With Trove, Ex-WaPo Labs Team Takes Another Try at Social Reading
How do you get your daily news?
It’s a question that any 21st century news organization is asking itself — a question all too familiar for a guy like Vijay Ravindran. As the chief digital officer of Graham Holdings and former head of the Washington Post’s WaPo Labs team, it’s one he’s asked himself for the better part of the last five years.
Now he hopes he has the answer. On Wednesday, Ravindran and his team will launch Trove, a new iOS application that delivers personalized news to readers based on hand-picked content from a collection of curators — namely, the users that will hopefully make up the service.
“We want people who share your interests to be picking the best news for you, rather than getting it from some faceless algorithm,” Ravindran said in an interview.
The concept differs slightly from the incumbent competition, like Flipboard or Prismatic, which uses your network of social connections to mine and determine what you’re actually interested in to serve up the type of news you want to see. Your Trove home feed will be populated with news from topics you’ve chosen after signing up.
But Trove’s main selling point comes from “curators” that pick the best news items and curate them into subtopics (also called Troves). So, ideally for Trove, users will sign in and start building out their Troves based on their interests; those hand-picked Troves will spread to others in their Facebook and Twitter networks, who can follow those Troves made by friends.
It’s also different from Facebook and Twitter, the leading social networks that also aim to be massive drivers of news content to users.
“Twitter is awesome for real-time news, but we’re trying to build something that’s about high quality, high signals,” Ravindran said. “And then alternatively you can think of a platform like Facebook — [where] news is competing against baby photos and all sorts of other media — Instagram photos. The opportunity to create this platform [with Trove] where your interests are clearly, is very powerful in delivering back.”
It sounds a bit complicated — and frankly, when you first start using the app, it kind of is. Though you’re able to just jump right into reading news items based on subjects you’ve chosen, building out curated picks may be more effort than the average person wants to put in (though Ravindran admits the “power user” list of curators will be smaller than the mainstream consumers who come to the app).
But for every handful of people doing that power curation, Ravindran and Head of Product Rob Malda (who joined a few years ago after leaving Slashdot, the popular community news site he used to helm) think there’s a massive audience who want to follow those curators.
“Think of Jason Hirschorn’s Media Re:Def email, or Mike Allen’s Playbook. The technology is low-tech — it’s email,” Ravindran said. “But what’s happening there is this curator is going through potentially 10 times the amount of content we see there, and saying, hey, you guys should see this … for the community that’s interested in those topics, there’s no substitute to what those services provide.”
Ravindran isn’t a stranger to social news. He led WaPo Labs back when it was a part of the Washington Post Company. After Jeff Bezos bought the Post, WaPo Labs was renamed Trove and stayed with a handful of other properties under former WaPo owner Don Graham’s control. At WaPo Labs, Ravindran was responsible for building the Washington Post Social Reader — the app that rose and fell on the back of Facebook’s News Feed algorithms. While Facebook promoted the app heavily at the beginning of 2011, it ultimately buried Social Reader from surfacing inside users’ feeds, causing traffic to plummet.
Ravindran said the experience, however painful, was valuable. “We learned a lot, technologically … we picked up a user base that is sizable,” he said, referring to the 30 million Social Reader accounts (now being switched to Trove) and current one-million-plus active users of Trove.com. “We built a brand, but we lost our distribution engine. The lesson here as we move into this phase … we have to be cognizant of the social platforms and take advantage of them, but we have to do it in a way where we authentically connect with our customers directly.”
In other words, don’t hedge your company strategy on the whims of Facebook or Twitter.
After a string of successes and failures, the new Trove app is a big bet with a steep road ahead. Aside from the Flipboards and Prismatics of the world, companies like LinkedIn have moved closer to editorial content curation strategies that also feature high-profile “editors” of sorts, penning their own content. And, of course, Facebook and Twitter are proud to trumpet their massive distribution capabilities to publishers, and ease of discovery to users. (We should watch Facebook in particular, which aims to put out its own news-reader-like app soon enough.)
But for Ravindran, Malda, and team, massive distribution, real-time feeds and algorithmic power just aren’t enough. For the best news, you need better, smarter people highlighting it for you.
“Clearly, there’s a lot of okay content being passed around, but a dearth of great,” Ravindran said. “From the perspective of the consumer, I think we’re all flooded, and we don’t have good filters to manage those floods. And none of the existing platforms do a good job of it.”