Netflix for news: Is this app the future of journalism?
It is billed as the Spotify of journalism.
CompassNews is an app that offers content from all the major paywall publishers for just £3 a month if you’re a student and £5 a month if you’re not. Its founders claim it will help digital journalism make money and encourage Millennials to pay for their news.
I spoke to 25-year-old co-founder Matilde Giglio about the app that she says is the future of journalism.
Matilde first became involved with Compass last May while she was studying a masters at LSE. Her professor introduced her to Mayank Banerjee, an Oxford PPE grad who wanted to take the subscription model of Spotify and Netflix and apply it to journalism.
The idea immediately appealed to Matilde and she, along with two friends Harry Roberson and Felix Light, began working on the burgeoning app for free.
‘Everyone thinks that it’s cool and amazing,’ Matilde laughed, ‘but how you end up is probably gaining five pounds, being friendless, no social life, living in the office.’
Nine months later CompassNews is finally on students’ smart phones. It was released across LSE, Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick and York earlier this month with the usual start-up fanfare including merchandised condoms emblazoned with the tag line ‘because news is f*cked’.
The numbers are promising, according to Matilde, who says in one week almost 2,000 students signed up.
So what’s it like?
I tooled around with the app, in all honesty not expecting much, and it is very impressive.
The top tab gives you ‘today’s need to know headlines’. When I checked they included the latest Trump disaster, the impeachment of the South Korean president and Theresa May’s reaction to the Budget. There’s a brief summary of each story as you swipe through, no more than 50 words, so you can get your news bearings.
The main feature is a scrolling feed of analysis, articles and features on the news of the day - I’m not allowed to say which publishers are on there but trust me, it’s all the best ones.
It’s a bit like your Facebook timeline but instead of that girl you used to go to school with who is in the Caribbean yet again and endless dog videos, it’s all serious quality journalism. Maybe a little too serious. One criticism I would make is the selection of heavy political and economic news did make me feel like I was running through the reading list of a PPE undergrad. I’d recommend a little thoughtful fluff - I’m a big believer in fluff - to add a little glamour and human interest to the mix.
The ‘perspectives’ tab is the one Matilde is most excited about. It’s this feature which she says will combat the ‘echo chamber’ phenomenon - when people find their views continually reenforced by the news they consume on social media as their followers and friends usually have the same political beliefs and worldview and share accordingly.
The app offers you the left wing, right wing and centrist take on one issue.
I clicked on Marine Le Pen. You don’t realise how differently publications treat the same story until you see the headlines side by side. Or at least I didn’t. Compare and contrast these two. ‘There will be no President Pen’ one publication confidently declared, while another warned ‘Madame “Frexit” looms large as the French political centre disintegrates’.
My favorite section was Discover - full of wordy features divided by topic: politics, economy, science & tech, arts & entertainment, magazine, and intersectionality - Compass knows its Millennial market.
There were a few glitches. I think it’s only fair to include the journalist’s byline on each article which is strangely omitted on Compass. It’s also missing a scroll bar on the side of the screen so you don’t know how far you are through a piece or more pertinently, how much more you’ve got to read.
But these are minor quibbles and all in all, I’m an unabashed fan. The concept is brilliant: I mean, why isn’t there a Netflix of news already? I would happily pay a fiver a month for it - hell I’d pay up to three times that.
I was interested to hear how Matilde got the publishers on board. It was difficult, she admitted.
‘That was the hardest bit to be honest with you. It is very hard to make publishers work together on something. Even though the industry is broken, it’s hard to make them experiment.’
Compass is aimed squarely at the Millennial market, but will 18 to 26 year olds, who have grown up with free high quality journalism on tap, reach into their pockets and actually pay for content?
Matilde thinks that they will - as long as the price is low enough.
‘Young people either start to pay for content, even if it’s very very little, or they’ll never get the habit. My father used to buy a couple of newspapers and they were always in my house. Now my friends have Netflix, they have Spotify, but there is nothing like that for journalism.
‘Actually if you see the data, the highest rate of conversion for Spotify and Netflix happens in that demographic, 18 - 26. It’s not that young people don’t want to pay, it’s that they don’t want to pay £20 for one thing, they want to pay £5 for many things.’
Interestingly Matilde sees the app as a ‘bridge’ between paying nothing for content and subscribing to one publisher.
‘The reality is right now this demographic won’t pay for any individual publisher or they’ll pay for one of them.
‘So the question is how can you create brand affiliation from an early age - from when people are 21, 22, 23. They would never pay for the FT right now, because it’s too expensive. But if they can get some articles from them, they probably will.
‘We want to act as a bridge, from zero spending to “yes, I’m going to buy a subscription to the FT”. Because they start appreciating the content.’
Of course, with the subscription price as low as £3 a month, the business model will only work with a huge number of subscribers. Netflix has 86 million paying subscribers; Spotify has over 40 million.
‘If you get two million users who pay £2.99 each, that’s when it starts to get interesting,’ she said.
So could this app, dreamt up and developed by a band of LSE students, finally answer that persistent, troubling question: how the hell does journalism make money online?
Matilde ‘hopes’ so. The revenue generated by the app will be split 70/30 in favour of the publisher.
‘We want to save or try to save this industry at a moment when they can’t make any money from advertising because 90 per cent of the money is taken by big players like Facebook and Google.’
I don’t know whether Compass will work - whether it does or not hinges on whether enough people are willing to finally pay, even very little, for their news and I fear it will be an uphill battle to get the volume of subscribers needed to make the model viable.
But I really, really hope this app succeeds.
If you are interested in downloading the app, find out more at www.compassnews.co.uk