An Epitaph for Newsvine

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.)

16 comments on “An Epitaph for Newsvine”. Leave your own?
  1. John Whittet says:

    Newsvine was great during its heyday. I never partook in the citizen journalism side of the equation, but took great pride in curating interesting submissions and the discussions that ensued. For at least one period at the end of 2008, when I was a senior in college, I was at the top of the leaderboard and harbored ambitions of moving to the west coast and working for Newsvine in technology. Alas.

    The discussion is what made Newsvine for me. It was friendly, well-informed, and Made Everyone Smarter. These days, I don’t even *think* about wading into the morass that is the comments section on news articles. I miss that, though it’s certainly tied to the size of the community—which itself is tied to the ability to moderate effectively. Much credit to Tyler and the team for keeping us on the rails.

  2. Mark Armstrong says:

    Newsvine was a big inspiration to me in terms of what’s possible with community + journalism (and a beautiful design). Congrats Mike on a pioneering product and a great run.

  3. Dennis Kemmerer says:

    I’ve seen many online forums come and go, from the early days of usenet to Prodigy, CompuServe, national BBS systems, and others. However, Newsvine was the site of my first published clip as an undergrad journalism major nearly nine years ago and will always have a special nostalgic place in my mind.

  4. KrazyKittyKat says:

    I stumbled onto the site by accident, but was quickly intrigued by the comments. Insightful, erratic, educational, inspirational. So funny at times that I was driven to fits of uncontrollable giggles. So sad and tragic at times that it bought tears to my eyes. Made some great friends, many of whom came from Huffington Post. Will miss the banter but I am grateful for the experience.

  5. I stumbled onto the site by finding your blog post on how to customize your MySpace page with CSS (there’s a statement for you). You had the most beautiful MySpace page in an arena that was usually horrendous. I love the look and feel of Newsvine. Even since then, a few of my sites have been inspired by your design.

    Newsvine was great. It definitely leaned liberal and agnostic. It wasn’t quite as welcoming as many who leaned that way thought it was, but it was about the best thing you could find on the internet for honest discussion that wasn’t too vitriolic.

    The MSNBC acquisition was the right move. They had of course done their due diligence in the traffic demographic and it fit within their core target. It also gave them a great advance in technology, as well as design.

    You guys did really great work and you should be proud.

  6. Freewill says:

    Thanks to all of you who brought Newsvine into the world. I enjoyed every bit of the 8 plus years I spent there. Hell I think I was addicted, but fortunately the withdrawal symptoms appear to be fairly mild. Met many friends, had many deep discussions, and most of all Got Smarter There (as advertised).

    What a great idea it was, and I think still is, and I can tell you that in looking around for a substitute I have yet to find one as simple and elegant as Newsvine was. “AP Wire stories + Citizen Journalism + Discussion”, perfect! Certainly a model I’d like to see repeated. Any suggestions that might rival what we had at NV?

    Anyway, thanks again my friend, and to all of you who brought us Newsvine. There are thousands of us who will never forget our time there.

  7. Buzz of the Orient says:

    For many years I was a member and contributor to Newsvine, enjoyed posting photos, and opened and administered a group (this was pre-nation) called Classic Cinema. Made many internet friends on Newsvine, and because as an expat I live on the other side of the world from most users, it became for me a window to the rest of the world. Freewill has asked a question: “Any suggestions that might rival what we had on NV?” Sure. Just do what I did years ago and many are doing now, join Newstalkers.

  8. Chris Thompson says:

    Well Mike, Citizen Journalism makes for a nice platitude, however you left out the part where Newsvine became a Clearinghouse for Inbred Left Wing Dogma. That was one of the obvious takeaways. The other was exposing how sick the far left universe truly was.

    That’s not to say there weren’t times when we found common ground, just that they were too fleeting and ultimately the ghastly bias exhibited by its moderators became too much to bear. Fortunately, a few aquaintances from the Vine helped to reinforce the belief that the world wasn’t completely out of its gourd as it appeared to be on MSNBC.

    Nevertheless, I was overjoyed at the decision to pull the plug on the Vine. No more need be said.

  9. Spikegary says:

    Newsvine was my first view of a News Blog, I discovered it by clicking a link on a story on MSNBC.com. I really enjoyed my time there and became a daily contributor. It was also my first brush with some people that found the internet a way to satisfy ego needs that were not being satisfied elsewhere. I did feel like I got smarter there, though I was very disappointed when they moved to the ‘Nations’ format and the moderation fell away. It lost its attractiveness at that point for me and like Buzz of the Orient, I’ve found a new home at The Newstalkers.

  10. mocowgirl says:

    Thank you for having the vision and making it a reality.
    The Newsvine experience changed my life for the better.

  11. Charles says:

    All in all though, I am not really sad that it is gone. The community quality plummeted. It no longer became a place to learn and see things from the other side, but a circlejerk of pretentious like minded individuals.

  12. Wheel Barrow says:

    I was on the Vine for a little over 11 years. I loved a lot of the people I met and miss several of them who are no longer with us. I was expecting the site’s demise long before the announcement. I appreciated the fact that fair warning was given. I do have a question, what do I do with my “Seed Newsvine” button now? :)

  13. Sandra Paul says:

    I know very little about computers. On Newsvine I could read other
    peoples thoughts on different subjects. I sure will miss this site.

  14. Roger Black says:

    Newsvine was a mind-expanding venture. As far as I’m concerned it will always be a success because it changed the way I think about news. Forever.

  15. Devon Shaw says:

    I remember when you quit ESPN/Disney to build this and I remember all your posts around the time it launched. It was around that time I was deep in the political arena, and many of the people I knew and worked with had formed friendships through extremely high-level online discourse (even ones with polar opposite beliefs and viewpoints!). I was always on the lookout for anything that could push it forward, or new tools for the candidates and officials I was working for. I admired Newsvine as a principled concept, but it struck me as a bit of a quaint oddity with a difficult endgame, and my cursory participation was probably the result of my lack of conviction in the platform.

    In a way, we’d already blown it from a journalistic standpoint back in 1998 when virtually every self-respectable journalist threw ethics to the wind to cover the Lewinsky scandal (Marvin Kalb wrote an excellent book about this). I wasn’t sure how we could gain this ground back without considerable editorial oversight, something Newsvine specifically eschewed in exchange for removing the more traditional barriers of entry. Crowdsourced journalism can provide a fantastic opportunity for people with the tact and discipline to wield their power responsibly, but as we’ve discovered in the last ten years, the trends were definitely against you. The metrics being measured and valued (and later firmly reinforced by Facebook and Twitter) placed undue emphasis on immediacy at the expense of accuracy. Desire to create a sensational impact replaced the wisdom of thoughtfulness, because, after all, there’s nothing dramatic in advocating everyone taking a step back for a moment to consider the facts. There are no romantic crusades for people seeking truth, consensus and enlightenment. Newsvine didn’t fail to deliver to the people, we simply failed to maintain a world in which it would thrive.

    On the bright side, you had a really fun time building a new house.

  16. Marsha T, Meyer says:

    I will be forever grateful to Newsvine for the many friends I made!

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