What would a “Buzzfeed for finance” look like?
Felix Salmon and Ryan McCarthy are figuring it out — via Counterparties, the site they launched this afternoon. The site is essentially a linkblog for financial news and commentary, offering a curated look at the moment’s big stories. Go to the site right now, and you’ll see a mix of headlines and tags linked to original sources: a Guardian story headlined “James Murdoch reportedly knew of explosive phone-hacking email” and tagged “Implausible Deniability”; a Bloomberg story headlined “A 2,800-employee factory in India produces nothing and no one can be fired” and tagged “Regulations”; a Reuters story headlined “Obama pulls anti-smog plan after businesses complain it’ll be too expensive” and tagged “Hope/Change/Etc.”
Other tags currently include “EU MESS,” “MEDIA,” “HORSE TRADING,” “PROFILES,” “OXPECKERS,” “STRAW MEN,” “IT’S ACADEMIC,” “GREAT HEADLINES,” “AWFUL,” and “AWESOME.”
Counterparties — the name celebrates the site’s ties to the financial world — is “an experiment,” Salmon and McCarthy note in a site intro. “What would a news website look like if it didn’t need to promote its own content, and just linked to the best stories and posts, regardless of source? We believe that the best way to get people to come back is to send them away: click on a headline, go straight to another site, and see for yourself.”
“It’s tags, it’s voice, and it’s my dream of just being completely source-agnostic, just linking out,” Salmon told me. It’s exploring what voice sounds like in the service of one of the purest forms of information out there: the link. “This is, I believe,” he says, “the first mainstream/legacy media website which is just external links.”
I believe he is right. And that makes Counterparties not just an experiment, but also a hint, if a small one, at the trajectory of wire agencies as they evolve from straight-up “content providers” into…something else. The past few years have seen the AP experimenting with “accountability journalism.” They’ve seen Reuters itself expanding into investigative reporting and commentary and video, news-y and opinion-y and silly. One thing that those experiments have in common is that they emphasize, implicitly, the voices and the personalities and, finally, the brands of the news agencies’ individual journalists. “The whole idea here is to have real voice and attitude,” Salmon says. “Basically, the page is entirely built by humans. It’s not some sort of weird technology algorithm. But it’s powered by a weird technology algorithm.”
Counterparties finds most of its content via the service Percolate, which is similar to Summify except that it includes, in addition to Twitter feeds, RSS feeds. And: Counterparties uses Salmon’s own feeds, the ones that he’s been cultivating for his private use for several years now. “Counterparties is based on, literally, my Google Reader list of blogs that I read and my list of people I follow on Twitter,” Salmon says. Which means that the feeds Percolate scans include those from, say, Salmon’s wife’s friends — “not because I have any particular professional interest in what they have to say,” he notes, but because they’re his friends, too. “It’s a very personal thing.”
Percolate works through a kind of algorithmic crowdsourcing that reads the popularity of particular links within a defined universe of sources (much like, among other services, Hourly Press and Nieman Lab’s Fuego). Which means that, since the bulk of Salmon’s sources are finance-related, the bulk of Percolate’s returns will be, too. If Salmon’s wife’s friends are particularly interested in, say, avante-garde millinery, links to hautehat.com (probably) won’t suddenly show up under the Reuters banner. And even if Percolate returns those links, the human-algorithm factor will kick in to ensure that the stories ultimately linked on Counterparties will be, by and large, of interest to those who are interested in finance.
“Percolate,” says McCarthy, who will be playing the part of the Human in the production, “is really great at acting as a net to help us catch all the great stories that are linked to by, and cited by, really influential people — and people we’ve already chosen and accepted and trust.” It’s a means to aggregation, though, not the end of it. And aggregation is, anyway, a means to something else: style, personality, fun.
“The heart of this is the voice,” Salmon says. “We don’t just copy and paste headlines. We isolate the essence of what we’re linking to, or what we think is noteworthy about what we’re linking to, in much the same way as you would in a tweet.” Add the tags to the equation, “and you can have a lot of attitude and voice and opinion and distinctiveness — even when you aren’t actually writing anything. Even when you don’t have your own stories to link to.”
Counterparties’ logic — journalists’ personal feeds creating Drudge-like linkblogs — could easily be applied to other verticals, and other journalists. And the fact that Counterparties lives under the umbrella of a newswire behemoth means that it has some leeway to experiment. “No longer is headline writing and story selection a means to an end of generating the maximal amount of pageviews,” Salmon says. “Now it’s just an end in itself.” Counterparties, like Drudge and its fellow linkblogs, provides an ephemeral snapshot of a moment’s big stories. It has permalink pages for each link, but those are explicitly de-emphasized on the site. Counterparties is also, at the moment, ad-free. And while that could change, permanent content — and the monetization thereof — isn’t, Salmon says, really the point.
In fact: “I think the site looks too good,” Salmon says.
“Don’t quote him on that,” McCarthy says.
“You can absolutely quote me on that. Seriously. Because if you look at the most successful sites which link out — Fark, Reddit, Techmeme, Memeorandum, Drudge (and Drudge above all) — they’re all incredibly ugly. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s actually as much a feature as it is a bug. The ugly is good, because it drives you away. And the reason you go to that website is to be driven away.”
With that in mind, “we’re aggressively anti-pageview,” Salmon says. “We don’t want people to stay on that site. We just want people to go away.”
“And then,” McCarthy says, “to come back.”