Ongo, an aggregator of news from major publications, just released this weekend a new enhanced version of its service for the iPad.
The new iPad service offers subscribers news from more brands, such as Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest newspaper in Japan, and an interface that feels like you're reading a magazine. It also takes advantage of the touch-centric UI with carousels and articles as blocks. So on the homepage, you may just see eight featured stories with images vs. links to top stories. Unlike a typical news site from a Web browser where you have to make the text larger to see what you're reading, the iPad app adjusts for the smaller screen. Hence the limited stories and the bigger font size.
There's also support for magazines (so you can see covers, and table of contents) and a better browser for picking titles. You must have iOS 4.2 on your iPad to download the app.
Ongo, founded in 2009, is a service that's owned equally by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Gannett Company. The publications invested a combined $12 million into the start-up, and it was launched in mid-2010.
Since then, the service has added 16,000 paying subscribers, adding 200 new subscribers each day, according to Alex Kazim, founder and CEO of Ongo, in an interview with me. For the $2 monthly subscription service, readers get access to around 800 stories from top publications, including 20 stories from the NYTimes, all of Washington Post, Reuters and AP, and four stories from The Financial Times. Readers can also buy different publications through an a la carte service. For instance, buying the LA Times would cost $10 a month (compared to about $15 a month if you purchased the LA Times directly).
Ongo works with more than 30 publishers and more than 80 premium titles. And, the company has yet to add in all of the local papers owned by Gannett, said Kazim.
So why would someone subscribe? "Part of it is convenience," said Kazim, suggesting that Ongo is to text content as cable companies are to video programs. "We've gone out and licensed all the [best] content for you." To the extent someone would want all those publications in one place, then Ongo is worth checking out.
Ongo's six full-time editors sift through all the papers to find the best articles to present. Unlike new aggregators that focus on personalization and algorithms to determine the most relevant news stories, Ongo's editors determine the curation process. There is no personalization component to the service at all. When I say personalization, I mean the ability for readers to choose preferences, and for the service to learn a person's tastes to automate the news-selection process.
Personalization vs human curation
"There are three different ways to discovery," said Kazim. "There's social, personalization and curation. We feel no one is doing a good job with curation."
Indeed, in the past couple years, it does seem that there's been more interest on the part of major media companies to build up their personalized news offerings. The Washington Post launched Trove in February 2011, after buying iCurrent - the personalized news service that underlies the technology. This service allows readers to choose categories and publications they're interested in hearing from. I do like the fact that readers can "choose" publications. This is unlike Curate.me, which recently launched and aggregates content based on your network. In this case, Curate.me doesn't allow subscribers to select the publications, which I think is a feature it should add. The NY Times also has its own personalized news service, called News.me.
But personalizaion, while a nice filtering addition, doesn't always beat out editors. And, I'm not saying this because I am an editor. As I've pointed out in the past, there will be those who want to personalize their news and make selections. Personalization is great, but only if people care to have things personalized. People are inherently lazy. And, asking them to select categories isn't something they'll want to do, even if their tastes change over time. There's also the fact that some people don't want to give up their preferences because they don't want anyone to know that they're really interested in knowing. They secretly interested in the Britney Spears' gossip, but will publicly say they're interested in Dostoyevsky.
And, there's always the serendipitous nature of newspapers that people may not want to lose.
Often people don't want to read about what they're interested in, they want to be surprised.