Rich Jaroslovsky currently serves as the Vice President for Content & Chief Journalist at SmartNews. He has vast experience in the world of journalism whose notable work experience includes spending almost three decades as a writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal, being the founder and first President of the Online News Association and operating as Executive Editor at Bloomberg News in charge of its worldwide economic and governmental news.
Despite research showing that readers are increasingly turning to news aggregator apps to receive customized and curated news experiences, social media remains a stable source of news consumption.
To discover what type of challenges this has created for news aggregator companies, we speak to Rich Jaroslovsky, Vice President for Content & Chief Journalist at SmartNews, an award-winning news app with millions of readers in 150+ countries.
Rich also covers how the company ensures the content published on its app is accurate and reliable while pointing out how they approach headline accuracy.
Spotlight: News aggregation apps have become increasingly popular in recent years. Why is there a demand for them and what does this mean for the media industry?
Rich Jaroslovsky: One of the principal benefits of news aggregators is that they bring multiple sources together in one place. When you’re on a desktop computer, it’s easy to go from site to site, but on a phone, you’re much less likely to be launching multiple apps, never mind jumping from app to app to read your news.
At SmartNews, we add to that benefit by delivering content you might not see during your typical online browsing. We introduce people to new publishers, subjects, and perspectives, which is a unique advantage of using SmartNews
While news aggregator apps are growing in popularity, social media is still a main source of news consumption. What challenges has this created for companies like SmartNews?
I don’t think this is a linear development. I think what we’re seeing is that a lot of news content and engagement migrated to social media when social media itself became popular. In the years since, however, we’ve seen the dark sides of social media and to a certain extent, news consumption via social media may have peaked already.
We’re beginning to enter an era of post-social media where people are getting informed in different ways. This is no surprise given that in the 8.5 years I’ve been at SmartNews, our competitive set has changed completely over, multiple times. First, it was other news aggregator apps that have since mostly vanished, then it was the rise of social media and the dominance of Facebook and Twitter. But I’ve seen recent research findings that publishers see a remarkably small amount of traffic being driven to them by Twitter. This means that people will consume headlines on Twitter but they won’t always engage with the underlying information. In that regard, we may be entering a post-social media news environment.
Social media is often criticized for spreading fake news and misinformation. How does SmartNews ensure that the content it curates is accurate and reliable? How does this approach differ from that of social media platforms?
We have a multilayered system for making sure that publishers and content are trustworthy. SmartNews vets all its publishers before they’re even allowed onto the platform. There have been a number of publishers that have wanted to be on SmartNews and we’ve had to say no to them because their content was highly problematic, or purveyed fake news and conspiracy theories, which we do not have a tolerance for.
So, publishers won’t even get onto the platform unless they’ve gotten past the first order of protection. Another layer we rely on is our trust and safety team, which uses technology to identify low-quality or questionable content. Once in a while, publishers that are overall acceptable on SmartNews might publish content that is not acceptable. Our trust and safety team is always on the lookout for problematic content and working to filter it out of users' feeds.
Finally, we layer in an editorial content team as the ultimate line of defense. When our human content team sees problematic content that’s made its way into the app, we pull it out, document it, and share the information with our trust and safety, and engineering teams so that we can make the algorithm smarter and exclude that type of content in the future.
News on Facebook and Twitter often rely on clickbait headlines to drive engagement. How does SmartNews approach the issue of headline accuracy?
Addressing headline accuracy goes back to our multilayers of quality control. Part of our efforts is meant to identify clickbait headlines and filter them out or limit their exposure. To an extent, we hope that publishers themselves are responsible for avoiding clickbait headlines, but if we see them behaving in inappropriate ways or resorting to clickbait, we flag it to them and put them on notice. We are very transparent with our publishers that seeing clickbait is not the experience we want for our users and we’ll work directly with them to try to clean up their feed accordingly.
One issue we’ve occasionally had to deal with is publishers putting clickbait-style headlines on stories that are not actually clickbait. In those cases, we try to work with publishers to build a cleaner feed and a better experience for our users. We have zero tolerance for headlines with misinformation.
What steps do you take to ensure sensationalized headlines do not mislead users?
