BARCELONA, Spain -- At MWC 2014 I managed to sit down with former Summly founder and recent A-level Yahoo hire Nick D'Aloisio. He spoke to me hot on the heels of Yahoo bringing its News Digest app to iOS device users in the UK. Edited automatically by brainy software but curated by real, live people, Yahoo's graphically flashy mobile application apparently still needs a human touch. I just hope things stay that way.
Change can be scary but good
To be clear, I'm no Luddite. I'm a technology writer, after all, who reviews the latest mobile gear that I can get my hands on. I also can't deny that a sea-change is coming regarding how people interact with everything from cars and TVs, to toasters and thermostats. Yes, the Internet of things is upon us, and machines small and large run code or are automated in some way. Autos park and, to a certain extent, drive themselves, while drones cruise unaided through our skies.
So why should I find Mr. D'Aloisio's (whose official title is Product Manager, Mobile and Emerging Products) mobile software threatening? In truth, I don't -- at least not yet. In fact, as a veteran user of many news aggregators over the years, I think Yahoo News Digest is quite refreshing. Its simple, clean design is easy to navigate, which makes it fun to use -- not an easy accomplishment. Sorry, but Taptu and Pulse don't cut the mustard in my book.
Additionally, I like how Yahoo has broken down News Digest into a series of numbered nuggets (typically, eight) called clusters. The app also keeps track of how many news clusters you read and how many you have remaining before completing the current digest. According to D'Aloisio, the purpose behind this approach is to give the reader a sense of accomplishment after they've churned through all the articles the application has pulled together.
What's more, the decision to have News Digest serve up two editions, one in the morning and one for evening, seems tailor-made for daily commuters like myself. Content is automatically cached too so you'll be able to read everything offline without an Internet connection. D'Aloisio agrees, stating that, "This app was designed for subway reading, everything about it. It's very easy, very quick, and takes just two or three minutes to go through all the stories." As a New Yorker, I can tell you that fast is always good, though sleep is always better.
A tale of humans and robots
The aspect of D'Aloisio's creation that causes me discomfort is its automatic newswriting abilities. The algorithm that Yahoo has cooked up actually boils down targeted-source news stories into one or two pages of super-distilled text. While I admit that may be a great solution for time-strapped subway riders, I'm unsettled by what this bodes for professional writers. OK, sometimes it may not look like it, but journalists work hard crafting articles. The idea of having someone, no, something smash our words into a sausage grinder and then spit out a watered-down article -- is, well, frightening. Heck, I bet royal scribes were freaked out by movable type and the printing press, too.
"Newspapers have been rehashing content like this for a century, since the wires existed."
However, D'Aloisio thinks the media doesn't have much to fear, stating, "Yahoo has been taking these same fully-licensed sources and rehashing them for over 15 years, and newspapers have been rehashing content like this for a century, since the wires existed. We're not scrapping or doing anything different or without permission."
More to the point, he explained that each digest edition pulls topics and sources from a list vetted by real people. Indeed, what's key to the success of the News Digest is Yahoo's proven editorial staff. They decide what appears in each digest edition. As D'Aloisio puts it, "The digest is what needs to be precise. Nothing should be missed, ever. Otherwise, I'm not going to use the app myself."