Compass News: the millennial news app saving democracy one bullet point at a time

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Matilde Giglio and Mayank Banerjee met in a pub in Covent Garden in 2015. David Cameron had just won a general election for the Conservatives; the UK was one year away from the fateful referendum that would see the country withdraw from the EU. 

Giglio and Banerjee got talking about how their friends had started blocking one another on Facebook because they had different political views. The pair have more to say about the subject than most. A different universities, they both focused on social media’s impact on journalism and democracy.

“Initially, we thought this behaviour was hilarious – but the more we discussed it, the scarier it became,” says Giglio. “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?”

What started as idle pub chat turned into “an insane idea to save journalism”. The pair went straight to the source. They asked university students all over the UK what they wanted from the news. Then they set out to design an app that would provide their age-group with non-partisan information that could break through the shouting online. 

The result is Compass News: an app that summarises the biggest news stories in bullet points twice a day. Unlike many news feeds that scroll endlessly, Compass is designed to be consumed in its entirety.

While not a unique proposition – the Economist trialled a similar idea with its Espresso app – this sets Compass apart. On many news websites, including Apple and Google News, advertisers depend on readers consuming as many articles as possible to get click-throughs. 

The creators of Compass want people to feel informed but not overwhelmed. Giglio says: “We want them to feel like you can read our summaries and for today, you are done.”

The app has accrued 65,000 users since its official launch in November 2017, though many of these were trialling the app in beta as university “ambassadors” recruited during their research. But the number investors and publishing executives are truly excited about is the percentage of readers that keep coming back, which is about double the industry average.

Investors have plugged $1m into Compass in a funding round this year. Giglio and Banerjee have moved to New York to work with Matter, an accelerator programme that was among those investors, to grow Compass in the US.

The big challenge for them now is to offer high quality news at scale. The good news is that the tools they’re using to do that are only improving with time.

“We have trained an AI [artificial intelligence] editor based on the millions of decisions our editors have made over the last few months,” says Giglio. Compass has 12 staff, including journalists from Wired, the FT and the Times. Their head of machine-learning was previously did the same role at Daily Mail. Giglio says what they couldn’t pay him in salary they made up for in dedication to the problem: “Luckily, he is obsessed with news.”  

Compass editors started off staff cherry-picking what they call “quality content” from 20 publishers and summarising it on the app. When I ask Giglio what quality means to them, she says: “We’re less bothered by finding an arbitrary way to define quality but we want to be able to spot it when we see it.”

While that can mean New Yorker articles, it also means less obvious choices that give readers a sideways look at a story or an idea. Editors did a double take when the algorithm threw out a story on Algerian sheep-fighting but found it enlightening as a take on youth culture.

Over time, the AI editor has learned from the human editors how to identify the best or most engaging version of a story. It now scans more than 100 publisher feeds and can pick out interesting, unusual or high-quality takes to serve up. 

Readers who want more than the three bullet points in the “three-second summary” can click through the headline to the original publisher of the article. Those who are unfamiliar with the story can click on a tab called “what’s the story so far” and get a few paragraphs of background to bring them up to speed.

The summaries are there to help readers break into stories that they might otherwise find impenetrable. “Because of the amount that information costs and because of fake news, there is the risk that an entire generation doesn’t follow the news and just gives up, and we really don’t want that to happen,” says Giglio. “It’s an entire generation that isn’t taken care of and that’s very upsetting, not just for Facebook, but for publishers themselves.”

Rather than relying on advertising, Compass is concentrating on monetising its algorithms including those that scan and summarise the news. Another has the ability to search an entire publisher’s archive and categorise an article according to its themes, how it makes readers feel and whether it is right-wing or left.

Giglio says the discovery of this algorithm was kind of an accident: “It’s something we were developing for our recommendations system. But we realised that it could help publishers to monetise their archive, which helps convert readers to subscribers.” They are now in talks with several publishers that need to produce relevant, quality content with fewer staff and tighter budgets about licensing and developing the algorithm as part of their content management systems.

Compass also has plans to start charging a minimal subscription fee within the next few months. The founders want to keep the app accessible for fear of creating a two-tier system where only those who can pay get to consume quality news. “We think most news aggregators have a new aggregation model that means readers will see clickbait that is not based on the article,” Giglio says. “We think the only incentive should be to create high-quality content, which is why we decided to charge.”

“We want to give people their lives back,” says Banerjee. He means that, rather than trying more tricks to keep readers scrolling mindlessly through the news, Compass wants to make the news simpler and more engaging to consume than the competition.

“Democracy only works if people know what they’re talking about,” says Banerjee. “Our job is to make sure that on complicated topics, people have some idea of what’s happening.”

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