The company formerly known as WaPo moves into tech apps

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on January 22, 2014

From The News Desk

Journalism is supposedly dying, but that hasn't stopped Silicon Valley entrepreneurs from trying it out. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes started the trend by buying the New Republic in 2012. Amazon's Bezos followed suit, purchasing The Washington Post in October 2013. And eBay's Pierre Omidyar came soon after, with the $250 million funding of Glenn Greenwald's First Look Media.

They don't pretend they'll make easy, fast riches off it. After all, they've already made their money, and media would be a sadomasochistic place to try to raise more. This is just where they choose to spend said riches, because they believe "the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy."

Well, two can play at that game. If tech can take on journalism, why can't journalism take on tech?

Today, the company formerly known as WaPo -- now called Graham Holdings -- has announced a new business endeavor in journalism. Surprisingly, said endeavor doesn't have much to do with actual journalism at all -- it falls squarely in the tech camp. It's a content discovery app called Trove.

Trove fits in the now-torrential trend of such applications. Companies like Flipboard, Prismatic, Rockmelt, and N3twork have all tread this ground long before Trove. They're all convinced that places like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS readers are not good enough for finding the best stories.

I have made no pretense of my lack of interest in such apps. Do we really need yet another place to find and consume content? How much free time do we all have anyways to be monitoring news on Twitter, RSS feeders, Facebook, news apps like Pulse and Circa, and through the myriad of content discovery apps?

It just seems like a decidedly first world problem that isn’t really that much of a problem except to extreme news junkies. Poor Prismatic, which is a pretty, functional app for those who use it, bore the brunt of my snarky perspective in the last such encounter.

So to find out that The Washington Post's first journalism action sans the revered, award-winning paper itself was to turn around and build an app in a sector already overwhelmed with such apps, made me a little sad. A traditional journalism company chases niche tech ideas that have already been executed.

But there was a catch this time.

The two men behind Trove have rich and storied histories. Vijay Ravindran, the CEO of Trove, served as The Washington Post's Chief Digital Officer before the sale, and ran ordering at Amazon for seven years before that. Reuters oped columnist Jack Shafer even predicted (incorrectly) that Ravindran would be named the new WaPo publisher after the sale. The other Trove heavyweight is product lead Rob Malda, who is also the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Slashdot -- the predecessor of every user-focused news aggregator since, from Digg to Reddit to Hacker News.

These men both have vision and the talent to execute, and could have tackled a range of important problems. Yet they chose to take on content discovery. Why?

Ravindran and Malda trotted out the familiar list of reasons why a content discovery app is needed.  "If I load up Twitter, it will show me something about a sports team I don't care about -- it values real time so much that I miss out on that deep thoughtful thing from 20 minutes ago," Malda says. I remained unconvinced.

But Ravindran had a second argument that struck home. "Do you know Jason Hirschhorn's MediaREDEF newsletter?" Ravindran asked.

For those who don't follow MediaREDEF: Do. You won't regret it. It's the most compelling, weird, relevant, emotional, or unexpected stories of the day, in tech and occasionally other sectors. It's a little present in your inbox.

"We're trying to enable Jason's platform but more widely," Ravindran says. "Making Jason Hirschhorn scale, picking best stories, contextualizing why it makes sense and sending it out to people who really care about the subject."

What Ravindran means by that is they're hoping to take the magic of a newsletter like Hirschhorn's -- the brilliant selection of must-read stories in a sector -- and apply it to other topics.

They want obsessive hobbyists and topic enthusiasts to "curate" streams of news that they're interested in -- called troves -- separated into various categories. If you're a Harry Potter geek who also loves photography and entrepreneurship, you might have three such troves, where you pick the stories you like best and add a note about why. This is much the same as how fellow content app Prismatic operates.

There's one big difference though: With its roots in traditional journalism, Trove was able to onboard 15 beta curators who are experts in various sectors, from Vivek Wadhwa on "Advancing Technologies" to Top Chef's Spike Mendelsohn on "Farm To Table." Malda and Ravindran's hope is that other big names will follow suit.

Users will follow the troves of experts they trust to surface the best stuff for them.

"When I joined [The Washington Post], Don sold me on the power of technology to create the type of products that allow original content journalism to continue," Ravindran says. "I've bought into that vision."

For him, content discovery apps aren't just a frivolous way to find even more stuff to read and pass the time. They're a way of ensuring the most quality reporting and journalism rises to the top.

It's a way of suppressing the noise -- the clickable Upworthy headlines and naked Miley Cyrus photos and SEO optimized HuffPo blogs -- to find the most worthwhile stories and keep them from getting lost.

"The future of journalism is bright, but it's not clear what brings that product to readers," Ravindran says. Of course, he's hoping it will be Trove.

Alright fine. I'm not totally sold, but perhaps I've written off these content discovery apps too soon. I'm going to start using Prismatic, Trove, and N3twork, and see how my world changes. Stay tuned.