Jason Calacanis, the man behind media startups like Mahalo and Weblogs Inc., has his sights set on a new frontier that he thinks could be as promising as blogs were in the early part of this decade: namely, mobile content curation. On Tuesday, he and former Atlantic Wire editor Gabriel Snyder are launching a new iOS app and website called Inside that Calacanis says will give users access to the best journalism and media on the web, powered by human editors.
Calacanis, who is also a venture investor and the founder of the Launch conference for startups, said in an interview that he has been working on the ideas behind the app for some time, and that his “Launch Ticker” email newsletter was a kind of alpha version of what has become Inside — in the sense that it was intended to give readers a quick summary of all the tech news they needed to know. The newsletter got more than 5,000 signups and about 700 of those converted to paying $100 a year after it went paid access, he said.
“That was a test, a kind of minimum viable product to test the idea behind Inside. We wanted to look at what would be the atomic unit of content if you started doing news from scratch.”
Finding the atomic unit of news
What Inside came up with, Calacanis said, is a summary that includes a photo, headline and about 300 characters worth of description about the news. “No link-baiting, just the facts of the story,” he said. The Inside app also has a prominent link to the original source, and Calacanis made a point of saying that the source his editors link to “will never be an aggregator” like Business Insider or BuzzFeed, but always the first and/or best source for that information.
The Inside app and accompanying website will have between 700 and a thousand updates on any given day, Calacanis said, and every one of them will be “written by humans — no algorithms. And we will only link to the best, original journalism.” A user can vote to say whether they want to see more or less of that topic, and swiping the page to the left reveals the next story in the same category.
The mobile focus of Inside, and the term “atomic unit of news,” sound very similar to Circa, the news-curation app that Matt Galligan and former Reuters editor Anthony De Rosa have been building, with financing from Ben Huh of the I Can Has Cheezburger empire. Calacanis — who said he is an investor in Circa — agreed there are similarities, but says the use case is different.
“Circa covers about 20 stories a day, and they’ll often do 1,000 words on a topic. They consider themselves journalists, but we consider ourselves curators — we’ll do a thousand stories or updates a day where they do 20. We will link to them, to their coverage of an event, if it’s the most definitive one.”
After my interview with Calacanis, Circa CEO Matt Galligan sent an email noting that Circa actually updates or posts hundreds of stories every day, depending on the volume of content it has. It has editors and writers working around the clock.
Native advertising in the news stream
And what is the business model for a news-curation app like Inside? Calacanis said that the most obvious model would be “native” advertising that appears inside a category, where advertisers would write their own summary and include a video or photo — in much the same way that Instagram is including ads within its stream of photos. “So when you swipe a card, there might be one from E*Trade or Jenny Craig, that kind of thing,” he said.
However, Calacanis said that Inside won’t need to worry about that kind of revenue generation for at least a year or more, and is planning to just focus on growing its audience. The investors behind the venture — including Sequoia Capital, Elon Musk, CBS and Fred Wilson — are the same group who financed the entrepreneur’s Mahalo content/search portal, which was designed as a human-powered search engine. That business still exists, Calacanis said, but it was more or less killed by Google’s “Panda” update to its search algorithm.
Although Inside’s news-summary curation seems like the kind of thing Google could quite easily create using Google News, Calacanis says he isn’t worried because Google “could never do it — they have no respect for human curation. I don’t see them trying to hire writers, because they don’t value writers or creators.” Calacanis said that while he had planned to use machine-curated content to fill out the human-generated summaries in the Inside app, he quickly decided to scrap that idea because the quality level was so low.
News powered by humans, not computers
The other app that sounds very similar to what Inside wants to do is Yahoo’s new mobile news app, which is based in part on their acquisition of Summly, the startup founded by teenaged entrepreneur Nick D’Aloisio that served up computer-generated summaries of news stories. Calacanis said Summly and the Yahoo app also suffer from the same machine-learning problem, however:
“I looked at investing in Summly — the design was beautiful, and I liked Nick because he’s smart, but the algorithm summarizing stuff just didn’t work… maybe eventually that might work at some point in the future, but not now.”
Gabriel Snyder, who left Atlantic Media to become Inside’s chief content officer, said that one of the problems with approaches like Yahoo’s is that they narrow down the available content by only producing 10 updates a day. In a sense, he said, it feels like they “want to put the genie back in the bottle” and go back to the days when a newspaper or TV broadcast only gave its audience a handful of stories that editors chose. “That’s just not in keeping with the changing nature of people’s news consumption habits,” he said.
Snyder added that he believes the opportunity in mobile news “feels akin to 2002 and the web, when everyone knew the web was going to be huge but it wasn’t clear how people would get the news. Then people like Jason came along with Weblogs Inc. and my former boss Nick Denton with Gawker. I think we’re at that same point with mobile right now.”