A song to read by: “What a Difference a Day Makes,” by Dinah Washington
What I’m reading: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
I met Ljuba Youngblom last fall, when my tiny graduate school cohort of 10 people decamped to San Francisco for a quarter to soak in the sights, smells, startups and Sweetgreens of the gorgeous Plutocracy by the Bay.
When Youngblom came to speak to our class, he looked at me and said, “Are you Mark Stenberg?” and for a second I thought Northwestern must have said “To hell with tech entrepreneurs, the students want to meet psychics!” and brought in a soothesayer to speak with us. He then explained that McKellogg had told him to look out for me, and I nodded, hiding my disappointment.
The second reason I remember Youngblom’s 30-minute presentation is because he spoke from 11:30 - 12:00, and lunch was provided afterward. Normally in those circumstances I would wait patiently till 12:00, and then regardless of whether God themself (yeah!) was speaking to us, I would have politely left the room to go eat.
But I was fixated. And not just me: 8 or so other classmates stayed after the presentation, delaying our lunch, to ask Youngblom questions about the product he had just explained to us. No speaker before him had ever elicited such interest from my classmates, and no speaker in the months after would.
You should know that Hometown is, at the moment, only for residents of Oakland, California. I would encourage you to download it, just to get a good idea of why the concept is so innovative, but it is — proudly — a local-news app.
Nonetheless, what Youngblom and his small team are working on has the potential to send shockwaves through the industry. Hometown is one of those rare concepts that doesn’t just tweak some component of the news industry — it is a blue-sky, out-of-left-field, nothing-else-like-it reimagining of what the news looks like.
Its core premise is simple: The news used to come in “articles” because newspapers were physical entities that had space considerations. When journalism went digital, it continued to use the article format, despite the fact that doing so was no longer necessary.
Instead, Youngblom argues, we should treat the news like a Wikipedia page. Rather than articles, write landing pages based on subjects. When a new development occurs, you add new information to the landing page. If a user is interested in that particular “subject,” or story, they receive an alert, letting them know there is new information to be had.
Youngblom said to my class that day, “Articles are simultaneously too short and too long.” If you know the background of a story and just want the latest update, you still have to sift through a 500-word article. Too long.
But, if you are completely unfamiliar with a subject and want to familiarize yourself with it, a 500-word article is too short. You’ll have to read multiple pages, scanning and searching through redundant information to piece together the narrative writ large.
When you replace “articles” with “guides,” as Youngblom and Hometown have done, you make the experience better for the user and you save valuable resources on the publisher’s end.
Do you know how much time it would save to simply update a landing page instead of writing a completely new article every time something happens?
This structure saves newsrooms valuable time, which allows them to allocate more resources to the important work of investigation, rather than copy-writing. It also allows readers to get as much — or as little — context as they need.
It’s a structural reimagining of the news-consumption experience. Not a new financial model, or a new perspective, or a new aesthetic, but an overhaul of the very skeleton of journalism.
What to watch
Youngblom and Hometown just launched the fourth iteration of their site, which you can read about in detail here. Regardless of where you live, you should download the app — it is an app, primarily, more than a website — peruse the UI and send Youngblom your feedback. You can literally text him from the app.
Hometown has a long way to go before it’s ready for a major rollout, but Youngblom et al. have created a radical new concept that could dramatically change the way people consume, and write, the news.
Name: Ljuba Youngblom
So, for those who don’t know, could you briefly explain what Hometown is?
Hometown is a guide to local and sometimes hyper-local issues. We focus on the city and neighborhood level and, unlike traditional news publications that publish articles with a short shelf life about a specific event, we track stories in these news guides over time.
You can subscribe to stories to get notified of when there are updates and read what we call broader perspectives, which are editorials and other national news pieces about the themes in question.
So, for example, we have a news guide on Oakland’s movement to defund the police — not the protests, but the actual policy work. We highlight in the news guide who is involved — in this case, city councillors — how they've voted, the meetings and everything involved that has to do with the actual defunding.
I remember very vividly that you compared your articles to Wikipedia pages, in that they were subject-oriented landing pages that would be updated when new information arose, rather than requiring a new article be written every time something happened. I loved that concept. Has it evolved or changed at all as y’all have built out Hometown?
We still think that notion is right. What we’ve done since then is given more structure to that “Wikipedia page.”
So now if you go to a Hometown news guide, you'll see that it's structured in different sections. One is the people and organizations involved, because we think that knowing who is involved — so that you can get in touch with them, talk to them and maybe even get involved with them — is really important.
We’ve also added a timeline of events, as well as a questions-and-answers section where people ask questions and we respond to them.
But the basic idea — that a guide is updated in place and then users are notified to those updates — is still the same.
Clearly, given the atypical structure of Hometown, the metrics you use to measure success and engagement must be different. Page views, for instance, are kind of irrelevant if all the information a user needs is on one page. What do you look at to see what users are really enjoying versus skipping over?
Did they subscribe to the news guide? If so, that indicates that something is an issue that people care about and want to be notified about over time.
Likewise, did people up-vote questions? Did they ask questions? Those show us which topics people are most interested in.
From a user-experience perspective, do people navigate the app fluidly? Do they find what they're looking for? Do they spend time? Are we delivering the right level of synthesis versus depth?
What does life look like for the journalist you recently hired? The format of Hometown is so different than that of traditional news apps. It seems very labor-intensive, having to write so much custom-made text. Are they just writing constantly?
Actually it’s the opposite of labor-intensive. Most guides start out very lightweight, maybe just a timeline of an issue. Then it can grow over time.
It's designed to be quick, which allows us to cover more stuff. We're spending more of our time learning about an issue so that we can write more intelligently about it, but it's the software that allows us to do it so quickly.
Big, awkward question: What’s the monetization plan?
We're an early-stage startup, which means that we have of a number of options that we're considering, but the main one is to develop a product that people find so valuable that they consider it worth paying for.
So an ad-free, subscription-based model is at the top of our list, because we think it's the most honest and the most likely to produce what we want, which is an informed citizenry who feel empowered to participate where they live.
What’s in store for the next version of Hometown? What features are you looking to add or tweak?
Right now, it's really about refining what we've done.
In the product-development cycle, now is when we look at how people are reacting to the product, how they’re using it. We’ll take that feedback and then adjust accordingly for the next iteration.
One thing we’re looking at is, for people who just click a link and end up on Hometown, the format can be a little tricky for people who are brand new. So we’re working on a design that does a better job of conveying what it is you're looking at and what you can get from it.