SmartNews, the news aggregation app that hit a unicorn valuation last year, has spent its time growing its local news feature. With the United States presidential election underscoring both the importance of local news and its challenges, SmartNews has a huge opportunity to gain new users.
In early 2019, SmartNews had 40 local partners. Over the past year, it has expanded that to publishers in over 6,000 cities, with the goal of covering the majority of the U.S. population. The app also currently has an election news section, with live updates on primary results and sections focused on each presidential candidate.
For local media, apps like SmartNews and competitor Flipboard, which recently launched its own local news feature, offer less reliance on search traffic for much-needed traffic and revenue. A Pew Research survey published last year found that while most American adults believe it's important for journalists to be engaged with local communities, only about 14% said they have paid for local news, with many citing the availability of free content as the primary reason why.
Both local and election news are presented as tabs in the SmartNews’ main navigation menu and the company says the Local News tab, which shows headlines personalized by user location, now drives almost as much engagement to publishers as the default Top News tab.
Founded eight years ago in Japan, where it is now one of the top news apps, SmartNews launched its American version in 2014. The app’s content team, including former journalists, screen publishers before they are added to its platform, but articles shown to users are picked by machine learning. Over the past few years, as the political and media landscape in America becomes increasingly polarized, SmartNews has focused on discovery tools with the goal of breaking readers out of "filter bubbles" reinforced by social media algorithms.
For example, last year it launched a feature called News From All Sides, a slider that displays headlines about the same topic from publications across the political spectrum.
For the Election News tab, the slider was adapted for news about each presidential candidate. When it originally launched, the slider had five sections, but that has been pared down to three, with the goal of encouraging people to explore more news sources instead of focusing on how they are labeled, said Jeannie Yang, SmartNews’ senior vice president of product.
"I think one of the improvements we made is that it’s not exactly about getting it ‘right,’ but about how do you let people explore the spectrum and actually be able to understand it without feeling they are locked in," she told TechCrunch.
While working on its local news and election news features, more than fifty people from SmartNews, including Yang, head of global growth Fabian-Pierre Nicolas and members of its engineering, product, data and marketing teams, traveled through Minnesota and Iowa. More recently they drove through Nevada and California, with Michigan and Florida next on the itinerary. These "listening tours" were inspired by trips SmartNews Ken Suzuki and its other co-founders made through the United States in 2016 to connect with potential users of the app.
"It is meant to get us out of our bubble, since our main [U.S.] offices are in Palo Alto, San Francisco and New York, and build empathy with how people connect to the news and the app," said Nicolas. The team sent out surveys on Craigslist and went to places like cafes and churches to ask people about a wide range of issues, including politics and how they get election and local news in their communities.
A lot of people they talked to rely on TV or radio for most of their news. If they browse online, they often use their desktop computers instead of smartphones because of costly or limited data plans. Many said they had issues finding reliable local news sources, especially as more publications are purchased by larger outlets. Articles may no longer focus on their communities, for example, or they have to sort through more sponsored content and opinion pieces to get to news.
To ensure the quality of news sources on its platform, SmartNews’ content team screens publications first and partners with local news publishers, like McClatchy. The content each users sees in their Local News tab is based on their location. The app prioritizes neighborhood news first, then brings in news from next-largest administrative area.
For example, if a reader lives near a large city, SmartNews will display headlines from newspapers published there. If they live in a less densely populated area, it will show articles from newspapers in their county. In the future, the Local News tab may also include information from other sources, including local deals, crime and safety incidents or city council agendas.
SmartNews is taking advantage of election season to get more readers, with marketing campaigns that include running commercials during debates. The app’s goal is to convert them into long-term users and be the first news app that people go to on their phones. In turn, Nicolas said, they hope this will create a healthier media ecosystem by giving local publishers an additional source of inbound traffic to monetize.