Today we’re starting a new interview series on ReadWriteWeb, focused on product innovation on the Web. I’ll be interviewing a number of startup founders over the coming weeks, all of whom have created ground-breaking Internet businesses. I hope that this series will give insight into both product innovation and what drives the people behind the product.
We’re starting with a web service that aims to change the way people consume news on mobile devices: Newsy. Jim Spencer is the founder and CEO, based in Columbia, Missouri. Newsy produces 2-5 minute video summaries of news stories, piecing together content from multiple sources. It’s proven to be a hit on smart phones and more recently on the iPad, where short video chunks are a great way to consume news. I spoke to Jim Spencer to find out how he came up with the idea for Newsy, the usage patterns that have emerged, and the company’s plans for the future.
This will be a two-part interview, with part two published tomorrow.
Newsy is a new form of journalism created for mobile devices like the iPhone, the iPad and tablet PCs (see our May review for more details). The company has 14 full-time employees in its news room and 15-20 part-timers. About 3/4 of the staff is editorial, with the other 1/4 comprising audience development, marketing and tech. The Newsy team also teaches a course at the local journalism school, which gives them access to about 40-50 students.
Where Did The Idea Come From?
About two and half to three years ago, Jim Spencer came up with the idea for Newsy. The first thing that he did was build a prototype, based on a variety of research and some “forward guessing on where things were going.”
There were a few reasons for starting Newsy, Spencer told me. He’d noticed that the “favorability rating of press has been in steady decline for a long period of time.” Also that “people have a tendency to believe that news is biased and that people [in news] have some kind of an agenda.” Some people even believe that objectivity can’t be attained in journalism.
A prototype was built based on research and some “forward guessing on where things were going.”
With these thoughts in mind, Jim Spencer’s new company embraced the idea of “multi-sourced journalism.” Newsy aims to give people wider visibility into a story and show that there’s more than one way to report it. Like everyone else on the Web, it has access to thousands of news sources. So Newsy aims to add context to a story, via all of these sources. There is also the convenience aspect for the user, in having Newsy wrap up the various sources for them.
Early on, the company looked at how people were consuming news. They found that there was “solid and strong growth in mobile.” So Spencer and co saw an opportunity for “mobile video news,” as at the time there were very few brands in that space.
Also, Spencer noted, video and news frequently commands a premium with advertising. (we will explore the business model further in Part 2 of this interview)
How The Product Evolved
The first thing Newsy did after the prototype was get its news room up and running. It also worked on creating a business model and structure to be economically viable.
The iPad didn’t exist 2.5 years ago, so initially Newsy targeted smart phones. But Newsy is quick on its feet and adapts fast to new devices. Jim Spencer told me that as the Newsy team saw new platforms and devices emerging, “we went hard and strong after those – and that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”
For each device, Newsy sets out to build appropriate content and features into the product. For example, for the iPad they looked at “what the features were that people would want.” Newsy discovered that iPad users wanted features such as transcripts, links to news sources, sharing via Facebook, Twitter and email, the ability to download videos to the iPad (if the user is going on an airplane, for example), and custom playlists (“your own newscast”).
Promotional video from Newsy that explains how the product works
“Having those kinds of features has resonated with the users,” said Spencer. He remarked that Newsy has consistently been one of the top 20 free news iPad apps in the App Store, since the launch of the iPad.
“We’re really building something that’s unique to that platform,” Spencer said of the iPad.
Newsy’s publishing system is able to publish to several platforms simultaneously: android, iphone, ipad, and so on.
I asked Jim Spencer who Newsy regards as its competitors. “Anybody who’s ahead of us on the iPad,” he joked in reply.
“We’re building something that’s unique to the iPad.”
In reality, it is a mix of traditional news organizations and what Spencer calls “endemic brands to mobile.” He mentioned Flipboard, Pulse and Fluent. Spencer told me that he’s more focused on the products that are endemic to the iPad platform, than the traditional news brands.
Although the big media companies have a big impact when they launch an iPad app, he said that some haven’t gained a foothold: “we watched a number of established brands launch and have some initial good results, then fall in the rankings.”
What have been the initial usage patterns that Newsy has noticed?
Spencer replied that they need to constantly watch and pay attention to when and how people use different mobile devices; and what kind of stories appeal on them.
“We focus on platforms where we see the most traction.”
The usage patterns so far counter “destination” news sites. Radio traditionally has had morning and afternoon drive time. With the Internet, lunchtime has been good for consuming video. Newsy has noticed that key viewing times for its iPad app are mornings, during the week. But surprisingly, they’ve also seen a “significant increase over the weekends.” They’ve had a 15-25+% increase of usage over the weekends, according to Spencer. Newsy added staff to its newsroom based on that usage pattern and started to produce stories that are relevant at those times.
Newsy pays a lot of attention to iPhone usage. They have had “outstanding ratings on iPhone and Android,” real traction on the iPad, and it looks closely at every OS and tablet that comes out.
What’s Next For Newsy
Newsy has been all about creating a new type of news service for devices other than the traditional PC. Mobile usage is accelerating and, in the words of Jim Spencer, “we focus on platforms where we see the most traction.”
In Part 2 of this interview tomorrow, we will look at Newsy’s future and in particular the next big platform it will tackle: Internet TV. We’ll also take a deeper look at Newsy’s audience and business model, and how those may evolve.
In the meantime, let us know in the comments what you think of Newsy and its innovations so far!