Jason Calacanis is getting back into the news business with a new app called Inside, which highlights and summarizes the top news stories.
Although Calacanis has been involved in several startups and startup events (including the TechCrunch50 conferences, prior to an acrimonious split), he may still be best known as the founder of Silicon Alley Reporter and especially of Weblogs, Inc., a group of blogs that includes Engadget and was acquired to AOL (which owns TechCrunch). More recently, he was the founder of Mahalo — in fact, Inside is technically the same company.
For Inside, Calacanis hired Gabriel Snyder, formerly editor of The Wire at The Atlantic, to be his chief content officer.
“The idea behind it is that the world is heading to mobile, but there still isn’t a solution in the new space,” Snyder told me. “I feel like the transition, in terms of news and mobile, is sort of where news and the web was in 2002. Everyone knew the web was going to be huge, but there still wasn’t a grammar to the form.”
Naturally, Snyder hopes that Inside is going to reinvent that “grammar” on mobile. The “atomic units,” he said, are brief updates created by a global team of curators who find and summarize important news stories. The idea is to give you the basic facts of the news if you’re just browsing or you’re in a hurry, but if you’re interested in digging in, you can read the original article or swipe left to read the previous updates on the same topic — Snyder described it as an attempt to “marry what humans are good at and what technology is good at” in one product.
The idea has similarities to Circa and to what Calacanis was already doing on a smaller scale for tech news with the Launch Ticker. Snyder and Calacanis aren’t pitching this as a replacement for original news coverage (“The news story isn’t broken,” Snyder insisted) and they emphasized their goal of linking to high-quality journalism, not just someone who has reblogged another publication’s stories.
Snyder also said Inside’s curators are focused on making the headlines and updates as fact-based as possible, with a limit of 300 characters for each update — so the entire headline, image, and update text will fit on your smartphone screen without any scrolling. (My sense from browsing the app is that the updates tended to consist of terse declarations of a story’s main ideas divided by semicolons.) He added that over time, he’s interested in experimenting with what an update can do — for example, he suggested that it could become a new way to share live coverage of an event.
Initially, you just browse the Inside app based on the top stories and on different news categories, but as you read, you can indicate the kinds of articles you want to see more and less of, and Inside will create a personalized news feed.
And even though Snyder said the team is focused on the mobile experience, there’s a browser-based version too, which will be particularly important when people link to the updates on social networks.
As for making money, the obvious plan would be advertising, but Inside doesn’t have any ads at launch, and Snyder said, “I don’t think anyone is really thinking about that right now.”
As I mentioned, from a corporate perspective, this is actually latest iteration of Mahalo, with the same investors (including Sequoia Capital, Elon Musk, News Corp, CBS, and Mark Cuban). The company started out as a “human-powered search engine” and pivoted several times. We last wrote about Calacanis, Mahalo, and Inside.com in the fall of 2012, when it seemed like the site was going to launch as a “knowledge community.”
Calacanis told me today via email that a knowledge community was never the plan for Inside.com — he said that after he realized that Mahalo’s efforts to create YouTube content were a “suckers game”, the team has been “focused 100%” on developing the current product, and it still has enough money to continue running for two years. (The team has “sunset” Mahalo itself, which Calacanis said “is a fancy way of saying it makes 7 figures so we’re not shutting it off but we are not investing in it.”)
I also asked how the news business has changed since Calacanis sold Weblogs, and he told me:
In a way, what I’ve learned as a consumer is that the big problem today is not that there isn’t great journalism going on — it’s that there is so much “other” and “bad” stuff going on.
You have massive link-baiting and reblogging going on, and the news organizations who do the best social media optimization are winning over the folks who ware doing the best journalism. I’m hoping that Inside highlighting the best journalism the product creates a “healthier media diet” for our consumers. Sort of like Whole Foods, where they don’t let any of the bad stuff [in].