Ben Peterson thinks Twitter can be exhausting. At least as a source for news. “Unless you really manage your Twitter list and your Twitter account properly and are constantly manicuring it, it can become overwhelming in a real hurry,” he said. This may be one of the reasons Peterson cofounded Newsana, one more aggregation-and-news-discovery platform for finding the best stories on the web. “Best,” in this case as in many others, is determined by Newsana users who recommend and vote on which stories will get shared with the wider community.
Peterson cofounded Newsana with Jonathan Wong after working together at the nonprofit Journalists for Human Rights. We spoke about how that experience led to the creation of Newsana, how readers are becoming experts on areas they’re passionate about, and new ways to discover news; here’s a lightly edited transcript of our talk.
Justin Ellis: Is it “News-anna” or News-on-a?” What do you say and where did the name come from?
Ben Peterson: I say “News-anna.”
Peterson: Some people say “News-awe-na.” It’s actually “News Nirvana” — that’s how the name came to be. So it depends how you pronounce it. It seems like half the people want to say “Nir-van-a” and half “Nir-von-a.” I always said “Nirvana,” like the band growing up. But a lot of people think I miss pronounce it. So it’s really up to interpretation.
Ellis: It might depend on how serious a fan of Nirvana you were, or if you’re into meditation.
Ellis: Newsana touches on a lot of things we’re seeing right now in terms of aggregation and community involvement, or the idea of getting people to help cut down on the clutter of news out there. How did you decide on this system of having a community curators and voting?
: Before I started Newsana, I started an NGO called Journalists for Human Rights
. I ran JHR for about 10 years. It’s still doing great — it’s Canada’s biggest media development NGO working across Africa training journalists. They’ve worked in over 17 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa training local journalists how to report on human rights and governance issues more effectively. We were working on a project at JHR to try to identify the top human rights stories of the day, and then we would mail those stories out to our supporters.
Jonathan Wong, who’s my cofounder at Newsana, also worked with me at JHR. We were working on this project together and quickly came to the realization that it was impossible for us, with any authority, to come up with the five most important human rights stories of the day. There’s just so much human rights content being produced. We thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could crowdsource this exercise and find a group of human rights experts to help us in this process?”
One thing led to another and we quickly realized this problem is bigger than just the human rights field — it applies to all fields of news and information. The solution could be applied across the board.
So we played around with it for a little bit and decided that we should make a go out of it and founded Newsana for the purpose of bringing together a community of people who are passionate about specific topics and get them to collectively determine what are the five most essential stories in that topic.
Ellis: For you and the site, is the goal to have a wide audience of people that are acting as curators, or is it to have this collection of curators and perhaps a wider audience that is coming to the site and reading what’s provided?
Peterson: Our first priority is to build a community of curators. Without that community, we won’t have anybody to read that news. But ultimately our assumption is the old 90/10 rule, that 10 percent of the people who use the site will be the curators and 90 percent will be the news readers. Our focus right now is to really build the site for the curators, and once we have a strong community base, we will start focusing on trying to increase our readership.
Ellis: Why did you guys incorporate voting into this? What effect does that have on the way stories are surfaced? It feels like upvoting and downvoting are becoming something we’re seeing on different sites. What kind of decision does that put in the hands of users?
: At Newsana, if you’re a member — only members can vote — you can vote on any story in any given topic. However, as a member, you can join up to five topics to actively participate in. You can’t pitch into any topic you want — you can only pitch stories into 5 topics. That’s a deliberate decision we made because we wanted to focus our community activity and make sure our community members are pitching stories into topics they know a lot about. So we focus them to five. But we made the decision that community members could vote on any story, because they can read stories on any topic they’re not a member of.
That being said, our voting system is a weighted voting system. If you vote for a story that is not one of your five topics, your vote doesn’t count for much. You still get to vote, but it barely registers on the decision-making process on our back end in terms of elevating stories.
The other element of our system is that, within the topics you are a member of, you get ranked. So if there are 100 members in a given topic, you’ll get ranked 1-100 in that topic based on your previous activity in that topic. So if you pitch stories other people like, join in a lot of discussions, your ranking will go up. The higher ranking you have in a given topic means your vote counts for more. So the entire purpose of our voting system on stories is to reward community members who have a track record of being a good community member and have a demonstrated news sense.
So it’s quite a complicated voting system we developed, but the entire purpose is to reward those who have a history on Newsana and as a result we believe our system will be better able to identify really important stories in a given topic than if we just had a straight-up one vote equals one point system that a lot of sites employ.
Ellis: Why do you think we’re seeing this kind of behavior right now — sharing and people becoming almost experts in areas they’re passionate about?
: It might sound trite, but people want to participate in the process of news production and news curation. People want a say in what other people read. There’s different ways to do that — there’s different types of users. I think from my perspective the “news creator” — journalists and people who write stories or create a lot of their own original content — those people are a little bit different than the people who are the news curators that are trying to sort through all the stuff that is created to find the best stuff. It’s hard for me to speak to the general phenomenon, but specifically within Newsana, what we are trying to focus on is building a site that’s optimized for those people who are news curators. For people that take joy and satisfaction out of sorting through all the stuff they read and identifying the best of that.
