Towards a personalised news economy

Can user-controlled personalisation help re-build trust and engagement with news media?

Bertrand Pecquerie
Sep 5, 2019 · 8 min read

GEN spoke with Mark Little, Co-Founder and CEO of Kinzen (formerly Neva Labs), about the implications of news personalisation for journalism. He argues that the move to personalisation is inevitable in light of today’s news consumption trends. However, editorial oversight remains key when it comes to creating personalised newsfeeds and, in fact, the news media has a real chance to increase audience engagement and loyalty. Little also shares his thoughts on how ‘media companies can be technology companies in their own right’, without the need to rely on third-party platforms.

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GEN: How do you define a ‘personalised news economy’? Does it imply the end of ‘mass media’?

Mark Little: If only history unfolded in neat chapters, with a beginning and an end!

I feel like media is entering the third distinct cycle of digital disruption. The first was search. The second — social. Now it’s personal.

Rising generations expect to consume information like every other customised digital experience in their lives. It must be tailored to personal needs. It must match the rhythm of their daily life. It must be under their control.

70% of digital publishers personalize content for visitors, 2019 Digiday study finds

If the first two cycles were a war for the attention of audiences, the next phase will be decided by the intentions of individuals.

Rather than seeing yet another existential threat, there is an opportunity here for media companies to engage a generation looking for something more empowering than the endless scroll of their social newsfeed.

That’s where I hope Kinzen can help. By delivering technology that helps media companies build deeper engagement on their own digital properties, rather than through third-party platforms.

What do you think about current experiments with personalisation, such as ‘For You’ launched earlier this year by the New York Times?

Personalisation gets a bad rap because it has traditionally been so creepy and invasive. It has also been dangerously passive. It stalked the user in order to predict what they might like, click or buy. It offered no control over the outcome.

We see a shift towards what might be called ‘personalisation with a purpose’. In this model, the goal is to reduce dependence on behavioural data, put the user in control of personalisation and give them a sense of ownership of the outcomes, and so build trust and engagement.

We admire the work of the New York Times, among others. Our ambition is to give media companies of all sizes the superpower of purpose-driven personalisation.

Newsonomics: The New York Times puts personalization front and center — just For You

What are the three main challenges of personalizing a newsfeed? Is Kinzen empowering the user or infantilizing them?

The greatest single challenge is providing choice and control to the user without making it seem like hard work. Our first priority at Kinzen has been designing user experiences that incorporate frictionless feedback across multiple channels, from e-mail to audio to messaging.

The second big challenge took us a little by surprise. As we started to work with media companies, we realised many were struggling to structure their content for discovery by users. For the user to be involved in personalisation they have to be able to easily navigate tags, topics and entities. Through advances in natural language processing and related content analysis, we can help simplify this once ridiculously complex process.

A final challenge is volume of content and data. Not every media company produces enough content to meet the wide range of interests in a personalised news feed. It also takes time to aggregate enough user data to train recommender systems.

A screen shot of Kinzen’s generic personalisation newsletter product

How does Kinzen set itself apart from other news apps when it comes to individual newsfeed generation? In other words, what is new and different?

By putting user intentions at the heart of personalisation process, we give publishers more fuel to power engagement. We deliver better insights into the user’s identity and interests. We built trust through control. Ultimately, we create the daily habits that are key to conversion and retention.

And all of this happens on the publisher’s own digital properties, not on a third-party platform or aggregator. Media companies can be technology companies in their own right.

To prevent filter bubbles, Kinzen wants to create a community of curators. What are the challenges of a community-based curation system? What role does Kinzen itself play in the curation process?

Personalisation systems require strong editorial oversight. We give partner publishers an input into key aspects of the user experience, including topic display, story length, time of delivery. We also help them promote ‘editor’s picks’ which vary the user’s information diet.

Our long term ambition is for personalisation to be an essential tool of engaged journalism. What better way to understand the topics, interests and identities of your community of users than to ask them for explicit guidance.

