Mayank and I met at a pub in Covent Garden, the day after the Brexit vote. We chatted about how our friends had started blocking each other on Facebook because of comments on the 2015 election and Brexit. Initially, we thought this behaviour was hilarious — but the more we discussed it, the scarier it became. Why were they so surprised — and angry — to find people holding views that differed from their own? Had they really never encountered these ideas before?
It turned out that Mayank and I had spent the past year obsessed with the same thing. I was studying at the London School of Economics, he was at Oxford, and both of us were working on theses dissecting how Facebook had screwed journalism, and subsequently democracy.
Despite, or perhaps because of our fears, we decided to start working on an insane idea to “save journalism”, together with a small team including Harry Robertson, our head of editorial and Rohan Tahiliani, our CTO. I quit my cosy consultancy job and Mayank dropped out of University (much to the dismay of his family).
Our friends and family took some time to come around to the idea — but after a year of countless angry phone calls and awkward dinners, they started to come around.
And they weren’t alone: 10 months after launch we have a team of 12 and 50,000 users.
What happens in Covent Garden… doesn’t stay there.
If you’ve ever been as broke and busy as we are now, then you’ve probably noticed that your news sources rapidly become limited to what you see on Facebook and Twitter. These sites are great for quips, jokes and gifs of animals doing fun things.
What they’re not great for is high quality journalism. That’s because they base the ranking of what you see on popularity, what your “friends” enjoy and, crucially, what they agree with.
Simultaneously, advertising revenue from news has rapidly declined, and publishers have responded by erecting paywalls. This is understandable, but it only exacerbates the problem. The average consumer can only really afford to pay for a single publication — and therefore a limited point of view. Newspapers themselves end up compounding the filter bubble created by Facebook and Twitter.
So, unless you have shed-loads of expendable income and tons of free time, you have three options:
1: A stream of clickbait that reinforces your current opinions
2: Loads of decent articles — but all from a single publication
3: Completely ignoring the news.
So here’s the obvious question:
“What does a news platform that is accessible to everyone look like?”
How we answered the question
We started by touring universities across the UK and speaking with more than 1,000 students. They wanted to be better informed and were worried that it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so.
We didn’t want to just build an app for students: we wanted to build an app with students.
From our conversations with students and our own studies, we distilled the task into three challenges:
- Create a feed of quality journalism that can’t be found on Facebook
- Make that feed accessible to as many people as possible
- Make it possible to consume that feed in the shortest amount of time possible
Solve these, and journalism becomes open to everyone — no matter how much money you have, or how lazy you are.
What does “quality” mean?
In the early days of the internet, the AOL homepage was paid for and curated by humans. Then Google came along, and proclaimed that quality content was determined by the strength and number of links to it. Finally, Facebook arrived, which considers your friends to be the best metric of quality. It’s become painfully obvious that the last systems have proven to be enormous failures at sourcing reliable, quality news pieces.
The answer: curation.
The holy grail of sorting content is to have expertise, experience and skill determine what is of the highest importance.
The only issue? That type of curation doesn’t scale.
Enter artificial intelligence. We’ve spent 18 months training an AI editor, by having it shadow the curation performed by professional journalists on a gigantic range of topics. After reading hundreds of thousands of articles and observing literally millions of curation decisions, it now works independently.
We’ve combined the expertise of trained curators with the limitless scalability of an algorithm.
This AI can work on any topic, spotting articles that our team miss. Oddly enough, no one on our team has ever fought sheep before. They’d never even heard of it. But that didn’t stop the AI editor picking out probably the most interesting perspective on the Algerian sheep fighting industry.
And this is just the beginning. Every day the AI editor reads new articles, learns more from our curation team, and redesigns itself. It’s only going to get better.
Compass News: get smarter, quicker.
Compass is like having your own personal journalist on hand at all times, ready to explain what’s going on in the world.
You get real-time updates on important headlines, explained in the most succinct way possible. The day’s best articles are chosen, summarised and presented with background explanations by a expert curation team working in tandem with our AI editor. You’ll have a practical understanding of a topic in a matter of minutes — something that would take you hours to get anywhere else.
All of this happens in one app, which has been live for ten months, and is used by 50,000 students.
This is what our audience looks like:
We’re deploying new proprietary AI which will massively expand the scope of Compass — and simultaneously enable in-depth personalisation for every user.
We’re lucky to have a team of incredibly talented journalists, developers and engineers who genuinely want to make journalism accessible for everyone.
Our Slack channels, Facebook groups and Trello boards are filled with the chatter of a generation which cares far more about journalism than anyone gives them credit for. We’re going to keep listening to them.
Joining Matter, an investor that cares about the future of media, is exciting as hell. We can’t wait to work with the Matter Eight teams in New York and San Francisco.
If you want to drop us a line you’ll find us at firstname.lastname@example.org, but for now, thanks for reading.