Notes on a new beginning

This is the start of a conversation forum with Mark and Áine about their new startup. Today, they provide some background on the motivating factors behind joining forces again and some of the problems and challenges they hope to solve for.

By Mark Little and Áine Kerr

It’s an interesting challenge, writing about a new partnership with one voice. Luckily, we’ve had plenty of practice.

We come from almost identical backgrounds. We cut our teeth in journalism in traditional news organisations in Ireland before joining forces at Storyful, the social media news agency founded by Mark in 2010.

After Storyful’s integration into News Corp, both of us took leadership positions at social platforms (Áine managing journalism partnerships at Facebook and Mark running the European media team for Twitter).

As we worked to bridge the gap between platforms and publishers, we kept talking. We talked a lot about truth and trust, the News Integrity Initiative that Áine helped to create, and our mutual support for pioneering groups like First Draft News. Ultimately, we talked about starting from scratch. What would a news business look like if all it cared about was the trust of every individual that engaged with it?

That’s the question that guides our new venture. We’ve formed an experimental team in Dublin and are setting out on a road that will lead to the launch of our first products in 2018.

The opportunities we’ll be working on have evolved since our days at Storyful. The challenges are the same — just bigger.

The amount of information that floods our daily lives has outstripped our capacity to process it. Our social media feeds were not built to sort the news from the noise. Neither were traditional newsrooms. Every individual now has to be their own ‘gatekeeper’, accelerating a vicious cycle of mistrust.

If you wanted to start again, you wouldn’t start from here. You wouldn’t start with false choices between platform and publisher. Instead, you would focus everything on the individual’s relationship with news and information.

We want to help news seekers escape from information overload and endless distraction by offering them a conscious layer of control over their online experience. We want to build the tools and filters the individual needs in a world where the primary gatekeeper is themselves. Our North Star will be a single-minded obsession with improving the return on this empowered individual’s attention.

We’ve been intrigued by what happens when people become aware of the hidden filters and manipulation that shape their online experience. Conscious individuals are taking conscious choices to adjust privacy settings, block or track adverts and mask digital footprints

We’ve been inspired by active news seekers looking for an information experience that better reflects their identity, preferring recommendations based on their personality, rather than those of journalists or friends and families.

The shift toward personal control was best captured by the most recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report:“It was clear that many active internet users now see themselves as editors — balancing and comparing multiple sources, multiple editorial judgments, and even multiple algorithms.”

Our bet is that the information economy is heading for paradigm shift, as the failures of an ad-funded news experience become ever more apparent, and as we all demand tools and services that give us a sense of agency over our information consumption. In that decisive shift, we see the potential for a renewal of lost trust.

News you can trust comes at a price, and conscious news seekers get this. We see the rise of a generation conditioned to pay for quality content on Netflix and Spotify. In this past momentous year, the most dramatic increase in paid news consumption has been among the youngest Americans adults.

Make no mistake, there is no turning back the clock. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are here to stay. The challenge is to enhance the experience of these ubiquitous platforms through an added layer of conscious control.

The personalisation of news challenges the public good, largely because the artificial intelligence that drives it is both unseen and clandestine. Our ‘filter bubbles’ reflect our unthinking instincts, rather than our conscious intentions.

What would happen if each one of us took control of the artificial intelligence that powers our news experience? What kind of conversation would we have with our smarter ‘woke’ selves? How much more would we trust the news if it rewarded our attention rather than distracted it?

They are the big questions we will be exploring in the months ahead with our new team. We have enough experience to know our baseline hypothesis will change. We’re humble and hungry. Our ambitions are tempered by hard-won experience. The great lesson we have learned is that innovation is at its purest and most impactful when it comes from genuinely open conversation.

We know we’re not alone in our assumptions, even if we do think we have something unique to offer. We’re building a business but we get the feeling we are part of an evolving economy of trust — an economy that prioritises the individual’s control over the information that has flooded our social spaces.

We’d love to hear from others who feel the same way. (You can find us at info@neva-labs.com) And we look forward to sharing lessons from the hard-yards that lay ahead. We’ll be back, once we’ve built a space for that conversation. But for now, thanks for reading.