Doing news the Silicon Valley way

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It was a cold, sparkling-clear October day on the campaign trail in 1976. President Gerald Ford surveyed the exuberant college crowd, which seemed to hum with anticipation. Red, white and blue bunting adorned the sprawling Midwestern campus. Ford confidently stepped to the microphone, cleared his throat and enthusiastically proclaimed, “It’s great to be here at Ohio State!”

The expected roar never erupted. Instead, the crowd noise rapidly diminished into an awkward silence, punctuated by murmurs of utter bewilderment. For on this bright morning, Ford was nowhere near Columbus, Ohio. He was 665 miles away in Ames, Iowa, on the campus of Iowa State University.

This story was originally published in the January edition of Climate Magazine.

The moment was not lost on a bemused press corps, which included a young reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Just a year-and-a-half before, Rich Jaroslovsky had been a college senior, finishing his degree in political science at Stanford and writing for the student newspaper, The Stanford Daily. Now, at age 22, he was accomplishing his lifelong dream, covering presidential politics for an international publication.

On this day, Jaroslovsky was doing better than the President. The campaign trip had been conceived as a train ride to evoke the whistle-stop tours of President Harry Truman. From Iowa to East St. Louis, Ill., Ford gave the same speech a dozen times – and kept flubbing the same line.

He was supposed to say, “Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ Jimmy Carter speaks loudly and carries a flyswatter.” Every time, Ford stumbled over “flyswatter.” Making things worse, Jaroslovsky says, the day’s bitter cold inspired Ford to nip from a hip flask between arrivals. But near midnight, at the final stop, he paused, gathered himself and triumphantly enunciated, “FLYSWATTER.”

Hearing the President finally get it right, the media people, as weary (though perhaps not as tipsy) as Ford, broke out laughing and cheering. Ford joined in. And the crowd in the parking lot of an East St. Louis shopping mall was left to wonder what in heaven’s name was going on.

A Journalism Journey

Such are the tales that Washington correspondents gather through the decades. In his continuing 45-year career with The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, a New York investment firm, academia and now an app called SmartNews, Jaroslovsky has collected dozens of stories. But what has long captivated him even more has been the evolution of print news to a largely electronic and Internet-based medium.

With the current pandemic, Jaroslovsky directs the news and business-development operations of Tokyo-based SmartNews primarily from his study at his home in Emerald Hills. Available through the Apple app store and Google Play, SmartNews runs on smartphones and standalone computers. The eight-year-old company, started by two Japanese engineers, says 50 million people worldwide now use the app, which employs proprietary algorithms to select and deliver news stories from major media as well as small, local outlets.

Numerous times a day, readers receive alerts for stories about everything from international politics and major-league sports to a burglary in their hometown. Lifewire, a provider of technology information and advice, last January ranked SmartNews eighth among news-aggregation sites in 2020. Lifewire also called SmartNews the “best aggregator for a balanced perspective.” That’s pleasing news for the company, which seeks to cover the entire political spectrum on various issues.

Joining SmartNews six-and-a-half years ago seemed a natural for Jaroslovsky, who helped lead the team in the 1990s that developed for The Wall Street Journal. Back then, colleagues told him he was committing career suicide by leaving his post as a Washington correspondent to jump into the nascent world of online news. But after 18 years of covering politics, including the first Reagan Administration from the White House, the intellectually restless Jaroslovsky was ready for something new.

From Safety to the Unknown

“This was pre-Internet,” Jaroslovsky recalls. “Nobody really knew what the online medium even was, including me, or what it might become. But the job was too interesting to pass up.”

Two decades later, when SmartNews asked him to become the company’s first U.S. employee, he sensed the same allure. He had left Bloomberg, where he had most recently been the technology columnist, and was mulling offers for jobs he knew he could do. But once again, it was time to leap off the high-dive.

“The reason I took the job at SmartNews, which at that time was tiny – I think I was employee number 14 – was because I didn’t know how it would turn out,” Jaroslovsky says. “And in a lot of ways, it was very much the same as when I took the job. I was going to learn new stuff – win, lose or draw.”

While at Bloomberg, Jaroslovsky had negotiated a move from New York back to his native Northern California (he grew up in Santa Rosa). After 35 years in the East, coming home was a long-held dream. Jaroslovsky and his wife, Mindy, found a house in Emerald Hills, perfectly situated to survey Silicon Valley for Bloomberg and ultimately to take the job with SmartNews.

At the company, which maintains U.S. offices in Palo Alto, San Francisco and New York, Jaroslovsky holds the twin titles of Vice President for Content and Chief Journalist. In the former role, he signs up publishers whose news stories appear on the app in exchange for fees and advertising revenue. [They currently number 499, including The McClatchy Co. (owner of the Sacramento Bee and other media outlets), the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, the Huffington Post, USA Today and ABC News.] In the latter job, he’s responsible for the complete editorial product.