It’s the same multilayered approach I mentioned previously. If we see a consistent source of sensationalized headlines in the app, we filter them out and work with the publisher to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Our ultimate goal is to reduce the number of times such headlines even make it that far in the app — we always aim to catch and kill a problematic headline before it gets to the user.
One of the features that sets SmartNews apart from its competitors is its use of machine learning algorithms to personalize content for its users. Can you explain how this works and how your company ensures that its algorithms make ethical and unbiased decisions?
While our technology is incredibly powerful, at the end of the day, it’s just a tool, the way a hammer is a tool. And a hammer doesn’t know and doesn’t care if it’s being used to build a Habitat for Humanity house or to break something apart. What’s important is not the tool itself so much as the intentionality of the people wielding the technology. It’s not about the hammer, it’s about who’s swinging the hammer and why.
From the beginning, SmartNews has been mindful that it’s not enough to deploy technology without concern for ethical issues and potential consequences. We know that we have to, and we do, wield the technology responsibly.
Which notable publishers do you collaborate with and how do you pick them? What criteria do you follow to consider a publisher a quality one?
In our main partnership program, we currently have about 2,000 publishers. We are extremely proud of the publishers we partner with, which include the Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, The Atlantic, and many more — I could go on and on. Our partners are some of the highest quality publishers in the world, and we’re very proud to associate with them.
In terms of the criteria that we use to consider a publisher a quality one, we look at how frequently they publish, how substantial their reporting is, how up to date their information is, and how credible their content and sources are, to name a few key factors.
How does SmartNews differentiate itself from competitors like Apple News and Google News? What features or aspects make it a better option for news consumers?
Part of our core DNA is to be good partners with publishers so that we can strengthen the news ecosystem, which is something we take very seriously. If the news ecosystem isn’t strong, eventually we won’t have the quality content to deliver.
Out of all the major aggregators, our incentives are probably more closely aligned with publishers. For example, Apple's main business isn't news, it’s selling iPhones. In that regard, its incentive is to sell more iPhones. Our only incentive is to deliver news, and that’s all that we do. Our interest, and the interest of news publishers, are much more closely aligned than our competitors, which we think helps us deliver a better news reading experience to consumers.
We want to work with best-of-breed publishers to create a good user experience. The news doesn’t always have to feel so grim and gritty, and we want SmartNews to feel like a rewarding and pleasurable experience. This also factors into how we deploy the technology that we’re wielding, to make our users’ lives better and more informed, and even fun once in a while.
Can you introduce us to the platform’s SmartView First program? Why and how should businesses publishing news leverage it?
When we first launched SmartNews in the US, we established relationships with a lot of publishers by sending them referral traffic to their websites. As we began to grow, we began building the platform that we call SmartView First. This is our native platform, which offers a better experience for our users and publishers because the content instantly loads and it's cleaner than most websites that have intrusive and popup ads.
With SmartView First, we’ve established paid relationships with our publishers and we compensate them for pageviews. It’s a win-win-win (for the publishers, users, and us) situation. When we launched the program about five years ago, only around 3.5% of pageviews were in the SmartView First format. Today, that number has grown to about 88%.
With so much innovation happening in the media industry, from virtual and augmented reality to personalized news feeds, how do you see news aggregation apps like SmartNews evolving to meet the changing needs of users?
This is a great question. The short answer is that we have to see how quickly some of these news forms are adopted. One thing that’s been clear to me is that we are entering the post-smartphone era, where the phone is not the only way that people are consuming news.
For example, when I wake up in the morning, my first dose of news comes when I reach over and grab my iPhone to check SmartNews, but my second dose of news comes when I’m making the bed and I ask Alexa to play my flash briefing, which gives me news from NPR, CNB, and other sources. In that scenario, my hands don’t touch the Smartphone — I’m consuming news via a smart speaker.
Then, when I get in my car, my heads-up display turns on. Ten years from now, if cars become more autonomous, maybe that display will also show the news, adding to the various forms of news consumption beyond the smartphone. The key is to think of ourselves not just as a smartphone app, but as a news service. We aim to adapt based on how people want to access the news, and through whatever technology evolves with that. The next platform beyond the Smartphone won’t be a device, it’ll be a seamless web of connectivity that surrounds us at all times. We aim to evolve alongside evolving needs.
Thank you for your time, Rich Jaroslovsky. Best of luck to you and SmartNews!