with news. I keep talking about “hidden gems” and this is what I mean. You never know what you’re going to find but we’ll do our best to make an algorithm which is optimized for finding something serendipitously, interesting.
Anyway, more on this in this interview with my boss, Rich Jaroslovsky, below as he describes the concept of “personalized discovery.”
The key is personalized discovery. Of course that also means sometimes users will see stories they don’t like. I’m generalizing, but a conservative might see a Mother Jones story, or a liberal might see something from Fox News.
That’s probably the biggest complaint we get: That the stories are all “left wing,” or “right wing.” But when we look at studies about user engagement in news apps, our audience is far more engaged than that of any other news app.
My argument is that those are two sides of the same coin. As a 40-year journalist, when all you see is stuff you already know or already think you’re interested in… news gets boring. There’s no serendipity. You don’t get to learn anything new. You don’t get to discover.
That’s the textbook definition of a filter bubble.
As a commuter, I have two blocks of time going to and from the office when I am not able to read. During these times, I listen to podcasts as a way to get a deeper perspective on the news of the day or learn something new.
Most podcast apps ask you to subscribe or follow podcasts you like and push new episodes to you each time you open the app. As you add new shows to your “feed” you inevitably get overwhelmed with a backlog of unlistened episodes which discourages you from finding new episodes.
Breaker was the first app I found that solved this problem by adding a social network to the platform. Breaker pays attention to their users’ behavior of listening, liking, and commenting to determine how to rank the best episodes. Instead of subscribing to shows, you listen to episodes. The selection is more granular and has more variety. As with other social networks, because you get a daily feed which you graze through, the pressure to clear your queue is removed.
I believe podcasts are an important component of the media diet of anyone that is interested in current events. The intimacy of hearing a primary source tell their story is unique to audio and I have been eager to find a way to add podcasts in a meaningful way to the SmartNews app. My initial attempt was to leverage SmartNews’ algorithm to locate and feature podcasts in a single channel but the results were never quite right.
The SmartNews algorithm is optimized for text so the selection and ranking of stories didn’t work well.
Sometimes the audio would stop when you put the app into the background or your phone went into standby mode.
Each episode’s page featured a play button in a different location on the page so the user had to hunt around to find it.
The Breaker app solved all these problems and I was eager to find a way to introduce elements of what Breaker had to offer to SmartNews users.
I met with Erik Berlin, co-founder of Breaker, and we talked about how SmartNews might be able to integrate Breaker’s social ranking of stories to create a channel that would feature the best episodes to SmartNews users in a way they could sample what they had to offer easily, within the SmartNews app.
The Breaker team worked on a feed of popular stories on their network that we could integrate into SmartNews. They built an episode page with a built in player that continued to play in the background and featured a prominent play button that was placed in a consistent location for quick and easy access. The idea was to give SmartNews iOS and Android users a place to go to discover the best audio stories of the day to introduce them to this new aspect of story-telling.
I hope you enjoy the new Podcast channel on SmartNews (if you’re on mobile and don’t have SmartNews, you can download it here). If you find yourself embracing podcasts as I do, download the Breaker app to unlock extra features where you can share and discuss your favorite episodes on their social network.
Oh, and if you’re curious about what I’m listening to and enjoy, follow me on Breaker at @iankennedy
Television markets in Japan are much more centralized than in the United States. Therefore it’s pretty efficient to allocate marketing dollars to old school TV ads (in Japan they are called “CM” as in “commercials”) to give brand lift to online marketing.
This month SmartNews dropped a set of short TV spots featuring Riho Yoshioka, and up-and-coming actress in Japan.
1 minute of news in the morning can change your life is a rough translation of the “catch phrase” of the campaign and each clip follows Riho’s character through her day.
– getting up in the morning and checking the “newspapers” before going to work
– making productive use of her morning commute
– reading our new curated International section to practice her English
– reading the news while putting on her makeup to make her evening conversations more interesting
– checking the news in the afternoon because it’s always morning somewhere in the world – right?
Hope you like it! I’m not sure how often it’s running but would love to hear if you see them on TV in Japan.
We’re looking for a few engineers for our downtown San Francisco office. Primarily back-end with a strong background in backend development technologies. The bullet points on the job posting say:
Coding experience in Java, Kotlin, or Scala
Experience operating and maintaining a JVM-based application
Experience developing on top of a web framework (e.g. Spring Boot, Ruby on Rails, etc.)
Experience with AWS
Experience developing and operating a high-traffic web service
Good understanding of JVM internals
That’s the baseline. There’s a coding test to suss out the knowledge and skills you’ll need to be an engineer at SmartNews. You will have a burning desire to change how we keep up with what’s going on in our world and how news is distributed from those who publish it. That means you are original and creative – we don’t want to be just another socially-powered aggregator of feeds.
SmartNews SF office (the earth guy is our mascot Chikyu, he has a blog)
We do things differently. See that photo of our modern-looking lobby above? The wooden slats are bed frames from Ikea. The beautiful slab of redwood is repurposed from a fallen log harvested by my neighbor. We look for inspiration everywhere. We use familiar tools and materials in different ways to make something new, orthogonal.
People like to visit our office to learn about startups
Because SmartNews is not writing or producing news, we rely on our publishing partners to send us the most important stories every day. To do this, we built a product and business that brings new readers and revenue for our partners. We want those that publish great journalism to get exposure and succeed. Our goals are aligned with our partners.
If you have a passion for the future of news, live to scale and optimize infrastructures, and wouldn’t mind working with a international (Japan, Iceland, Iran, Argentina, and China) team of engineers (and occasionally visit the SmartNews HQ in Tokyo), drop me a line and send me your CV.
SmartNews (where I work) is running a series of TV commercials in Japan featuring Japanese celebrity, Tamori. The tagline for the campaign is “禁断のニュースアプリ” which roughly translates as “The forbidden news application” as in it’s so addicting that you binge use it when you’ve got time alone.
There’s an on-going series of video interviews with journalists on the futureof.news site. Two recent interviews were with Rich Jaroslovsky, my boss at SmartNews. Rich and I crossed paths years ago. He not only has a good instinct for what works for media online but also a history in both the print and online journalistic worlds and the deep memory for how things are put together and came to be the way they are today.
It is a huge vote of confidence that he’s working for SmartNews and, as you can see from the clips below, he’s here for all the right reasons. Some key quotes to call out:
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.
. . .
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.
. . .
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.
. . .
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.
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.
You can see the entire text of the interview on the futureof.news site. I’ve also embedded both video clips below.
SmartNews SF had over 50 Japanese university students visit the office to learn about doing business at a US startup and learn about how to start their career. This trip is part of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs-funded Kakehashi Project to promote greater understanding and opportunities between the US and Japan.
I’m always looking for a chance to practice my Japanese so I jumped at the chance. I tried to give as much of it in Japanese as I could but, as you can see, the slides are in English.
The main topics were:
SmartNews, how it works, why it’s interesting and why it’s a cool company.
My career, how I ended up at SmartNews, and what I learned along the way.
How to get a job at a US company, what tools to use, and how to use them.
Kakehashi visitors at SmartNews SF on March 9, 2016
Thank you Dennis, Jessica, Naoki, Chika, and Shunan for helping set up and handling the crowd and thank you Ken Funabashi from the Japan Consulate, Stacy Hughes, and Shimizu-san for giving SmartNews the opportunity.