By now, it’s become obvious that the web is disrupting the media business in some fundamental ways — and not just the distribution of content, but the monetization of it as well. Publishers and content producers of all kinds are desperately trying paywalls, metered access, iPad apps and pretty much anything else they can think of, while users are turning increasingly to social networks such as Twitter and Facebook for their news, as well as aggregation apps like Flipboard. Bradford Cross, co-founder of a new startup called Woven, thinks most of those solutions attack only part of the problem. He wants to solve the entire thing — the content-discovery side and the monetization side.
That’s a pretty big assignment, as Cross freely admits. In fact, it’s a little like saying you want to cure cancer and make hospitals fun places to stay at the same time. Plenty of others have tried and failed to come up with either a personalized digital newspaper — the so-called “Daily Me” — and/or to solve the media industry’s monetization problems. There are also some fairly large players going after various aspects of what Woven has in mind, including a little company called Google with Google News, as well as AOL and Yahoo with their content plays, and also content “farms” such as Demand Media, which is planning a $1-billion-plus IPO soon.
“These are some really big problems,” says Cross, “but if we can solve them, we could have something really huge on our hands.”
Cross doesn’t have a background in media — his specialty is data analysis and machine learning. Until recently, he was the head of research at Flightcaster, a Y Combinator-funded startup that specialized in predicting flight delays by sifting through airplane flight records, weather data and a variety of other information. The company was just acquired by NextJump, and Cross said he decided that rather than go to work for someone else, he would try to create a better kind of web-based media company — one that could really learn what a user thought was relevant, using social graphs from Twitter and Facebook, but could also suggest things to users that they might not already be interested in.
“It’s not just about personalization,” he says. “It’s more than that. It’s about how media is consumed now. In the old days, you could just go to the New York Times and get all your news, or whatever. But that’s not the case any more, and it will likely never be the case again. The news is all distributed now, to a thousand different places.” But that makes it hard for users, he says, because they have to go and check dozens or even hundreds of different sites to get the news they are interested in reading. What Woven wants to create is a smart aggregator that can learn while you read it.
Although data analysis is what he does, Cross said he is also passionately interested in the world and politics and other topics, but felt that simply reading his RSS feeds and Twitter wasn’t exposing him to those topics the way newspapers used to. Woven “started as kind of a side project for myself, because I was sick of using RSS,” he said, “but I wanted to find stuff that I wasn’t getting on Twitter or from my friends on Facebook.” Cross even wrote a program that took his RSS feeds and piped them into Twitter, and he would send it messages about the content he liked and didn’t like. But that was missing the serendipity that a newspaper provides, he says.
“At one point I thought that would be enough — that everyone would have their own little intelligent agent that would recommend things for them, and they would train it and so on,” says Cross. But then he started talking to people in the media industry and realized that this wouldn’t help solve the other problems the industry was wrestling with, namely how to monetize their content online. So how does Cross plan to solve that? He admits that he hasn’t nailed all the pieces of that part down yet, but he thinks a Groupon-style local offering would make the perfect combination for the kind of service he has in mind, with revenue going to media outlets and to Woven as the smart aggregator — the digital newspaper replacement.
What makes Cross think that he and Woven can solve some of these problems when others haven’t? “We care about this stuff a lot,” he says. And while it is no substitute for money or talent, caring really does matter, especially when you’re tackling a project like saving the media industry — as NewsTilt found out last year. The startup tried to create a platform for journalists that would help them distribute and monetize their content (something Woven is also interested in doing for individual journalists as well as traditional publishers) but the company later shut down, in part because founder Paul Biggar admitted that he wasn’t really passionate about the topic.
Cross says he knows he has taken on a huge assignment, and he is under no illusions about being the only one going after it. “I expect Facebook will do it and probably be awesome at it, and I expect Twitter will do it and be awesome at it — there isn’t going to be only one company that does all this.” The Woven founder says he actually had talks with Twitter about working on content recommendation and discovery, but decided to try and solve the problem on his own instead. And what about Google News? “They’ve tried to do some of this,” he says, “but it isn’t really their focus, and so they’re not really good at it, and they haven’t really put any resources into it.”
Woven will be launching soon as an invitation-only beta so the company can fine-tune the semantic filtering algorithms and other systems it uses to learn from users.
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