'No two Zites are alike': This is a personalised 'journalism' category

It is just 16 months since Zite, a personalised magazine that aggregates content based on a user's social media and other connections, launched on the iPad.

In its short lifetime it has gathered a huge amount of positive press, a few negative comments from publishers, and it has been bought by CNN for a staggering $20 million, according to AllThingsD.

Since gathering lots of attention on iPad, the San Francisco-based company, has released an iPhone version and an app for Android.

It is not the only player in the field, with Flipboard, Pulse, Taptu, Trapit and News360 among the social reader offerings. Zite is unique in its algorithm, which surfaces content it knows you will be interested in.

If you are not a Zite user but are a journalist with an Android, iPhone or iPad, download the free app, connect it to four of your social profiles, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Reader and Delicious, and try it for the next couple of days.

You will soon discover content that is relevant to your interests that you would not have found simply browsing your connected platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

I caught up with Zite's CEO, Mark Johnson, when he was in London recently. He was a previous advisor "in a previous incarnation" of Zite, a company called Worio, that focused on search and discovery.

"I became involved in the company about three years ago as an advisor and we pivoted the company from a search company to a straight discovery company that was based on finding great articles around your interests rather than finding things as you are doing search on the web," Johnson told Journalism.co.uk.

Much has been written about Zite's algorithm (it is worth reading this article from ReadWriteWeb).

Q. Give us the overview of the algorithm

A. "On a really high level, we look at millions of different articles a day and try to cull those down to a few hundred that you would be interested in based on specific categories that you like. So what's interesting about Zite is that your 'technology' category will be different from mine because we probably have different specific interests: we have different publications we prefer, we live in different countries, they are all the sorts of things that we consider.

"So as we are looking at all those articles everyday, we try and figure out what are the most interesting ones out of those. We do a lot of analysis to the articles to figure out what it's about, who it is by, how long is it, what kind of article it is, because some people prefer shorter articles to longer articles.

"We look at all of these different aspects of the article and as you read Zite we watch what you click on and what you give an explicit thumbs up to and an explicit thumbs down to and all that data feeds back into the algorithm so that every time you open Zite it gets better and better and better and smarter and smarter and smarter.

"At this point Zite understands me really well and I've been using it for over a year now and it is spot on when I look at the top stories and it's really cool that it will surface interesting things for me that I probably wouldn't have been able to find elsewhere."

Q. One of the things that I really like abut the app is the link with Delicious. It strikes me that when the iPad app was being launched it was at an uncertain time for Delicious. So why Delicious?

A. "When you start up Zite you have a choice to add up to four different profiles that help us learn about you. You save stuff to Delicious, you save stuff to Pocket [formerly Read It Later], you share things on Twitter. All that can tell us a lot about the things that you like to read.

"When the company was founded seven years ago a lot of the initial work was done around Delicious. On Delicious you save bookmarks and you tag them, you tag something as 'journalism' to say 'this is an article about journalism'. And the question that Worio [as the company was at that time] tried to answer was 'from this set of documents that had been tagged with things like 'journalism', can you look through the entire web and find other documents that should be tagged with journalism, even though no user has ever entered that in?'.

"Delicious is historically a really, really important part of the company because it taught us a lot about understanding what a piece of content is about."

Q. Zite launched a publisher programme with eight publishers in April. Are more publishers coming on stream?

A. "Absolutely. We got a lot of interest around the launch. I think people were looking to us for solutions so we have definitely got a lot of interest. We are still with the original eight. It's exciting for us because we've always been looking for a way to work with publishers but in a way that's uniquely Zite.

"What we've offered publishers is a channel within Zite that has all of their own articles, it's specially branded to that publisher so it looks really nice, but what's different from a lot of other aggregators is that we don't publish all the articles.

"The goal is not to replace the publisher's application on the iPad or application on iPhone or even their print publication, the idea is that we are going to select the best articles from that publisher and show them to the user.

"That's why we have also put an element of discovery in there so at the end of those articles the publishers have a choice of putting some house ads where they can upsell to subscription or an application so the user can have a more full experience with that publisher. So it's really about us being an intermediary, us connecting the user to a publisher."

Q. How many more publishers could we see coming on board by the end of the year? Another 10, another 20 major publishers?

A. "That's about the right range. Some publishers are really excited about this programme, there are other publishers that are taking a 'wait and see' approach. What's interesting about the publishing world is that you have publishers that have been round for 100 years and have been doing print and still most of their revenue comes from print subscriptions and there are publishers which have started up in the last few years and now have big online empires, look at the Huffington Post and The Next Webs of the world.

