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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

News aggregators, Flipboard make a comeback as Facebook falters

April 19, 2018 | By Mark Glaser, Founder and Publisher – MediaShift @mediatwit

Mark Zuckerberg may be all over the news lately, but thanks to Facebook’s algorithm change, there’s a chance you may not be seeing much about it on Facebook itself. So where are people going for news now?

They may be returning to news aggregation and curation apps, which have had their ups and downs over the years. The fact is that less news on Facebook means more opportunities to distribute news via other platforms. Though there’s still a strong incumbent advantage by tech companies like Google and Apple. Some of the upstart news apps are using machine learning and AI to better serve users. And one thing is certain: Publishers have more freedom to experiment and see what works outside of Facebook.

Digital Magazines Make a Comeback

The “digital magazine app” Flipboard was something of a media darling after it was first released in 2010, and has raised more than $200 million in funding over the years. While conversation around it has largely been muted for the past few years, the company still attracts 100 million monthly users, and its users have generated 35 million “magazines” to flip through. After Google, Facebook and Twitter, it’s the number four traffic source for digital publications, according to Parsely.

Given Flipboard’s popularity and longevity, it’s in a prime position to toot its own horn and make itself relevant, reliable and profitable, especially as Facebook continues to cope with data scandals. As CEO Mike McCue told Axios’ Kia Kokalitcheva and Ina Fried, “As people start to realize they need a place to reliably go to read about the things they care about, it’s time for us to seize that moment, whether it is on the product or on the management team.”

So it’s no wonder Flipboard recently hired former Spotify and AOL executive Kal Amin to serve as its new chief operating officer, the latest in a string of new hires. In a world of fake news, Flipboard can focus even more on human curation. If the company stays on track, keeps expenses to a minimum, and finally reaches profitability, its app could be a win-win for Flipboard, publishers and users.

Machine Learning and Bursting Your Filter Bubble

While Flipboard users can personalize the app toward their interests and therefore see more content they are interested in from the get-go, other apps are distinguishing themselves by prioritizing popping peoples’ filter bubbles. Take the startup Knowhere, which uses machine learning to create articles that are then reviewed by human curators. It also allows users to toggle between reading versions of a political or polarizing story written from a left, right or “impartial” perspective.

BuzzFeed has launched an “Outside Your Bubble” feature on some of its articles, and researchers at MIT have released a Chrome extension that allows Twitter users to “flip their feed.” However, the use of machine learning to create multiple versions of the same article is a new twist to addressing a recognized problem.

And machine learning is becoming more popular globally. In Japan, one of the most popular news apps, SmartNews, uses machine learning. The Norwegian news aggregator app Sol also uses a combination of algorithms and human editors to engage users. The company has 50,000 daily unique users and adds a small but steady 5,000 new users a week, according to its CEO. And half of the users who register with the app agree to use a chatbot assistant to curate their content. Therefore, it’s not necessarily that machine learning will take over any preferred human curation. It looks like it will be used to augment curation according to taste and needs.

Tough Competition for Aggregators

The major hurdle for all these new startups and apps, though, is that there is entrenched competition beyond just Facebook. Apple News is the default news app on iPhones and iPads. Admittedly, its user base is small given the number of iOS devices around the world. However, there are plenty of consumers uninterested in researching and downloading new apps can who can easily turn to it. And although Google’s Feed, which was released last year, hasn’t quite reached epic numbers, Google still dominates search and driving traffic to publishers through Google News and AMP.

And with Facebook’s massive (if declining) user base, it’s hard to really count out the social giant. Even the CEO and founder of Nuzzel, a news app that surfaces trending content across different social media platforms, acknowledges that Facebook will still likely hold a big lead. “Even if people get a little less news on Facebook, more people will still get more news on Facebook than most other places,” Nuzzel CEO Jonathan Abrams told Mashable’s Karissa Bell.

And when the founders of Sol realized it needed to encourage users to download the app, it did the obvious: It advertised the app on Facebook and Instagram, and went from number 17 to number 1 among free apps in Norway’s Apple App Store.

All that said, the time is ripe for news aggregators to finally break through and make a difference. There is an opportunity to stand out with customized content, better data security, respect for consumer privacy, and the appeal of being something other than Facebook.

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