Upday Ups the Ante on Mobile News Aggregation
BERLIN--Peter Wuertenberger worked as Managing Director of Yahoo Germany back in the late’ 90s, when the idea of web news was still a fresh one. It was the heyday of a product called My Yahoo. My Yahoo combined aggregation and personalization, and it seemed poised for success, promoted heavily by the then-ascendant Yahoo. Open up the My Yahoo page today, and you are welcomed by “Welcome to the new My Yahoo.” I have no idea about My Yahoo’s recent performance, but we can consider it just one of dozens of good ideas that the company birthed over the years that never fulfilled its vision.
After two decades, portals, search engines, publishers and readers continue that search for satisfying news aggregation. Just in the last year, Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles and Snapchat Discover have all launched major aggregation initiatives, inspiring dreams of the new publishers revenues and traffic and fears of losing the old publisher business even faster. Today, Peter Wuertenberger prepares his own ambitious launch. As CEO of Upday, and former executive vice president of Axel Springer, the fast-growing German media house, Wuertenberger readies the mid-March launch of Upday. [Disclosure: Axel Springer is a 50/50 owner in POLITICO Europe, a sister site of POLITICO Media.]
Upday is a mobile news aggregation product, and it’s one offering several major distinctions out of the box. The first is the box it will come in: Samsung’s. Come mid-March in Germany, France, UK and Poland, all buyers of Samsung Galaxy S, Note and Tablet products will find their new handsets come pre-installed with Upday. Swipe right --- “We wanted to use the easy Tinder swipe,” says Wuertenberger – and there on the “-1” screen are two panels, News and My News. (Our preview shots give you a good sense of the look, though expect some changes over the next two months.)
Springer isn’t the first mobile news aggregator to partner with a handset company --- News Republic (my 2014 take on it) has done so with handset manufacturer HTC, and recently expanded that relationship – but the Samsung/Springer deal could be historic in scale. Samsung sells more phones in Europe than anyone else. It can claim a market share of 43 percent in Germany and 33 percent in Europe. In an Age of Distribution, that offers in-your-face Distribution with a capital D. “We get the Samsung highway,” sums up Upday top editor Jan-Eric Peters. It’s an exclusive marriage for both, as Upday replaces Flipboard Briefing.
One other benefit of handset partnership: Upday is so built into the product that ad blockers won’t work.
At launch, Upday gains phased access to Samsung’s large customer base. Samsung, of course, wants to see how Upday performs. Perform well, and Upday would expand to other markets in Europe – each national edition in its own language, as the four launches in German, French, English and Polish, suggest. Further, Samsung could include the Upday feature in a future phone software update; plainly, though, it wants to see results first. At this point, there is no plan to launch in North America.
Phone owners will be able to download their own Upday apps from the Samsung and Google Play stores; Springer will heavily promote it as well.
If news aggregation is an old play, Wuertenberger thinks Springer has found the right product at the right time. “Desktop is stagnant. Mobile is one or two years behind the U.S.”
Springer won’t disclose the nature of its business deal with Samsung, but it is the nature of its in-progress business dealing with publishers that should attention. From the dawn of news snippetization, publishers have complained about aggregators – especially Google – wringing value out their costly-to-produce content without compensation back to publishers. Springer, notably, has been among the noisiest on that topic, so Upday’s value prop stands out.
Springer will create a royalty pool for publishers, providing them with a small percentage – figure five percent or so, as this juncture – of the ad revenue Upday earns. Every tenth Upday news “card” will feature an ad. In each Upday nation served, a general manager will head the sales operation.
Upday’s new scheme further fragments offsite distribution models for publishers. Both Apple News and Facebook IA offer publishers a revenue share for advertising those platforms sell adjacent to publisher content, and all publishers to keep revenue on ads they sell themselves. What’s different here: Springer is acknowledging that snippets of publishers’ content create overall value, and it taking a small step to share it.
Such a sharing move is only logical for a Springer, which has insistently called for aggregator compensation over the years. Further, though, it offers the potential of a new marketplace model, especially important since the curation wars may be fought for a long time. Springer believes it had to include a compensation plan in Germany, as the 2013 national “ancillary copyright” law takes effect. Outside Germany, though, no such compunction forces the offering of shared revenue. This plan, as stated, could be a business model changer, put into the marketplace by the rare publisher/aggregator.