"You have wide ranges of publishers that have different feelings about the meaning of the tablet and how to deal with aggregators. We'll see publishers come on board and I think that within the next few years you'll see a lot of publishers come on board."

Q. Initially there was a lot of fear from publishers around aggregating apps such as Zite. Are the conversations changing and moving on?

A. "If we had launched this programme a year earlier we would not have been able to sign on eight publishers. Maybe some of the online-only publishers would have signed on but the door probably would have literally been slammed in our faces.

Over the course of the past year publishers have gone from trepidation and fear to somewhere between a 'wait and see' approach with hopefulness and downright excitementMark Johnson
"I think what is interesting is publishers see the tablet as a great opportunity and frankly a lot of publishers that worked in the print world kind of missed the boat in the online world. Look at the websites of some publishers which focus on print and the websites often do not look right, they try to put the magazine on the web, but that never works.

"I think the tablet is a great opportunity to reach a new audience, it's a great opportunity to re-think how your magazine is delivered, so I'm really excited about the tablet and I think that over the course of the past year publishers have gone from trepidation and fear to somewhere between a 'wait and see' approach with hopefulness and downright excitement."

Q. What could be on offer for smaller publishers (such as Journalism.co.uk)?

A. "We've got a really good solution now for large publishers. If you have a lot of articles you publish every day then this is a really reasonable solution but it's not scalable to the longtail.

"[Smaller publishers] is something that we are looking at. One thing that is really clear is that we are all in this together. The tablet is here to stay, everybody is going to have a tablet in five years and this is going to change the way media is delivered.

"No one knows what this is going to look like in five years but I think it is important for a publishers to work with aggregators so we can help to innovate a business model. We need to make sure you get paid.

No one knows what this is going to look like in five years but I think it is important for a publishers to work with aggregators so we can help to innovate a business model. We need to make sure you get paidMark Johnson
"At the end of the day we want high quality reporting because without high quality reporting Zite also dies. So we really want to help you figure out what that business model is. The problem is that there are no easy answers right now. What we try this year may work for right now but it may not work in a year or two and there maybe better business models that come out. So it's really about being open minded, and being willing to try a lot of new things."

Q. What changes have there been since the CNN acquisition? How hands on or hands off are the people at CNN turning out to be?

A. "CNN has been a wonderful partner. They have been very hands off in most areas. I'm still CEO, we still hire our own people, we have our own office, we have our own product development timelines and frankly they have been really happy with us. We still act like a start-up in many ways.

"We have done a lot of product releases, we have made a lot of really good hires. I'm really excited about the direction of the company and I think CNN is too.

"The reason they bought us is they believe Zite can become a big consumer brand and that Zite could become a really profitable business. And I think we are moving in that direction. And what is great about CNN is they are willing to give us the time to do that. They don't want to rush us into anything, they really want us to help develop this business organically just like we would have if we would had taken venture capital.

"It's unique to find a partner that is willing to see the future like that and I'm quite excited to be part of the CNN family."

Q. No money changes hands as part of the publisher programme as it is a reciprocal arrangement. Are there any plans to change that when working with the major publishers?

A. "Eventually there maybe third party ads and we maybe looking at some kind of revenue share but that's down the line and we'll figure out when that's appropriate."

Q. And what are you plans for bringing in revenue elsewhere?

A. "The way we make money right now is that we have sponsored sections. For example, the technology section is presented by Intel. What they get is their logo in front of a highly targeted audience, they also have promoted content in there so there is a piece of one of Intel's blogs called My Life Scoop that's promoting the technology section and they love this.

"They get a lot of impressions every day of this blog, they get a lot of shares on Twitter, they get eyeballs that would have never seen this blog otherwise. It's a really good relationship for them and it's a way for us to start generating some revenue but still maintain our trueness to content, our trueness to personalisation, and keep with the theme of Zite."

Q. You must know your audience very well. Who are they? Are they mainly the tech crowd?

We definitely have a crew of early adopters but the average user on Zite has more than 10 categories and sure, a lot of people have 'technology' and 'gadgets', which are out most popular categories, but what is amazing to me about every Zite user is their uniqueness.

"I look at my Zite and I have things like 'logic' and 'linguistics' and earth science and astronomy. There's another person in the office who has lots of architecture and furniture-related things. It's really interesting to see even across our own office where everyone is interested in technology, people's really disparate and diverging viewpoints.

"It's fun, I love having such a wide range of customers. There are no two Zites that are alike."
  • We spoke to Mark Johnson for a recent podcast looking at how different publishing platforms in the news industry are approaching curation and aggregation of news

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