Chronicle of a media death foretold

Hello world. Welcome to our new digs here at Delve. Now that Sandeep’s given you a tour of the space and explained our new focus, the first order of business is a toast. To those of you who migrated over with us from mycirQle, thanks for tagging along! And to all you newbs out there, welcome to the party. 

Next, given our recent big shakeup, it seems only fitting to pour one out for a fallen comrade in the news startup world. Ongo, a paywall news aggregation app for tablets, announced that it’s closing up shop this month. For those unfamiliar with Ongo, it was born out of legacy interests established players- the New York Times, Washington Post and Gannet each dropped an initial $4 million in the project - with the goal of charging users for a better reading experience than Flipboard or Zite

I felt a certain affinity for Ongo as we ramped up mycirQle last year. Sure, Ongo was different. It had the resources and funding of these big backers, and targeted general consumers rather than a business audience, but we seemed to have a similar perspective on the curation process. We at mycirQle believed that we could distinguish ourselves from other aggregators by focusing on quality story selection. Ongo called it “compelling curation:” teams of expert curators fish the must-reads out of the online news firehose. Crowd goes wild. Only it didn’t. So, what are the takeaways?

For a nice wrap on Ongo’s (predicted) demise, see Adrienne LeFrance’s piece over at Nieman Lab. Ongo CEO Dan Haarmann points a finger at Apple and its 30% cut for access to the App store, while also admitting they dropped the ball on social. But it’s pretty hard to ignore that as a user, I had plenty of free alternatives to Ongo for news access and discovery. As Haarmann seems to hint at the end, Ongo never really moved beyond its origins as a publisher’s experiment and into identifying and satisfying actual consumer needs. 

As our company moves into providing news services for organizations, we’ve also taken some hard looks at a new crop of news licensing startups like NewsRight and NewsCred. These guys are trying to position themselves as business-to-business syndication solutions for publishers who want to monetize their content on third party sites. One can imagine Ongo’s legacy progenitors, jazzed about the success of their own paywalls, asking themselves why try to build a better, subscription-based Flipboard from scratch when monetizing their content through syndication might be within reach.

What does that all mean for Delve and our focus on building news discovery and curation tools for organizations?

I’ve been thinking about it through the lens of one of my favorite recent pieces from the whither the media/future of journalism blogging heads crowd.

Belgian developer Stijn Debrouwere’s recently wrote an amazing post on the fungibility of journalism in the digital world. Stijn says journalism’s problems run deeper than an outdated business model. The bigger problem is that journalism itself is being replaced by a host of web native websites and communities that have nothing to do with journalism. Ask someone over 40 what’s the best way “to get answers to questions like what’s on the television, what’s going on in my neighborhood, who got elected, who is making a mess of things, any new music I should hear?” and they’ll say a newspaper (or news website). The under-40 crowd won’t. They’re more likely to point you to Netflix or IMDB for movie recs, Spotify for music discovery, Wikipedia for reference, and Quora and Redditfor expert columns and interactive interviews. The web has enabled a plethora services that meet the needs of users, or to borrow from startup speak, serve many of print journalism’s old use cases, better than professional journalists can.

It’s a depressing thought for people who care about journalism. But if you follow the logic of dicing the journalism pie up into a bundle of use cases and consumer needs, not all is lost. Things like great writing and storytelling on current affairs, comprehensive real-time reporting, and investigative news continue to be in demand, and seem outsource-proof at scale. Now, the sticky question: is professional curation a viable use case for news organizations?

A short answer would be: not in the way both Ongo and mycirQle pursued it. In my view, both lacked two key elements typically embraced by news outfits, namely, community and personality. Neither created avenues for user engagement and expression, as new media powerhouses like the Huffington Post and Reddit do. And neither created space for individual curators to develop a personality, as Reuters’ buzz-worthy Counterparties has, or to engage in the type of storytelling journalism thrives on, as the Storify curation platform is designed to do. The obvious elephant in the curation room is Twitter, and both community and personality are at its core. It’s not a journalism outfit, but people just so happen to find it a useful way to discover, and even report the news.  

Community and personality are at the core of our new focus at Delve. News discovery doesn’t end with story selection; by enabling individual curators within relevant communities, we hope to spark news conversations. We’re not sure if you call it journalism or something else, but in this case, we’re not sure it matters. 

So here’s a toast to new beginnings.

- Andy Whalen