When you work for a news app and there’s lots of news, you’re busy.
At SmartNews we’ve been busy trying to get a handle on the numbers behind the Coronavirus pandemic and present it in a way that is meaningful to SmartNews users.
We started with a simple widget with totals for confirmed cases along with those that had recovered. We designed a way to put US and Global numbers in once widget that updated daily. Tapping on the More data link to you to a full page with interactive graphs showing the cumulative totals of these numbers over time along with the death count.
As casualties grew and recovery data started to look inconsistent (it’s not clear when you recover and many states do not require hospitals to record recovery rates), we made the difficult decision to post the death count on the widget, replacing the recovered figure. We re-built the data pipeline to pull in data more frequently so we added a counter to show the current daily totals compared to yesterday’s total.
Then we added county-level data to satisfy the growing interest in local information.
The most recent iteration, in the app today, adds back in the global number to give context to the US figures. We’ll continue to iterate on this widget to bring the most useful information to our users.
In case you missed it, SmartNews had a big round of funding last year which we are using to staff up positions here in the United States. While we’ve always had openings for machine learning engineers (doesn’t everyone?) we now are also staffing up in Product, Marketing, and Biz Dev.
If you’re interested in learning more about any of these roles, let me know!
This is a shameless pitch for a plugin to WordPress my company just published but there are also broader ideas proposed here and I would love your feedback.
SmartNews is a mobile news aggregation app. The backend tech is pretty nifty. It uses machine learning and what we call a “discovery algorithm” to expose users to new points of view that they might not see if they are using a social network or personalized news service to read their news. You can read more about that stuff here, that’s not what this blog post is about.
SmartNews aggregates news from our partners. If we have no news, we have nothing for our users to read. While it’s possible to crawl the web and pull in stories as we find them on the open web, we would prefer a relationship with each of our publishing partners so they send us their articles and feel in control of how their content is used by SmartNews. We want our partners to feel as if the SmartNews app is an extension of their CMS. If our partners are not successful, neither will SmartNews.
While we do send traffic to our publishers (lots of it) that’s not the only benefit we offer. We have architected the product to offer a snappier, native view (think of Safari or Chrome’s reader mode) of the articles. Because this view is hosted on our app, our users can read while offline. The SmartView page in SmartNews was designed to serve the subway commuter in Tokyo where signals were spotty.
But we wanted to make sure publishers had a benefit when readers chose to read their articles via the SmartView page. Thus the SmartFormat feed spec was born. SmartFormat is a simple variant of the RSS standard with a couple new elements to provide greater portability of not only a publisher’s articles but also their advertising and analytics.
The <snf:advertisement> element lets publishers provide an ad tag which we run on the SmartView page. Because this is the publisher’s ad tag, the publisher keeps 100% of the revenue.
The <snf:analytics> element lets the publisher send along the analytics bug so they can include SmartView pageviews in the total pageviews that they see on their dashboard.
Combined, both the <snf:advertisment> and <snf:analytics> allow for portability of not only content but also advertising. Now when a publisher distributes a full text feed to SmartNews they also are distributing the monetization and analtyics footprint as well. While other platforms require you to opt in to revenue shares on the platform’s advertising and analytics, SmartNews lets you use and optimize your own, dynamically, on a feed endpoint you control.
Now to the fun part. If you’re running on WordPress, we have a simple plugin that will open up two text boxes, one for and one for and will build a SmartFormat feed compliant with the SmartFormat feed spec. In order to get distribution on SmartNews, all you have to do is apply to be a publisher on SmartNews, install the plug-in, then you’re ready to go!
As for the broader proposal, I was curious (and I could very well be looking in the wrong places) why no one has attempted to extend RSS in this way before? Feedburner had something where they injected Google Ads into their RSS feeds but it never really took off because those ads only ran in the feed or feedreader, not on the downstream aggregation sites or platforms. As much as I am loath to try and extend a standard, wouldn’t it benefit publishers to have a place where they can add their ad tag, analytics scripts, and even subscription CTAs so that the business travels along with the editorial?
<snf:advertisement> and <snf:analytics> work great for SmartNews but what about extending it for others? The more platforms that accept this extended feed, the more incentive there is for publishers to create these feeds. Seems like the classic win-win all around. Besides the bureaucratic lift of trying to extend a “standard” such as RSS am I missing something?
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.
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.
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.