Since launching in the United States five years ago, SmartNews, the news aggregation app that recently hit unicorn status, has quietly built a reputation for presenting reliable information from a wide range of publishers. The company straddles two very different markets: the U.S. and its home country of Japan, where it is one of the leading news apps.
SmartNews wants readers to see it as a way to break out of their filter bubbles, says Jeannie Yang, its senior vice president of product, especially as the American presidential election heats up. For example, it recently launched a feature, called “News From All Sides,” that lets people see how media outlets from across the political spectrum are covering a specific topic.
The app is driven by machine-learning algorithms, but it also has an editorial team led by Rich Jaroslovsky, the first managing editor of WSJ.com and founder of the Online News Association. One of SmartNews’ goal is to surface news that its users might not seek out on their own, but it must balance that with audience retention in a market that is crowded with many ways to consume content online, including competing news aggregation apps, Facebook and Google Search.
In a wide-ranging interview with Extra Crunch, Yang talked about SmartNews’ place in the media ecosystem, creating recommendation algorithms that don’t reinforce biases, the difference between its Japanese and American users and the challenges of presenting political news in a highly polarized environment.
Catherine Shu: One of the reasons why SmartNews is interesting is because there are a lot of news aggregation apps in America, but there hasn’t been one huge breakout app like SmartNews is in Japan or Toutiao in China. But at the same time, there are obviously a lot of issues in the publishing and news industry in the United States that a good dominant news app might be able to help, ranging from monetization to fake news.
Jeannie Yang: I think that’s definitely a challenge for everybody in the U.S. With SmartNews, we really want to see how we can help create a healthier media ecosystem and actually have publishers thrive as well. SmartNews has such respect for the publishers and the industry and we want to be good partners, but also really understand the challenges of the business model, as well as the challenges for users and thinking of how we can create a healthier ecosystem.