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We need new business models to burst old media filter bubbles

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Access to information in the United States is fragmenting along social lines. This goes beyond the fuzzy, qualitative feeling many of us have that people can’t agree on key issues anymore — data show that people are increasingly breaking into disconnected ideological camps. While this is commonly viewed as a left/right issue, the reality is much more pernicious: It is a rich/poor issue.

Americans today are exposed to fundamentally different facts based on their news sources. Data are often arranged to fit narratives rather than the other way around. This effect spans the political spectrum: It is as relevant to The New York Times as it is to Fox News. One of the contributors to this information split is the rise of site-wide paywalls, which divide access to information along socio-economic lines.

As one magazine editor eloquently puts it, “The truth is paywalled but the lies are free.”

It’s time for us to think critically about how we can build business models that reunite information bubbles, so that people consistently get access to all sides of the story.

Ringing the division bell

Media polarization is not a new phenomenon. Studies have shown for over a decade that, when it comes to news, people have been dividing themselves into information camps. Social media platforms — quickly replacing publishers as the “front end” of news — act as an accelerant, using likes and reads to pattern-match content to readers. However, these studies often address the left-right split; little is said about the more fundamental difference in beliefs driven by a difference in ability and willingness to pay for news.

The pivot by major publishers to erect site-wide paywalls is a recent phenomenon, an answer to the “grand ad-supported content bargain.” These paywalls have grown in popularity, driving people to subscriptions as an alternative to ads revenue. In doing so, they have undoubtedly helped stem (and maybe reverse?) the decline in news revenues driven by the internet.

How bad has this decline been? Just see this OECD visualization of how circulation, titles and revenues have dropped over time.

As Rupert Murdoch said, “… sometimes rivers dry up.” From 2007-2009 alone, the U.S. saw a 30% decline in newspaper publishing. Staff layoffs have become the norm for smaller and midmarket news services, which find themselves driven to consolidate into larger news orgs in order to bring down prices and expand the reach necessary to attract ad spend.

The message is clear: If people want to continue consuming news, they and media companies need to work together to develop a business model that can support it. Yet, as news bookmarking service favor.it notes, “There is now a real cost to the user associated with acquiring accurate, insightful and well-produced news. [ … ] Exacerbating the problem is the fact that there is now serious competition to real news. Free, less-reliable news sources and aggregators that can push articles into a [F]acebook Newstream that go viral in a matter of seconds whether they are completely true, or properly researched, or not.” The data bear this out: an MIT study across 126,000 stories found that fake stories proliferate on average 6x quicker than true ones.

The new iron curtains

Across six European countries and the United States, the average price for paywalled news is about $15.75 per month. In a time where half of Americans are working low-wage jobs and many are experiencing a severe savings crisis, most don’t have the available funds to shell out for a $15 monthly news subscription — much less a subscription for each outlet they want to access. Free news and clickbait headlines on social media, much like fast food, are the easiest and most freely available options to a swathe of people who have neither the resources nor the energy to do the fact-checking for themselves.

A perennial suggestion is that outlets syndicate their content into a “Netflix for news” bundle. Indeed, aggregator initiatives like Apple News have grown to over 100 million users. Yet this still doesn’t solve a fundamental problem, which is that, in an age of instantly available free online media, most people are not willing to pay even for bundled news.

As Don Richard, senior PM at Shopify, puts it, “I just don’t think the mass appeal for a text-content bundle is as high as many tech folks believe it is [ … ] most people view text content as a less-valuable medium than TV and music  —  valuable being defined as worth paying for based on your personal needs and preferences. And when people have other expenses they have to pay for, paying for a text-content bundle will be hard to justify. Since a text-content bundle doesn’t exist today, the money for a text-content bundle has to come from somewhere else in the monthly budget for most people. That means the bundle price has to take share-of-wallet over something else. Basic needs (food, shelter, utilities) aren’t being reduced for a text-content bundle.”

So we end up with two fundamentally different types of media: On the one hand, free media, supported by independent journalists, freelancers and threadbare content teams; on the other, paywalled media, supported by more robust fact-checking teams and editors. As Robinson puts it, “It costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free.”

Coming back to the accelerating polarization of the American public, this media divide is not without consequence. People can always reasonably disagree about beliefs and ideas, so long as they have the shared context of facts. They cannot have productive debates if the facts are in-question.

This is where claims of “fake news” originate: Dividing the world into free facts versus paywalled facts means we are increasingly talking past each other. As favor.it puts it, we’re “moving toward a situation where there will be haves and have-nots in the very critical area of having basic, accurate information about what is going on in the world.”

