Today, the creation I am most proud to have brought into the world disappeared from the internet.
After 11 years and 7 months in service, Newsvine, a participatory news site I launched with four friends on March 1st, 2006 was officially sunsetted by NBCNews.
Although I’ve been away from the company and the service for five years now, today brings back a rush of memories and some perspective on how the problems Newsvine set out to solve over a decade ago are actually the opposite of the problems that most need solving today.
In 2005, I found myself five years into a stint at Disney, wondering what was next for news. We owned ESPN, ABCNews, and several other media properties, but most of the fresh new takes on news seemed to be coming from non-traditional sources. Neither Twitter nor the iPhone had been invented yet, and Facebook was still just a campus dating site, but blogs were sprouting up by the thousands and sites like Digg and Slashdot were becoming popular destinations.
There seemed to be this growing bifurcation between mainstream media and citizen journalism. Mainstream newsrooms didn’t want to share their platform with amateur writers, and a lot of amateur writers grew more distrustful of mainstream media. Our big idea with Newsvine was to license the same Associated Press feed of professional reporting that made up the majority of what you’d see on a site like CNN.com, publish it faster than any other site in the world, and enlist citizens from around the world to create original, paid journalism around and alongside it… and open up every single piece of content for threaded discussion as well.
In other words:
CNN = AP Wire stories + Professional Journalism
Newsvine = AP Wire stories + Citizen Journalism + Discussion
… and we could do it all with a staff of under 10 people.
We didn’t know for sure if it was going to work, but the day we decided we’d be happy to have tried it even if it failed was the day we ended up quitting our jobs (incidentally, if you are thinking about leaving your job for a new risky thing, this is the acid test I recommend).
We spent about 6 months getting the company off the ground and the service into public beta, and it wasn’t long until extraordinary acts of journalism began appearing. Chris Thomas, one of our most prolific users, broke news of the Virginia Tech shootings on Newsvine before it appeared anywhere else. Jerry Firman, a 70 year old Newsviner from Ohio, got his name on the ballot for Congress and documented the process of running for office. Corey Spring, a student at Ohio State, scored an original interview with Dave Chappelle.
The design, tech, and operational work associated with growing Newsvine were fairly straightforward, but the one thing that seemed to get more and more difficult as the site grew was moderating and cultivating the community. Your first 1000 users are easy. People are just happy to be there. Then when you get to 10,000 you have a few fights here and there but nothing unmanageable. Even at 100,000, a small team of thoughtful people can stay on top of things. But when you hit 1 million, 10 million, and beyond, the community becomes much less intimate and more volatile.
Such was the case when we were acquired in 2007 by MSNBC.com (now NBCNews.com). Our site was already decently big but MSNBC’s was many times bigger… about 45 million people at the time. The post-acquisition work was twofold: 1) continue growing Newsvine as a standalone property, 2) use our technology to add registration, profiles, discussion threads, and other features to MSNBC.com. We also ended up powering all of the company’s blogs and some other things.
I ended up staying at MSNBC for about five years, and I would say the results of the experiment were mixed overall. On the upside, we provided technology that helped launch new editorial brands quickly and connect journalists to their audiences, but on the downside, “community” at that scale can be very messy. Additionally, with the eventual rise of Twitter and Facebook, Newsvine never grew to those usage levels. MSNBC.com was a great parent throughout though, and I have nothing but love for the people I worked with.
It’s interesting to compare Newsvine (and sites like it) to the now wildly successful fortunes of Facebook and Twitter. Newsvine at its core was a news site with a social network wrapped around it. Facebook at its core is a social network with news (and photos, and events, etc) wrapped around it. Twitter is probably structured more like Facebook in this regard as well, but its biggest challenge, in my opinion, has always been a lack of commitment to building those real-life social connections into the service.
When we look at how the average person’s news and media diet has changed over the last decade or so, we can trace it directly back to the way these and other modern organizations have begun feeding us our news. Up until 10 or 15 years ago, we essentially drank a protein shake full of news. A good amount of fruits and vegetables, some grains, some dairy, some tofu, and then a little bit of sugar, all blended together. Maybe it wasn’t the tastiest thing in the world but it kept us healthy and reasonably informed. Then, with cable news we created a fruit-only shake for half the population and a vegetable-only shake for the other half. Then with internet news, we deconstructed the shake entirely and let you pick your ingredients, often to your own detriment. And finally, with peer-reinforced, social news networks, we’ve given you the illusion of a balanced diet, but it’s often packed with sugar, carcinogens, and other harmful substances without you ever knowing. And it all tastes great!
As someone who has created Newsvine, worked at Twitter, and had many discussions with people at Facebook, I can tell you that this sort of effect was never “part of the business plan”. However, maximizing engagement was and still is, and that has led to a world in which what appears on people’s screens is what is most likely to keep one’s attention, as opposed to what is actually most important to know and understand.
The solutions to these problems will not come easy. They aren’t as simple as banning some jerk from Twitter or improving bot detection on Facebook. We’ve trained people to get their news and information from the cookie jar, and since we now know exactly what that world looks like, we must begin the job of untraining them… or at least engineering a healthy cookie.
We probably got a lot of things wrong at Newsvine, but one thing I still feel we got absolutely right is our longstanding tagline:
Get Smarter Here.
That’s really the only promise we ever wanted the service to fulfill.
After 800,000 articles, 65 million comments, 11+ years, thousands of new friendships, and at least one marriage and child from the site that I’m aware of, I’m confident it has fulfilled its mission for at least some who roamed its jungles.
(Special thanks to the entire Newsvine community. Without the dedicated efforts of all of you, we would have never had this special corner of the internet to write, meet new people, and have our perspectives changed. Thanks also to my partners Calvin, Mark, Lance, Josh, Tom, Tyler, Sally, Luke, Todd, Bobby, Dave, Arun, Jim, Mike, Brenda, Carl, Charlie, Rex, and everyone else at MSNBC.com for making this all possible. Also, extra special thanks to Nick, one of our investors, for introducing me to my wife, who I would have never met were it not for this little chance we took. And finally, thanks to my wife who helped get me through everything back then and since.)
(This post also available on Medium.)