In the ongoing debate over the future of the media business, especially when it comes to news, the extremes tend to dominate, and not just ideologically.
- "The future is hyper-local."
- "The future is global."
- "Algorithms can do it all." (Google News.)
- "You can't cut your way to growth by laying off reporters."
But the answers so many media execs are seeking are probably not going to be found at the extremes, rather somewhere in the middle. They are likely to come from smart pragmatists who value good journalism, understand technology (including its limits), and are committed to developing the user interfaces and business models that serve the shifting information needs of our physical communities now.
People like Darian Shirazi, the 22-year-old founder and CEO of Fwix, a local news aggregator that searches out credible news sources among bloggers in various communities to provide an alternative to the great disappearing act that is the traditional daily metropolitan newspaper in cities like San Francisco.
When he dropped out of the philosophy program at U-C, Berkeley, to start Fwix a little over a year ago, Shirazi says he did so because "I no longer could find out what was going on in my own city (San Francisco)."
Amen to that.
The Hearst-owned daily known as the San Francisco Chronicle has endured so many rounds of layoffs and buyouts over the past few years that they are now renting out space to tech startups. With the exception of a few columnists, there is little of value left emanating from the corner of Fifth & Mission that can't be found earlier, easier, and more reliably at sites like Fwix.
I discovered this when I grew tried of trying to locate local news of interest from the more celebrated "hyper-local" offering like Every Block and Outside In, both of which I've covered extensively here at Bnet.
But to my great disappointment, neither has ever delivered any news about the Bay Area that I didn't already know.
Fwix is different. Recently, I read all sorts of news stories of interest, the types that used to be in the Chronicle. I wondered how they do it and that's the question I put to Shirazi yesterday.
"The local media space has become fragmented," he said. "Local media institutions are in decline. Journalists who used to be at the newspapers are now bloggers. We are using technology to attempt to 'de-fragment' locally-published content, and to do so in real-time. There are lots of good tools for doing that."
Once the company's algorithms identify potential high-quality bloggers in a community, its team of human editors take over, determining which ones make the cut.
Fwix is still new, but it already has aggregated 10,000 news sources, half of which it identifies as these high-quality journalist bloggers. They include Texans blogging about the oil industry, San Franciscans blogging about the Prop. 8 fallout, LA-based bloggers reporting about celebrities, and New Yorkers blogging about Bloomberg's recent re-election campaign.
Journalistic coups claimed by the site include scooping CNN on the "Balloon Boy" story in Colorado, and a more poignant case involving a horrific car crash that wiped out a young family here in the Bay Area recently.
Recently, Fwix has launched an ad network, called AdWire, that is meant to help spread bloggers' local news content spread throughout the web via a widget, along with ad links that will provide incremental revenue to both the bloggers and Fwix.
In this, the startup is not alone. One trend the past six months is the widespread realization across media segments that blogs offer a real business opportunity to monetize user-generated content content via keyword ad links. Salon.com is trying that with "OpenSalon," as are both the Examiner.com, and AllVoices.com, among others.
According to Shirazi, AdWire is already generating a substantial number of impressions, enough so that he is convinced it is "a new way to generate revenue for news providers."
This ad model is quite different from search, which is Google's sweet spot, of course.
"Google hasn't monopolized the Internet," argues Shirazi (are you listening, Rupert?). "There are other ways to generate eyeballs besides search, and Google has not monopolized that traffic. We actually represent a way for publishers to leapfrog Google."
So, back to my point about extremes. Fwix is not a "hyper-local" service because,as Shirazi knows, the technology for that does not exist yet.
"Hyperlocal isn't here yet," he acknowledges. "But local is. If it's within 50 miles of you, we figure there's a pretty good chance you'll be interested in it. So we are a local news aggregation site."
The one-year-old startup now has 12 employees and is funded with $2.75 million by Blue Ray Ventures.
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