Where do we go from here?

It is clear that the internet media model predicated on paywalls needs to be revisited due to these shortcomings. But what are the alternatives? Targeted ads have been shown to have their own disadvantages and provoke reader ire.

While this is not a comprehensive answer, here are a few suggestions:

Free facts, upsold details. Pull the key facts out of news stories and make them freely available to people, upselling the deeper and richer storylines. TechCrunch has found an elegant middle-ground of this format: The core news stories on the website are free, while the value-added analysis, investigative deep-dives and richer opinion content are available to subscribers.

The New Paper is another, newer service experimenting with a condensed version of news headlines to combat newsletter and information fatigue (albeit one that still plans to charge $5 monthly). This is something being spearheaded by the rise of platforms like Substack today for independent journalists; content producers with a good following or smart coverage can create self-sustaining businesses.

Could newspapers take a page from Scandinavian ticketing practices and charge based on income? A tiered subscription price adjusted to payroll could allow wealthier readers to create a public good for poorer ones.

Yet, when people pay for news, they should not just be paying for stories — they should be paying for the knowledge that an army of editors, fact-checkers and investigative journalists uncovered the truth behind a story. That is a good that Substack likely cannot provide.

Develop a publicly available, consensus-driven score for fact-based news outlets and prioritize this score in algorithms. The way we access information has changed; aggregators now sit at the top of the news funnel. This has created a significant user surplus — people are able to locate information by story, without being constrained by outlet. However, it has also created an ad-revenue-driven model that prioritizes unique views, which are in turn driven by people’s search for sensationalism and confirmation bias in media. Search engines, social media platforms, and aggregators should come together to develop a public, transparent scoring mechanism for information quality in news and implement that to drive more viewers to more trustworthy sources. An independent rating for factuality that becomes a key input into search and social rankings could significantly help curb the virality of fake news stories, but it would need to take into account the sometimes long half-life of the truth.

Public initiatives. The government needs to re-enter the business of protecting the quality of journalism.

One step is for the FCC to reintroduce the Fairness Doctrine, which required journalists to represent both sides of a given story.

Another is to increase funding for public news sources of all stripes: liberal, conservative, etc., and for those sources to submit to routine information quality audits. Every area in which we’ve taken public institutions and allowed people to pay their way out of the default option — healthcare, education — has led to wild underinvestment in the public option; news is no different.

The library model is surprisingly effective for those who select it as an option: well-funded and maintained public libraries still provide an amazing, information-rich resource to those who avail of their services. Digitizing library resources and allocating partial budget to make information not just available, but also surfaced at the right contextual moment could combat misinformation.

A last option would be to implement information quality scores, similar to public health and safety standards. A score could be as simple as an A-F grade on a restaurant or a calorie count on a fast food menu.

Micropayments and stories a la carte. As long as news media has been dealing with internet-related pressure, technologists have proposed micropayments as the answer. The desire to read an individual news story is stochastic, while media subscriptions are continuous. Few people, myself included, have the willingness to submit to a monthly or annual news subscription just to access the content in one article. Publishers should offer individual stories, sold in exchange for micropayments of, for example, $0.10 per story (10x the payout of some publishers to their content creators). Digital wallets embedded into browsers (see Metamask and Brave Browser as examples) can support these micropayments fluidly, either with opt-ins for each story or working in the background, to allow readers to move seamlessly around the internet, so that readers aren’t asked to pay for each story. As futurist Jaron Lanier noted 10 years ago, “Digital technology … unsettled the so-called ‘creative class’ — journalists, musicians, photographers” when access to information became free; micropayments (and royalties) could help rebuild that class of jobs. With that said, there’s a discrepancy between the amount that periodicals spend to publish a story (e.g., $100) and people’s propensity to pay (e.g., $0.10); unlike songs and movies, people only consume news stories once.

Alternative revenue streams. Media companies should again explore whether events, classifieds, paid editorials, in-depth research and other information-related services could allow them to offer “just the facts” as a loss leader. The New York Times, famously, launched The Daily podcast and spun off its cooking and crossword products into standalones. Publications should reinvest in hyperlocal journalism with local sponsorship.

The truth is that, as site-wide paywalls continue to be erected, there will be a real divide of news into haves and have-nots. There is no silver bullet solution to this problem. The public benefits from open news; factual reporting creates positive externalities. Yet we have not found a commercial structure to support these organizations. The answer is probably a combination of the above along with other revenue streams (including, yes, ads). But it is paramount to the strength of our social fabric that we continue to search for that answer.

