Nuzzel: could email be the saviour of news?

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The days of electronic mail were supposed to have ended long ago – who would have thought it could be a potential saviour for news?

Mark Zuckerberg predicted email’s end when he launched Facebook Messenger as the so-called Google Gmail “killer” back in 2011. And the Financial Times asked “Is this the end of email?” that same year, as it highlighted the supposed “inefficiency” of the medium as a business tool.

Despite these predictions of its demise, email is set to grow from 205bn in daily worldwide traffic in 2015 to 246bn in 2019, with the number of users growing from 2.6 billion to 2.9 billion in the same period, according to Radicati. The average user sends and receives 122 mails a day. So it’s not just you.

Such statistics help explain the new interest in email as a distribution system for news.

A number of news titles have already taken steps in this direction. The Guardian launched its Guardian Today email newsletter in 2013 and has bespoke versions for its Australian and American readerships. The Times produces a Red Box daily newsletter, giving paying subscribers the best of its political content. Quartz, the Atlantic’s business-based digital brand, produces a particularly good product, Daily Brief.

But email could be a much more valuable platform to the news industry if it offered publishers not simply these daily communications to their own databases but an avalanche of trusted third-party recommendations of its content to new audiences, the kind of validation we currently associate with social media shares.

Because now that Facebook is so dominant as a platform for news distribution it’s incumbent on news providers to look for alternatives, especially when the social giant is perceived by publishers as taking an unfair share of revenues. A report by OC&C in August said Facebook and other social platforms would extract £450m a year out of the UK news industry by 2026. Worse, Facebook has recently shifted its algorithm to favour content from friends and family over news stories.

Jonathan Abrams thinks he may be able to offer the news industry a way out of this. A veteran of Silicon Valley and the internet, he deserves to be listened to. The founder and CEO of the news gathering app Nuzzel, he is also the managing partner of Founders Den, an exclusive San Francisco club for leading digital entrepreneurs.

More than that, he is known for founding Friendster, the pioneering social network that launched in 2002 ahead of MySpace and Facebook before being superseded by Zuckerberg’s company (which bought Friendster’s patents for $39.5m in 2009). That experience, and disappointment, gives him a a view of Facebook that must be quite unlike anybody else’s.

Abrams has long been fascinated by the future of the news industry. Nuzzel, with its distinctive hedgehog logo, is a social media filter which creates a bespoke news feed, based on the stories being shared the most by your friends and followers. So effective is it that it was suggested last year that Twitter should buy Nuzzel and rebrand it as Twitter News. Abrams was even touted as a potential Twitter CEO.

But he has big ambitions for Nuzzel and they are based on the enduring appeal of email.

'A logical successor to newspapers'

Backed by a $5m pot of investment (including backing from former Guardian Media Group CEO Andrew Miller and several other senior figures with news industry experience), Abrams wants to make Nuzzel the number one vehicle for creating and delivering newsletters, each of them containing a list of recommended stories, direct to your inbox.

“It sounds funny because email newsletters are obviously not new at all but they are kind of hotter than ever right now,” he says. “It’s in some ways a logical successor to getting a newspaper on your doorstep, having a newsletter just waiting for you in your inbox.”

The concept is based on two realisations: that the great bulk of the potential audience for news are “not really using” news apps (and probably never will), and that stories posted by news publishers and other content producers on social media are largely going unseen. “Most of your followers on Twitter and your fans on Facebook actually don’t see 90 per cent of what you post,” says Abrams. Nuzzel’s call to action to potential newsletter curators is based on a claim that “Email newsletters provide 40x the engagement of social media”.

Abrams’ ambition for this newsletter idea is immense. “We think this is one of the few things that has the potential to be hitting 100m a day,” he says. “If we had a thousand, or 10,000, or 100,000 influencers on our platform each with 1,000 followers, it does add up. You can do the math and see that it could get pretty big.”