The question: How big a game changer might it be? That will depend on two things, the success of Upday and whether a five percent split of the revenue pool provides any meaningful revenue to fellow publishers.
“We now consider ourselves not a news aggregator, or a news app, but a news service for Samsung phones,” Jan-Eric Peters explained over a lunch in the Springer private dining room.
Peters isn’t your usual start-up editor. He moves over to Upday after 15 years as top editor of Die Welt, Springer’s flagship national daily. He is clearly enthused by the possibility of telling readers the day’s news in a new way.
Peters has drawn together a staff of 80, most of them at the Springer Berlin HQ. “Almost half of them are engineers. These engineers come from more than 20 countries. It's a really international team. We have someone who used to work for the product team of The New York Times. We have someone who used to work for the recommendation team of Amazon. We have people from India, from Colombia, from Romania.” Springer self-developed Upday’s platform.
In Germany, the team begins work at 4:30 AM, looking for links and then summarizing them in several bullet-points. Upday will be updated around the clock. As long as it stays Europe-centric, it will be driven by the continent’s news clock.
Peters’ staff has defined a first universe of 250 sources, a combination of news publishers, old and new, and top blogs. Video, of course, is included at launch.
It’s 2016, and the pinball effect of smart tech and smart editors is what Peters believes will give Upday its value to readers. While aggregators from Google to News Republic rely on the almighty algorithm, it’s the play between the algo and the human that will tell us whether Springer has really broken new ground here.
On Upday’s first screen, readers will find Top News and My News. Speed is of the essence, of course, and Upday will be AMPed up from day one. Readers make My News operational by choosing at least three initial topics; fail to personalize and Top News will take over the page.
Over time, data will tell Upday’s staff about its story mix and emphasis, and it will adjust accordingly. Data – what’s available and what will be used – poses an intriguing question. As the handset manufacturer, Samsung’s access to it can be deep and wide. For Springer, though, it will only use the data generated through Upday itself. “We will use your behavior on this service, just only on the service,” says Peters.
I suggested to Peters that the intangible of personality would ultimately make the difference as readers pick their favorite aggregation sites, that the editors’ voices, wit and judgment showing through would transform what can be a utilitarian briefing to a pleasure reading experience. He says he’s working on a conversational way for editors to connect with readers, perhaps using a thought bubble metaphor.
Further, he hopes to surprise readers with occasional premium content.
“I want to integrate premium content -- without having Upday readers to pay for it. Content which is usually only available behind paywalls elsewhere. I want that publishers to give us premium content and we deliver [to them] barter deals, ad space, or we give them the possibility for up-selling.”
If it can work that intersection of human editorial selectivity and old-fashioned deal-making meet, the Upday approach may offer readers good surprises.
It’s a product that aims to be both publisher- and reader-friendly. As readers click into a story from an Upday summary, the link takes them to a page that’s in the look and feel of the publisher, with ad display and full traffic credit passed along.
How did the deal come about? Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner (“The eight principles for transforming Axel Springer”) met Samsung’s top people more than a year ago. Wuertenbuerger and Kai Diekmann, now publisher of Springer’s top-selling Bild, followed up with a Seoul visit last summer. Working with a research team of more than half a dozen, the two companies have been on accelerated timeline for launch this spring. The deal reinforces two notions about Springer, which surprised many who hadn’t been watching the company carefully enough when it bought Business Insider in the fall. First, Dopfner sees his Berlin-based company as a truly global one, working with unusual partners, ones that hadn’t done much news partnering, is the mutual interest strikes. Secondly, Springer will invest substantially in product development as well as make big, and smaller, strategic acquisitions and investments.
The global angle offers another data point here. Korea’s centrality to this next step of the mobile revolution isn’t due just to Samsung’s position there. Ninety-five percent of the population enjoys 4G and 99 percent have smartphones, says Wuertenberger. In Germany, 70 percent move at 3G speed and 65 percent own smartphones. Always good to remember: The future is already here, somewhere on the globe, we just haven’t parceled it out very evenly.