We should ask ourselves what surplus is created by good news coverage, by deep investigative research and honest reporting? Who benefits? At this critical juncture when the stress fractures in our fragile democracy are beginning to show, it is obvious that all of us benefit from that surplus as a society. So let’s work together to support it, for the sake of society.

Thank you to Danny Crichton, Danny Zuckerman, Jason Wardy and Orion de Nevers for reviewing this piece.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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SoftBank takes a $690M stake in cloud-based Swedish CRM company Sinch

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On the heels of Facebook taking a big step into customer service with the acquisition of Kustomer for $1 billion, another big move is afoot in the world of CRM. Sinch, a Swedish company that provides cloud-based “omnichannel” voice, video and messaging services to help enterprises communicate with customers, has announced that SoftBank is taking a $690 million stake in the company. Sinch said that it plans to use the proceeds of the share sale for M&A of its own.

“We see clearly how our cloud-based platform helps businesses leverage mobile technology to reinvent their customer experience,” said Oscar Werner, Sinch CEO, to TechCrunch. “Whereas people throughout the world have embraced mobile messaging to interact with friends and family, most businesses have yet to seize this opportunity. We are establishing Sinch as a leader in a global growth market that is still very fragmented, and we’re excited that SoftBank is now helping us realize that vision.”

Specifically, Sinch has issued and sold 3,187,736 shares worth SEK 3.3 billion, and large shareholders have sold a further 5,200,000 shares — with SoftBank the sole buyer.

The move underscores the growing opportunity that those in the world of CRM — which include not just Sinch and Kustomer but Salesforce and many others — are seeing to double down on their services at the moment. With people working and doing everything else remotely, and with the general upheaval we’ve had in the global economy due to Covid-19, there has been an increased demand and strain put on the digital channels that people use to communicate with organizations when they have questions or problems.

The catch is that customer relations has grown to be more than just 1-800 numbers and being on hold for endless hours: it includes social media, email, websites with interactive chats, chatbots, messaging apps, and yes those phone calls.

Organizations like Sinch and Kustomer — which build platforms to help businesses manage all of those fragmented options in what are described as omnichannel offerings, have been capitalising on the demand and are now investing and looking for the next step in their strategies to grow.

For Kustomer that has been leaping into the arms of Facebook, which itself has spotted an opportunity to build out a CRM business to complement its other services for businesses. Recall that it’s also been experimenting and working on its latest Nextdoor competitor to promote local businesses; and it has added a ton of business tools to its messaging apps too.

It will be interesting to see what Salesforce does next. While acquiring Slack gives the company an obvious channel into workplace communications, don’t forget that Slack is also a very popular tool for engaging with people outside of your employee network, too. It will be worth watching how and if Salesforce looks to develop that aspect of the business, too.

For Sinch, its strategy has been around making acquisitions of its own, including paying $250 million to pick up a business unit of SAP, Digital Interconect, which has 1,500 enterprise customers mostly in the US using it to run “omnichannel” CRM. Now the plan will be to do more, since there are still huge swathes of the market that have yet to upgrade and update their CRM approaches.

Sinch, notably, is traded publicly on Sweden’s stock exchange and it currently has a market cap of SEK70 billion ($8.2 billion at current rates). It is profitable and generating cash so has “no need to raise funding for our ongoing business,” Thomas Heath, Sinch’s chief strategy officer and head of investor relations, told TechCrunch.

For SoftBank, the investment marks another step in the company taking sizable stakes in fast-growing public or semi-public tech companies in Europe.

In October, it put $215 million into Kahoot, the online education platform aimed both at students and enterprises, built around the concept of users themselves creating “learning games” that can then be shared with others. Kahoot trades a proportion of its shares publicly on the stock exchange in Norway and like Sinch, the plan is to use a good part of the money for acquisitions.

Not all of SoftBank’s investments in scaled-up European businesses have panned out. Having put around $1 billion into German payments company Wirecard, the company turned out to be one of the biggest scandals in the history of European fintech, facing accounting scandals before collapsing into insolvency earlier this year.

Sinch, as a profitable and a steady business with predictable lines of recurring revenue, looks like a safer bet for now. Even with Salesforce, Facebook and others raising their game, there as Sinch’s CEO says, there is enough of an untapped market that playing well might be enough to do well.

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Despite everything, Oyo still has $1 billion in cash

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India’s Oyo has been one of the worst impacted startups with the coronavirus, but it has enough cash to steer through the pandemic and then look at funding further scale, a top executive says.