This math also suggests that Nuzzel faces a massive challenge in scaling to those numbers of contributors, and requires the input not just of established news publishers but a vast army of bloggers and experts willing to put together regular lists of story recommendations. Since starting the scheme in May, Nuzzel is off to “a good start” but has “a lot more to do”, Abrams says. “Thousands” of users have already experimented with the newsletter tools.

He remains convinced that scale is achievable if the newsletter creation process is made “easier, more fun and less work” and says the resulting relationship between media companies or “influencers” and their readers is “a lot more intimate, a lot more recurring…and does not get controlled or filtered by Facebook”.

Nuzzel’s featured newsletter curators thus far are fairly limited but include the offerings of Economist Group chief strategist Suprio Guha Thakurta, tech pundit Leo Laporte, Nuzzel investor Chris Sacca and Abrams himself. The Nuzzel CEO’s newsletter includes a link to positive findings on the Pew Research website showing that younger adults are more likely than older ones to prefer reading news (as opposed to watching it) and a Facebook-bashing piece from Digiday highlighting Slate magazine’s concerns over the social network’s algorithm.

Facing up to Facebook

Abrams describes the dependency for traffic that some news publishers have on Facebook as “incredibly risky because Facebook could change the rules any time they want”. Some publishers “feel that Facebook is taking the economic benefit”, he notes. “It does seem like some publishers are more negative now on Facebook than they were a year or two ago.”

Nuzzel is not alone in this space. Matt Drudge was the great pioneer in the field, founding his subscription email service, The Drudge Report, from his apartment in 1996 and building it into a giant news aggregator , which is worth “hundreds of millions” according to Business Insider founder Henry Blodget. More recently, TheSkimm, a startup newsletter aimed at young women, is already said to be worth $55m and has secured $8m investment from backers including The New York Times, 21st Century Fox and Yannick Bolloré, CEO of French advertising group Havas.

The opportunities for using a network of newsletters as an advertising vehicle are not lost on Abrams. “It’s a way… to get incremental revenue because we can put ads in those newsletters and share that with the publishers,” he says.

He also acknowledges that there are opportunities for brands to create their own Nuzzel newsletters. “It could be anybody who’s a consultant, entrepreneur, journalist, anybody who writes online on a blog on Medium or LinkedIn, people who do podcasts. Anybody who is creating content online could supplement that with a newsletter.”

Abrams stresses the simplicity of the process. “We let people curate a newsletter right within our iPhone or Android app, so you can be on the bus or in line waiting to get your coffee and in just a few taps on your phone you can be doing your newsletter.”

This emphasis on speed and simplicity surely comes at a price. Abrams wants to make the newsletters interactive (which might not suit every curator), so subscribers can ask the influencer whether they have actually had time to read the articles they recommend (which is often not the case with stories shared on social media).

But the news industry is intrigued by the potential here, Abrams claims. “We’ve had talks with many, many news and media publishing companies,” he says. “The number one thing I heard from them was that they want to work out ways to increase engagement with readers. When I asked what their ideas were, most didn’t have a lot.”

After the phenomenal growth in social media in the 14 years since Abrams started Friendster (now a Malaysian-owned social gaming company), it seems strange that he is looking to email as the future of news distribution. But he points to a Reuters report saying that the average American spends six hours in their inbox a day (compared to 50 minutes on Facebook). “The reality is that today people probably read email more than ever and the number one app you probably use on your phone is email and everyone has a smartphone,” he says. “10 years ago, people who had Blackberries had access to their emails 24 hours a day but that was a minority – [but today] everybody is getting their email all day.”

And what if all this did all come off, and Nuzzel grew to behemoth status in the way Friendster might just have done if it hadn’t been for Facebook? Would Nuzzel not fall out with publishers too? “Well, if we had 100 million people getting one of these [newsletters] a day that would be pretty big and there are I think network effects,” he concedes. “But the likelihood of Nuzzel being in that position of being able to screw people over anytime soon is pretty low.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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