Traditionally this role would be taken by an editor at a paper or a news organization. But now instead of having one person make that decision and be the gatekeeper of what stories get into a newspaper, we say we’ll source that job out to the hundreds or thousands of people that are in a community on a given topic. That collective wisdom they bring to the table is actually better and will do a better job 99 times out of 100, than a single editor who’s limited to his or her own opinion and viewpoint on a subject.
Ellis: Okay, but at the same time there has to be a relationship between the people finding things and the people who are producing them. Any of the given stories that show up on the site come from a source, so there’s a balance there. You have to figure out on how to source material, how to link out, how to deal with giving credit.
Peterson: We started from the premise that Newsana is all about celebrating high-quality content and the organizations and people who produce that content. I came from the background of a journalist for human rights and trying to promote high-quality journalism. And that theme runs through my work with Newsana. We want to build a place that really elevates and celebrates the highest quality news and ideas. That’s the premise we started with. We then had to build the site around that to try to figure out the best way to do that. So we made the decision pretty early on we would be providing all direct links, we wouldn’t be scraping much content at all from sites. We would be trying to drive as much traffic as possible to the sites that are providing that content, and as prominently as possible display the information of the original site. We’re not in the business of stealing people’s traffic. That’s not what we do.
Ellis: And it seems like that’s the argument people end up getting into these days. But there’s a real value some people find in being able to cut through the clutter and find the important stories. How do you push back on that and say it’s not that we’re trying to steal traffic, we’re trying to push people to the best sources?
Peterson: That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re absolutely not trying to steal traffic. We’re not playing the search engine optimization game. We’re not scraping entire articles and putting them on our site. We’re trying to direct people to the original source of the content. We believe that the consumer wants to be driven to content that is most relevant and most important to them, which we believe our community tries to identify through our process.
Ellis: You have to be up on the news to find these things and understand these things. Do you think this kind of behavior promotes a kind of news literacy?
: What we’ve found is, and this is a little bit of a roundabout way of answering your question, one of the early pieces of feedback we’re getting is that if you’re not an expert but you’re curious about a topic and you go to that topic page on Newsana, you will be linked out to really insightful articles from news sources that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise found because they are industry-specific news sources. So if I’m the average person and I’m interested in the future of journalism and I go to Newsana frequently, I will probably be driven to Nieman Lab, even though I might not have known about Nieman Lab before.
So what we’re finding is that the site is really educational for people who want to explore and are curious about topics but might not be an expert in them. In that sense it promotes media literacy for people because they are then exposed to content sources that are new and on-point on the subjects at hand.
Ellis: How do you want Newsana to fit into a daily news habit?
: I think there are two different types of users, and the answer is different for both of them. For our community of curators, I think that Newsana will hopefully become part of someone’s everyday curation routine. They’ll go about reading stories, and we have a Newsana bookmarklet you can pitch any story to right away. So a lot of our curators install the bookmarklet, they’re going around reading stories, they find something they really like and hit the button and pitch it to Newsana and it just becomes part of their regular reading routine.
On the news reader side of things, what we’re seeing is people who are reading stories on Newsana are doing so generally early in the morning, or at lunch, or after work, depending on their preferences, because the type of content Newsana has is not content that is generally super quick to consume. We’re seeing that they’re consuming it when they have a little bit of extra time to read.
Ellis: Part of that seems like how you build up your audience. What’s the strategy for getting more people to use the site?
Peterson: Our strategy is primarily about building a viral coefficient amongst our community members. If our community members come on Newsana, they share Newsana stories through their social media accounts, and as a Newsana member you can invite up to 10 new members per week meet to join. Those memberships are automatic — people on the receiving end don’t have to go through the application cycle to become a member of Newsana. So it’s really about getting our current community members to spread the word and invite their friends and colleagues to join. That’s our goal over the next few months, to optimize that viral loop and really try to drive our viral coefficient as high as we possibly can while maintaining the quality of the community.
Ellis: What’s your daily news reading routine like?
Peterson: I’ve never been an RSS guy — I’ve always been a news site guy. So I go to bunch of news sites and read stories there every day. But quite frankly, since I’ve been using Newsana, I’ve been reading 99 percent of my news through Newsana. I’ve found it to be a remarkably useful tool for the type of news consumption I do. And this goes to a point about Newsana: Some people love rapid-fire news consumption like Twitter. Some people love getting millions of news stories all the time and having to figure out which of those stories they should read.
Ellis: When you say it like that, you make it sound exhausting.
Peterson: And that’s the thing. I use Twitter, but I’ve never really taken to Twitter because I find it exactly that. I find it exhausting. Unless you really manage your Twitter list and your Twitter account properly and are constantly manicuring it, it can become overwhelming in a real hurry. So what we’re saying is our whole offering, from a news reader perspective, is we want to provide something that’s a bit more calming, where all the hard work is done for you. You can come to Newsana pretty confident that these are the stories you want to get. John and I, we sort of built Newsana for ourselves, because it’s this thing we wanted in our news-consumption habit. And hopefully other people will agree.