Gaining Readers

The publishers appear to be satisfied. Executive Distribution Editor Jennifer Polland of Insider, Inc., which produces Insider and Business Insider, told a recent virtual meeting of the Online Publishers Association that reader views had risen by 200 percent since her organization began using SmartNews. Polland added that Insider’s readership “spikes” for breaking news stories published on the app were “shocking to me – in a great way.”

Angela Lunter, senior director for business strategy and operations for McClatchy, told the meeting that SmartNews’s referrals of readers to McClatchy’s sites had quickly risen to rank third behind those of Google and Facebook. Lunter also noted SmartNews’s commitment to promotion, including television advertising for the app, soon after the company moved into the U.S. market.

“It was very clear,” she said, “that they were investing and building the user base in the U.S., and that they really wanted to approach this market in a smart way – no pun intended.”

The company’s growth has been aided by the confidence of investors that include Japan Post Capital Co., ACA Investments, Globis Capital Partners, D.A. Consortium and international advertising giant Dentsu. SmartNews’s total startup funding as of November 2019 was a reported $182 million, on a valuation of $1.2 billion.

The startup cash has helped create a current employee base of more than 400 persons. Much has also gone into SmartNews’s computer software, which enables the company’s distribution and a large share of its news collection.

Choosing the Stories

SmartNews scours the web for news from thousands of publishers, using machine learning algorithms to identify, evaluate and select the stories displayed in the app. The articles appear either as links to the publishers’ websites, sending them free traffic, or, increasingly, appear in SmartNews’s native format, for which publishers are paid directly. A team of editors selects stories for breaking-news pushes and highlights special content from the hundreds of “publisher partners.”

Certain stories, chosen by the algorithms, are also sent to individual readers based on the interests they express when they select various topics. That said, Jaroslovsky emphasizes that SmartNews does not collect or sell data about its users. Rather, he says, the SmartNews systems learn that “this phone displays an unhealthy obsession with the San Francisco Giants. But we don’t know this phone belongs to Rich Jaroslovsky. That’s as opposed to Facebook, which knows exactly who you are and what you’re doing.”

Even with the expansion of computer-based news-gathering, Jaroslovsky believes the human element remains critical.

“The use of algorithms, the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence in surfacing and curating news is the cutting edge right now,” he says. “But as we’ve seen through the Facebook debacle in 2016 (when the company’s site was overrun by fake news), and the polarization of American politics, if you can use technology without human oversight and human responsibility, the consequences can be horrific. … Where I think we have to go is (to create) a greater sense of ethics and responsibility on the part of the platforms that wield the technology.”

It’s a subject that Jaroslovsky hammers home every fall semester to the UC-Berkeley undergraduates who take his weekly class about online media. (Jaroslovsky has also taught at Columbia and Duke.) He also frequently points out that whereas people today may take Internet news for granted, it wasn’t so long ago that the medium didn’t exist.

What’s New Is Not That Old

Jaroslovsky says his students often initially believe “something is the way it is, and it’s always been that way, because they don’t remember anything different. But (it’s rewarding) when you see them start to understand that things are the way they are because of a process, because of things that may have happened several years ago, and then they’re able to sort of extrapolate when something happens now.”

What’s happening now is always on Jaroslovsky’s mind, and is the focus of SmartNews and other online news providers. And even though he was a pioneer in the medium, he still sometimes marvels at its capabilities – as when he pushed a breaking story onto the SmartNews site from his cellphone while riding a bus in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Still, he’s always aware of the historical perspective – in this case, dating back to the mid-1990s.

“These things that today seem so completely self-evident – back then, it was a whole new paradigm. Looking back on it, you go, ‘Well, duh.’ That was not exactly a flash of blinding insight. But at the time, nobody knew anything. And that’s what made it so much damn fun.”

Jaroslovsky talks about Reagan: “As an experiment, the White House invited a few of us regulars on the beat to off-the-record drinks with the President one afternoon in, I think, 1983. Reagan was his usual charming, maddening self — spinning some of his wonderful Hollywood stories while completely avoiding anything substantive. Finally, as we were getting up to go, one of my colleagues tried one more time to get him to say something interesting: ‘So, Mr. President, who do you think the Democrats will run against you next year? Think it will be Teddy?’ (Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who in 1969 drove a car off a bridge, causing a young woman to drown.) Reagan, with his hand on the doorknob, paused, tilted his head and, with a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye, said: ‘Well, I’ve always thought if I ran against that fella, all I’d have to do is get out the old pictures of me in my lifeguard uniform.’ And with that, he was gone — leaving us stunned for a moment until someone said, ‘Did he just say what I think he said?’ Oh, yeah. The single nastiest crack I’ve ever heard one politician make about another, and he did it so deftly that you’d never even feel the blade. Told me a lot about the guy.”