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Sept. 26, 2019, 2:50 p.m.
LINK: thein.fo  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   September 26, 2019

If you’re the kind of person who follows trends in news aggregator apps — and hey, you’re reading Nieman Lab, it’s a reasonable possibility — you may have noticed the growing buzz around a mobile app called, well, TopBuzz. It’s based in China, owned by ByteDance, the same company that hooked your niece and nephew on TikTok.

Back in March, Chartbeat wrote about the “multi-million spike in pageviews” TopBuzz was sending to publishers.

In December [2018] alone, TopBuzz referred almost 34 million pageviews across Chartbeat publishers throughout the world, a 36x increase from January 2017. We also found that about half of the traffic referred by this app comes from the U.S., but we are increasingly seeing a significant share from countries such as Brazil, France, Germany, Italy and the UK.

That data is now nearly a year old — but just two weeks ago at ONA, Chartbeat’s Josh Schwartz noted that TopBuzz was still climbing like crazy, with referrals were up 158 percent year over year.

TopBuzz is based on the Chinese app Toutiao (2017: “The Insanely Popular Chinese News App That You’ve Never Heard Of”), which has indeed been a smashing success in its native country. And TopBuzz’s English-language apps are download stars: Right now, TopBuzz has 208,924 ratings in the Google Play store (average 4.6/5) and 150,856 in Apple’s App Store (average 4.7/5).

At the moment on my iPhone, TopBuzz is No. 40 in the App Store’s news category — below apps like The New York Times, CNN, NPR, and ABC News, but above the AP, Flipboard, USA Today, theSkimm, Bloomberg, and The Economist.

<aside>

True confession time: The apparent growing U.S. popularity of Asian-derived mobile news aggregator apps like TopBuzz is something I fundamentally just don’t get. I am clearly not their target customer, which I would (perhaps not generously) describe as people who (1) don’t really care about news to have any attachment to any particular outlets but (2) still want something news-like in their information diet that (3) isn’t social media and (4) isn’t the Google News or Apple News app that came preinstalled on their phone. Who are the gazillion users of these apps that seem to have zero footprint in the U.S. news conversation?

Take the Japanese app SmartNews. It’s sending a ton of traffic to U.S. news sites too and currently No. 15 in news on the U.S. App Store. When Parse.ly’s Kelsey Arendt wrote about new traffic sources earlier this year, she said the most common response from readers was: “But I don’t know anyone who uses […] SmartNews.” And yeah, I confess, I don’t either.

Or how about an app called News Break — it’s currently No. 2 in news in the U.S. App Store! Ahead of Reddit, CNN, Fox News, Nextdoor — ahead of every news or “news” app other than Twitter. It’s also based on a Chinese news aggregator app, this time one called Yidian Zixun, which in 2017 became a so-called “unicorn” for being valued at over $1 billion. News Break’s presence online is less than robust; its Twitter account has 8,000 followers and its official blog is a busted WordPress template with what appear to be three-year-old low-rent listicles. It runs a ton of Facebook ads, all of which seem to feature random police mugshots of people, heavy on gruesome sex crimes.

This is getting more mobile downloads than Reddit, Nextdoor, and CNN?

These apps all remind me of the old urban legend about Pauline Kael saying in 1972: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” Are we in the media-about-media metaverse as comically removed from the news-consumption mainstream as that mythical version of Pauline Kael was? I’ve always known journalists like me are highly unusual news consumers — but I at least thought we could see the mainstream from here. I don’t in any way doubt these apps’ success back at home, but I remain deeply confused about their apparent explosion in popularity here.

</aside>

Anyway, this mobile aggregator app space is getting hot — so much so that giant News Corp decided to give Media Twitter a chuckle recently when it was reported to be working on one called “Knewz.” And now ByteDance appears eager to sell at the market’s top, The Information reports today:

China’s ByteDance, whose TikTok video app has taken the U.S. by storm, is trying to sell its overseas news and entertainment app, called TopBuzz, people familiar with the matter said.

ByteDance is in talks with a handful of potential buyers, including U.S.-based media companies, the people said. It remains unclear whether the discussions, which have been going on for at least three months, will result in a deal.

A sale of TopBuzz, which offers personalized news and videos for users outside China, could allow ByteDance to focus even more on the expansion of TikTok, its most successful global product whose short-form user-generated videos have been a huge hit with teenagers.

Emphasis mine. I suspect there are indeed a few M&A folks at U.S. media companies who might be interested in buying a userbase instead of building one. But who knowz?

ByteDance is a $75 billion company with all the capital it needs. I say that to note that it’s not desperate for cash; if ByteDance thought it had a long-term winner in the U.S. and the rest of the world ex-China, there are no pressing financial reasons for it to sell TopBuzz off.

Maybe a sale to an American company would turbocharge this allegedly booming sector. Or maybe it’d be a pin in the balloon.

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