Our work with curators outside media companies is still at an early stage. We are currently working on partnerships focused on curation by, and for, local and independent publisher.

A survey of 200 publishers by Digiday, February 2019

You say you want ‘to give people a reason to trust publishers again’. Do you believe ‘a golden age’ really existed once? And is ‘trust’ the major issue at stake?

The good old days were never as good as we remember them. I’ve been in journalism for almost 30 yesrs and have no nostalgia for the days when news companies had a monopoly over the production and distribution of information.

But what we should mourn, and desperately need to reestablish is the daily routines that bonded citizens with the sources of quality information. That habitual personal engagement is critical to rebuilding trust.

As large tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google have moved into news aggregation as well as curation, how do you envisage the relationship between publishers and the Silicon Valley?

Media companies will continue to see value in platforms as a place you build brand and maintain your place in daily conversations. But unless you are in an exclusive club of global publishers, third-party platforms are not the place to build the daily engagement that really moves the needle, in terms of engagement, conversion and retention.

Media companies need to learn about user experience and content curation from Silicon Valley. But they don’t need to give them their users. Or their content.

Google enables users to choose the topics they are interested in so the ads they see will be more appropriate to them.

Given the big tech’s almost-monopoly on algorithms and datasets, how can the publishing industry gain control over its personalised news services?

I think the word algorithm inspires a certain paralysis among media executives.

Big tech companies control enormous data sets but they don’t have a monopoly over personalisation or the underlying technology which powers it.

The first step for any media company seeking to develop personalisation is to structure its content in a way that facilitates discovery by topic, entity and other key attributes. In tun, this kickstarts user interaction and the development in-house ranking and recommender systems. More advanced collaborative filtering technology requires plenty of user interaction, but not necessarily vast amounts of behavioural data. With the right user experience across web, mobile, email and audio, you can generate a ton of valuable user insight and data. And you don’t have to abandon all control to the algorithm. You can maintain editorial oversight.

10 ways to personalize your news platform by Titus Plattner, GIJN

As platforms keep changing their policies and algorithms, do you see a sustainable way for publishers to engage their audiences as opposed to constantly adapting to new social media trends?

I think we all probably spent too much time trying to mimic the elite group of media brands who appear to have cracked digital transformation.

If I was starting my innovation strategy from scratch, I would invest first in user experience, audience engagement and personalisation. I’d want to understand what my audience values before asking them to pay for it. And more importantly, I’d want to know what they would miss if my company disappeared tomorrow.

Once you understand that, it’s time to dust off the old Jeff Jarvis line: ‘Do what you do best and link to the rest’. I would love to see more publishers incorporate other people’s content into their digital experiences. The good kind.

If publishers are trying to engage the Netflix generation, they have to get used to curating a bundle of content that is not exclusively their own, but does meet their own high standards.

Finally, I would look beyond narrow definitions of news and journalism for inspiration. There is real dynamism and technological advances being made by independent publishers, newsletter curators and podcasters serving niche communities.

If I was looking for inspiration, I would pay as much attention to companies like Patreon, Substack, Pico, Steady and Hearken as I do to the big players in global journalism.

Interview by Bertrand Pecquerie & Nicolas Kristen.

Edited by Ana Lomtadze

Attend a GEN study tour and stay in the vanguard of the field!

Mark Little is the Co-Founder and CEO of Kinzen (formerly Neva Labs). Little began his career in journalism working for The Sunday Business Post. He was then hired as a TV reporter for RTÉ News and Current Affairs in 1991 and in 1995 became RTÉ’s first Washington Correspondent. He remained there until 2001, before returning to Dublin to become Foreign Affairs Correspondent. In 2001 he won TV Journalist of the Year in the ESB National Media Awards. He presented Prime Time for RTÉ until December 2009. In 2010, he launched Storyful, a social media intelligence agency, which he sold to News International in 2013. In 2015 he served as vice president of media and partnerships for Twitter in Europe.

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

Bertrand Pecquerie

Written by

Founder of the Global Editors Network, the worldwide association for editors-in-chief (2011–2019)

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

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