How Reuters made a free personalised 'news wire' with app based on 5,000 niche topics

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.

Reuters has switched its consumer strategy away from general news audiences to target professionals with a highly personalised news app designed to inform rapid business decision-making.

The new service, which went live this week, aims to replicate the scrolling experience of timelines on Facebook and Twitter, while allowing users to customise their diet of Reuters content from 5,000 hyper-niche news “feeds” on specialist topics, industry sectors, companies and individuals.

“We are allowing people to curate their own news wire,” says Isaac Showman, managing director of Reuters Consumer, in an interview with The Drum. “That’s an incredibly powerful proposition.”

The “big shift” in direction by the 166-year-old news agency comes out of a recognition that edited general news services can better be provided by newspapers and other mainstream news organisations, many of which are Reuters clients, he says. Historically we have been a bit more general (news) focused. What we have found is that is actually something that is done better by many of our clients and media partners.”

'We have had to rebuild everything to make this work'

Showman, who is based in New York, says the previous Reuters news app “borrowed a lot of conventions from traditional publishers like newspapers”, such as broad subject sections “like ‘Business’”. Reuters produces a tsunami of content, amounting to a daily average of 5,500 stories. This window on “all the world’s news as it is taking place” can “very quickly become overwhelming” to general news consumers, he says. “[With the] incredible amount of content that we are producing – those broad sections don’t work for you.”

By focusing on user utility and personalisation, Reuters hopes to make its news app an indispensable tool for professionals, providing a free-to-access service in a news market where specialist and trusted business information is often found behind a paywall. “It’s quite a deliberate decision – an expression that we have a commitment around serving the business professional audience,” says Showman. “We have had to rebuild everything to make this work.”

This has been an evolutionary journey that began in 2009 when Reuters – which since it was founded by media entrepreneur Paul Reuter in the mid-nineteenth century has served banks, companies and newspapers with financial data and news from around the world – responded to growing mobile consumption of digital news by launching a News Pro app to give real-time access to its news wire. In 2013 it introduced a new Reuters news app aimed at a general news audience.

The news agency has changed tack after consulting users of the previous app on how they were using the service. “They are not looking at our news as a way of just getting a general update on what’s going on, they are looking for our news to take action against,” says Showman. “The content is now organised in the specific way that matches people’s professional purposes.”

In beta testing users identified “Breaking News” as the most useful service the app could provide. “The new Reuters news app is born out of the fact that people aren’t reading Reuters content with their feet up on the sofa,” Showman says. “They are looking at Reuters content when they need to make a decision, they want to know whether something has happened and whether or not something is true.”

Having downloaded the new app, users can operate a carousel of topic headings which they construct themselves from the 5,000 feed options – something Reuters is calling “the on-boarding process”. So, for example, ‘Media News’, ‘Sky’, ‘Disney’ and ‘Rupert Murdoch’, are all subjects with their own feeds, which can be selected and accessed each time the user consults the app.

Business and show business side by side

The focus on a professional audience doesn’t mean that showbusiness news is off the Reuters agenda. “We are aiming at business professionals but it’s not just business content,” Showman says. “People will subscribe to a feed on bonds and another one on Beyoncé. People have varied interests and Reuters is famous for covering the entertainment and commodities markets with the same level of rigour and quality.”

One particular news feed is a reminder of the global scope of Reuters’ team of 2,500 journalists in 200 countries and the risks they can face; headed ‘Detained in Myanmar’, it contains coverage of the two agency journalists in custody and facing 14 years in jail, accused of violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act while investigating the killings of ten Rohingya Muslims in an army crackdown.

While other news apps offer users a customised service (such as the ‘My News’ feature on the BBC News app), Reuters will hope that its depth of information and its exceptional coverage of the markets will give it an edge with professionals.

As users scroll down their feeds they are able to see more than just the headlines of the stories, with a one paragraph summary provided with each piece. The experience is not dissimilar to reading an email newsletter and quickly getting the gist of each nugget without needing to click through to the underlying article. It’s the same feel as descending a social media timeline (Showman says the app designers were influenced by user behaviour on Instagram) but with the safety guarantee that every piece has passed through the hands of Reuters journalists.

Because there is less of an imperative on the user to click through to an article, Reuters says it is rethinking the way it gauges its own performance, favouring time spent on the app over the number of page views. “We don’t necessarily care about whether page views are X or Y, that’s not what we are focused on,” Showman says. “We are focused on the total engagement,…the absolute loyalty of our users and how long they are spending with our content.”

Measuring success according to the time users spend on the app “over a monthly period” is another “big shift for a publisher like us”, he argues. “(Previously) we had a list of headlines that people clicked on and opened the article. The product managers were thinking that we need people to click on articles and page views are a measure of success – that would work in a web 1.0 business but not in the modern environment we are creating.”

Showman is the founder and former managing director of Reuters TV, which launched more than three years ago and was billed as “News for the Netflix Age”. That product was designed to allow users to create their own personalised news show from Reuters videos, 300 of which are produced each day. Reuters TV has been integrated into the new Reuters news app and Showman says that the “utility” elements of the video product were fundamental to the repositioning of the new service. “At the heart of Reuters TV was a recognition that if we can let you choose how long you want your news show to be and always be on-demand for you and automatically download it when you go into the train station then we become useful to you and a better provider of news.”

The Reuters news app, which is initially available on Apple’s iOS but will be extended to Android devices, is advertiser supported and users have the option of allowing their ads to be customised to their interests. Showman says that Reuters, which operates a mix of specialist subscriber and advertiser funded services, will monitor the audience response to the news service and that charging for access remains a possibility for the future. “What we have decided initially is that we want to prove out this new experience and the value we are creating for users – then we will do the analysis of what the market opportunity looks like,” he says.

“The one thing we do know is that the users – with some exceptions – don’t pay for content; they pay for the benefits they get from that content.”

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

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