I’m supposed to be writing about Rockmelt, a social news reader that today is launching an Android app, but I can’t help thinking about the death of journalist Michael Hastings.
So, brace yourself for an unfair comparison.
Hastings was a rare journalist – especially in today’s media environment. He was unapologetically an outsider, willing to break the rules of access journalism to bring his readers something close to the truth. This uncompromising approach was evident not only in his reporting on McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, but also in his ebook on the 2012 Presidential election, “Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign,” in which he deliberately broke ranks with his fellow reporters to shed just a sliver of light on a tightly controlled political operation.
Hastings was the sort of guy who would piss someone off every time he opened his mouth, but he was always at least a little bit right. His indignation and disgust at the status quo, his suspicion of the powers-that-be, and his refusal to back down in the face of the official line were enough to inspire any reporters who hope that the work they do can be meaningful. Hastings went to his death knowing that he held nothing back in his quest to serve his readers. There is no higher honor for a journalist.
So now for the jarring, unfair comparison: the difference between Rockmelt’s social reader, which lets users find new content on their smartphones and share it with their friends, and the work done by Hastings and his peers.
In anticipation of today’s 8am PST embargo lift, yesterday I had a conversation with Rockmelt CTO and co-foudner Tim Howes about the new Android app for their reading recommendation service. It’s a beautiful app. So let’s get this all out of the way: Rockmelt, which used to be a desktop browser before pivoting to focus on content discovery, provides users with an endless stream of stories presented in a unified, cleanly designed format for mobile. Users can easily share those stories via Facebook and Twitter while also choosing to follow certain people within the Rockmelt network, which so far numbers more than 1 million sign-ups. The Android version, unlike the iPhone version, has navigation tools at the bottom of the screen, because Android screens tend to be bigger, and it shows off a dual-column display when the phone or tablet is held horizontally. That feature is based on the recognition that many young people tend to prefer to read their phones in landscape mode.
All well and good. Rockmelt is clearly a highly functional reading and discovery tool with first-rate design, deserving of mention in the same breath as Digg, Flipboard, Prismatic, Futureful, and the likes.
But I’m just not convinced that Rockmelt, which has raised about $40 million in venture capital, is solving a real problem. I mean, discovery? We have Reddit, we have email recommendations, we have Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, news readers such as Pulse, Zite, and News360, as well as the other ones mentioned above. We have blogs, newsletters, newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio stations, podcasts, RSS readers, app stores, digital news stands… At some point, you just have to ask: Why do we need more?
Finding content on the Web is not a serious problem. It’s a leisure problem – as in, it’s only really applicable to someone who has too much leisure time. If someone ever comes to me to say, “Oh, I can’t find anything decent to read on the Internet while I’m killing time waiting for my Uber,” I’m just going to slap them.
And this is where the contrast to Hastings is so painfully evident. Hastings was doing work that, in part because of digital media, is becoming less financially viable by the day (even though he was employed by BuzzFeed, a digital media startup). His brand of hard-hitting, deeply researched investigative journalism is proving increasingly difficult to sustain for media companies that are now more used to cutting budgets than they are to investing in quality reporting. But that’s a problem that tech is not doing much to solve.
Instead, because software people think in terms of efficiencies and scalability, we get this surfeit of applications that deal in repackaging other people’s content in a highly personalized and streamlined fashion. The concerns that are given most attention are distribution and discovery, not the promotion of civic-minded independent journalism, and certainly not any way to make it a more profitable enterprise. The media-minded engineers of Silicon Valley and New York appear to have been inspired by a Google News mindset that is distinguished by its impulse for aggregation and categorization rather than recognition of sacrifice and courage. While these news aggregation companies often claim to democratize media and improve access to information, they simultaneously eschew the real problem inherent in today’s media business: monetization.
I am not suggesting that the dwindling fortunes of the media business is the tech industry’s issue to solve. But if the likes of Rockmelt and its well-funded ilk are serious about solving difficult “change the world”-type problems, they ought to look at reporters like Michael Hastings and ask themselves, “How can we support work like that?”
Frankly, another news reader just isn’t going to do it.