AI-powered news aggregator SmartNews has seen a huge spike in users who are downloading the app to read ‘hyper-local’ coronavirus coverage

  • Smart News, the AI-powered news aggregation app, says it’s seeing an unprecedented spike in downloads in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with usage nearly doubling since the beginning of this month. 
  • The company attributes the recent spike in interest to its close attention to the coronavirus outbreak — the company introduced a “coronavirus channel” that sorts out user-relevant reporting on the pandemic based on a variety of factors including the user’s location. 
  • “This is just a remarkable moment in history and people have that sense,” SmartNews VP of content Rich Jaroslovsky told Business Insider. “Helping people feel as though they have a handle on this firehose of information, that otherwise could just engulf them, is one of the things that we’re very aware of.” 
  • The effects of user-growth on the company’s revenue still remain unclear— the company says it hasn’t seen an adverse effect on its revenue even as companies begin to cut their marketing costs during the coronavirus-driven downturn. 
  • The company, last valued at $1.1 billion, has close to 400 publishing partners, including Bloomberg and Business Insider. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As a global pandemic has swept across the world, confining people to their homes and devastating swathes of the economy, people are hungry for news. 

SmartNews, an AI-powered news aggregation app founded in Tokyo in 2012, has seen an unprecedented spike in downloads in the US this month. The app had 20 million active users as of August 2019, but the company says that usage has more than doubled since then. 

The company, last valued at $1.1 billion, uses machine learning to curate “channels” of political, sports, global and entertainment news sourced from over 400 publishing partners, including Business Insider. And although the company competes with the likes of Apple’s subscription news product, it has no paywall. Instead, it makes its money off advertising, which it sells against “Smart Views,” its equivalent of Google’s AMP or Facebook’s Instant Articles.

The lack of a paywall doesn’t affect the company’s own resources— SmartNews formed partnerships with publications like the Los Angeles Times to allow readers to not hit a paywall to access articles on its platforms. 

But SmartNews executives say that its March reader surge is best attributed to its quick response to the demand for coronavirus-related coverage, as the outbreak has swiftly grown into a national emergency in the US.

SmartNews created a custom algorithm to curate coronavirus-related news back in February, when the crisis was hitting China and Japan but before it had “penetrated US consciousness,” said Rich Jaroslovsky, a former journalist and now the company’s VP of content. And while it allowed users to add that “channel” of news as an option for some time, the company made that a permanent fixture on user channels beginning in early March, as they slowly realized that the issue was about to become “fully dominant.” 

Even as national news organizations pivoted their coverage to begin covering the coronavirus, SmartNews points out that their app carries a unique advantage for users, as it offers both national and”hyperlocal” news, that can change within a matter of miles. 

“I live about 30 miles from [Fabien-Pierre Nicolas, the company’s VP of marketing], down the northern end of Silicon Valley, and am getting news that is different from him,” Jaroslovsky said. “He’s getting the news immediately around him in San Francisco, while I’m also getting news from Palo Alto and Redwood City.” 

“It ended up being essentially something that really corresponded to what people need in this time of crisis,” Nicolas explained. “You get quality information for all these different dimensions.” 

Mid-March bump

SmartNews expanded into the US in 2015, just ahead of the presidential election.

However, the interest in coronavirus-related coverage surpasses interest in elections by a long shot, according to Jaroslovsky.  “In my journalistic career, there have been a few moments, like 9/11 and the aftermath, or like the  … 2007/2008 financial crisis, where there was no escaping the news and you could not help but be affected,” Jaroslovsky said, adding that the coronavirus crash was one of them. 

“This is just a remarkable moment in history and people have that sense,” Jaroslovsky told Business Insider. “Helping people feel as though they have a handle on this firehose of information, that otherwise could just engulf them, is one of the things that we’re very aware of.” 

To that point, the company can actually pinpoint when America felt the need for more news — March 12, just days before the San Francisco Bay Area announced a lockdown on all non-essential businesses.

“The bump was March 12th, with and the NBA stopping and Tom Hanks testing positive —  essentially before the declaration of emergency in the US,” Nicolas told Business Insider. 

According to Nicolas, SmartNews users visiting the platform hit a record on Super Tuesday on March 3 — but the coronavirus-driven surge of users on the platform quickly shattered that record. However, the company declined to share any recent metrics, save for the fact that it had 20 million monthly active users in the US and Japan as of August 2019, which it shared during its last financing round. 

Data-intelligence company Apptopia’s daily downloads tracker appears to correspond with Nicolas’s anecdote, showing a spike in downloads more powerful than that of individual media organizations like CNN or Fox News.  

But as companies cut marketing costs amid the coronavirus-driven economic downturn, the extent to which SmartNews revenue levels can be boosted remains unclear.

So far, the company says it hasn’t seen any significant adverse impact on their business. But social media companies like Twitter have already revised its financial forecast despite surging user engagement, as companies pulled back on marketing spending.  

SmartNews download spike


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