Tuesday 23 April 2019

Build it and they will share: what Mark Little did next

Former TV reporter and Storyful collaborators aiming to cut out fake news and social media noise with personalised app service focusing on quality content, writes Adrian Weckler

Kinzen team Paul Watson, Shane Creevy, Mark Little and Áine Kerr are focused on helping customers access their own morning edition. Photo: Aisling McCoy
Kinzen team Paul Watson, Shane Creevy, Mark Little and Áine Kerr are focused on helping customers access their own morning edition. Photo: Aisling McCoy
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Does the world need another news app? What if there was one that could mix in the best of what one looks for in Twitter without the dross?

This is the basic proposition behind the new startup from Mark Little and Áine Kerr. Together with another ex-Storyful collaborator, Paul Watson, they have launched a global news service from Dublin called Kinzen.

It's a news app that aims to sift out junk and promote expert-led information sources and news from around the web.

If anyone is in a position to marry the expectations of online news sensibilities in an age of social media dominance, it is arguably Little and Kerr.

Little is a former RTÉ television reporter who started (and sold) the social news agency Storyful before briefly taking over as boss of Twitter in Ireland.

Kerr worked as a journalist in the 'Irish Examiner' and Irish Independent, before joining Storyful and then serving 18 months in a senior media role in Facebook.

Kinzen founder Mark Little wants ‘to encourage people who want to be challenged’
Kinzen founder Mark Little wants ‘to encourage people who want to be challenged’

So they have an idea of what people want, what might sell and what they're up against.

"There's just too much noise, too much scrolling to find things you need," says Little, describing how Kinzen will work.

"You are commuting in the morning. You open up the app and we help you pick a channel. You pick your sources and it essentially creates your morning edition. The channel might be by location, topic or profession.

"We can bring in Twitter as well, if you want to bring in what you are already following. It's about looking for that signal, what you're actually trying to do on Twitter, as opposed to the scroll of content that is there."

The service also includes potential revenue-sharing options with publishers that want to foster subscriptions, either by themselves or within the Kinzen app. But the service isn't necessarily aimed as a replacement for news discovery via social networks.

"I think, for the average user, Kinzen will hopefully be the layer on top of their social platforms and apps and websites," says Kerr. "It's kind of making sense of the world around them. And that if they do have a big Twitter following, or Facebook, they are still going out to that community and sharing articles there."

Financially, the startup has raised somewhere over €1m in seed funding which Little says will see them through until the summer of 2019.

The funding comes from Little himself, the Dublin tech (and Storyful) investor Ray Nolan and a number of executives from the Dublin-based firm Richmond Marketing. The startup also has some funding from Google and assistance from the blockchain organisation Civil, which itself is heavily backed by the blockchain consultancy company Consensys.

"We have got the seed fund we wanted to get, which is well in excess of a million," said Little. "We feel like we have got the runway to get us through until the end of launch, which is June, next year. This drive for membership right now, I mean we are not expecting it to be giving us massive money. This is just to get some people making a commitment to get involved."

Little, Kerr and Watson were adamant that they do not want their news service to rely on advertising. They're confident that subscription-based services are here to stay. "All the market research shows us that people are willing to pay for a better experience," says Little. "They're paying for discovery and then maybe later for original content."

To encourage people to come on board, the service is offering registrations until the app finishes its launch period sometime next year. After that, a full subscription service will be introduced.

Ultimately, the early success of the service will be based significantly on its users' 'curation'.

"We're building out a directory of all of the sources on a comprehensive range of topics from different locations," says Little. "It could be the top five or six sources in Dublin to the top five sources on a topic such as machine learning. And then it is asking people to come in and either take control of a topic and say 'I'm really interested in this and I can curate the best sources', or maybe they can critique the kind of sources that we already have in the source directory.

"We'd like to think that these people would essentially start curating their own channels within the app. By the time of the full launch of the app itself next year, we're hoping that we have people already in there actively creating channels.

"So the experience of the app will be to allow you to curate a channel on your chosen topic. We hope we will have some people who are very animated to lead those conversations."

However, it is striving to avoid becoming an 'echo chamber'.

"That is where the machine learning comes in," says Little. "We want to encourage people who want to be challenged. And that is one of the things we will be giving you in terms of the ranking system. One way of doing this is to give you the ability for more complex feedback than simply a clap or a like. It could be something denoting that 'I disagree with this but it was great'.

"Research we've done show that people have different ways of describing a positive outcome in news.

"One of the most powerful is the phrase 'that changed my mind'. So that's what we're aiming for."

One of Kinzen's initial pitches is that it can cut out dishonestly sourced, or made-up news.

Little, Kerr and Watson are turning to blockchain technology to help. For the uninitiated, blockchain allows for a permanent record (or 'ledger', as industry jargon has it) of transactions and events relating to the associated activity.

In the case of news, for example, contributors or newsrooms that are represented can be validated through a system of verification. This doesn't mean a lack of protection for sources, but it is supposed to add a layer of trust to the news supply chain. Kinzen working with Civil is trying to help develop this technology in forward-thinking newsrooms.

This doesn't mean an overzealous policing of content or political tone, however.

"It's important to see a wide range of sources," he says.

"So tone is not something we're going to be judging on. Whether it's slanted left or right is not for us to decide.

"I think we'll be erring on the side of essentially saying the key here is to get the bad actors out, to make sure there are no trolls, to make sure that we know if websites are popping up every now and again to start a new strain of misinformation, they're just not in the system."


What Kinzen is and how it works

Formerly known as Neva Labs, Dublin-based Kinzen is a news app that aims to sift out junk and promote expert-led news and information from around the web.

It plans to do this through the service’s users, around whom the system is based. Experts in their field will share and discuss ‘quality’ news links in what amounts to a top-down, ‘curated’ organisation.

The service will be structured in a way to allow for a personalised news feed, backed by artificial intelligence and algorithms, that will be based on a user’s preferences and what experts are interested in.

Users’ motivation for being ‘curators’ and leading conversations might be borne of a sense of expertise or community. A subscription model is also being considered.

The website will be free to use for the first few months. Early next year, the app will be launched on a basic subscription basis: €5 per month is a likely fee level, in tandem with what is commonly charged on systems such as Patreon. The service’s founders are emphasising a clampdown on false news and dishonest sourcing. However, they say that they will not police the tone or content shared or discussed within the app.

With no ads, it is being styled as an antidote to social network news delivery which, Little and Kerr say, is based on grabbing and holding a person’s attention for as long as possible, regardless of content.

The founders, who worked together at Storyful, also say that current news publishers may be interested in Kinzen, possibly in subscription partnerships.

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