In a townhall with employees last week, Oyo founder Ritesh Agarwal said the budget lodging firm “continued to hold on to close to a billion dollars of cash” across its group companies and joint venture firms and has “tracked to runway very closely.”

“At the same time, we’ve been very disciplined in making sure that we can respond to the crisis in a good way to try and ensure that we can come out of it at the right time,” he said in a fireside chat with Rohit Kapoor, chief executive of Oyo India and SA, and Troy Alstead, a board member who previously served as the chief executive officer of Startbucks.

The revelation will reassure employees of Oyo, which eliminated or furloughed over 5,000 jobs earlier this year and reported in April that the pandemic had cut its revenue and demand by more than 50%.

Oyo also reported a loss of $335 million on $951 million revenue globally for the financial year ending March 31, 2019, and earlier this year pledged to cut down on its spending.

Agarwal said the startup is recovering from the pandemic as nations relax their lockdowns, and with recent progress with vaccine trials, he is hopeful that the travel and hospitality industries will bounce back strongly.

“Together globally, we were able to get to around 85% of the gross margin dollars of our pre COVID levels. This I can tell you was extremely hard. But in my view was probably only possible because of the efforts of our teams in each one of the geographies,” he said, adding that Oyo Vacation has proven critical to the business in recent months delivering “packed” hotels and holiday homes.

During the conversation, a transcript of which was shared with employees and obtained by TechCrunch, Agarwal was heard talking about making Oyo — which was privately valued at $10 billion last year when it was in the process of raising $1.5 billion last year — ready for IPO. He, however, did not share a timeline on when the SoftBank-backed startup plans to go public and hinted that it’s perhaps not in the immediate future.

“And last but not the least, for me, it is very critical. I want the groups to know that I, our board and our broader management are fully committed to making sure that long-term wealth creation for our OYOpreneurs — beyond that of just the compensation, but the wealth creation by means of your stocks can be substantially grown.”

“At the end of the day, what is the right time to go out is frankly a decision of the board to make and from the management side, we’ll be ready to make sure that we build a company that is ready to go public. And we will look at various things like that of the market situation, opportunities outside and so on, that the board will consider and then potentially help advise on the timeline,” he said.

Alstead echoed Agarwal’s optimism, adding, “I think that OYO is made up of a combination of assets, its hotels, its homes, its vacation homes. That’s unique, I think in the industry in the category, I think it makes it probably a little more challenging sometimes for people externally to measure and compare and benchmark a unique portfolio company like this. But I’d also tell you, I think that makes OYO resilient. It makes OYO balanced for the future. It gives OYO several sorts of vertical opportunities to address both customer needs at any time, whether it be a hotel or a small hotel or a vacation home.”

“And it also gives opportunities and expands that interaction in a good healthy way with the property owners, with the partners, who have an opportunity depending on what asset type they have partnered with OYO in different ways, and also to have the access to a technology platform and a continued investment in that innovative platform for customers. So all those things, I think a balanced portfolio, a technology platform, a heavy focus on putting the customer first, putting the business partner first — all those things, in my view, are what positioned OYO for the future.”

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GoSite snags $40M to help SMBs bring their businesses online

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There are 12 million small and medium businesses in the US, yet they have continued to be one of most underserved segments of the B2B universe: that volume underscores a lot of fragmentation, and alongside other issues like budget constraints, there are a number of barriers to building for them at scale. Today, however, a startup helping SMBs get online is announcing some significant funding — a sign of how things are changing at a moment when many businesses have realised that being online is no longer an option, but a necessity.

GoSite, a San Diego-based startup that helps small and medium enterprises build websites, and, with a minimum amount of technical know-how, run other functions of their businesses online — like payments, online marketing, appointment booking and accounting — has picked up $40 million in funding.

GoSite offers a one-stop shop for users to build and manage everything online, with the ability to feed in up to 80 different third-party services within that. “We want to help our customers be found everywhere,” said Alex Goode, the founder and CEO of GoSite. “We integrate with Facebook and other consumer platforms like Siri, Apple Maps, and search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing and more.” It also builds certain features like payments from the ground up.

The Series B comes on the back of a strong year for the company. Driven by Covid-19 circumstances, businesses have increasingly turned to the internet to interact with customers, and GoSite — which has “thousands” of SMB customers — said it doubled its customer base in 2020.

This latest round is being led by Left Lane Capital out of New York, with Longley Capital, Cove Fund, Stage 2, Ankona Capital and Serra Ventures also participating. GoSite is clearly striking while the iron is hot: Longley, also based out of San Diego, led the company’s previous round, which was only in August of this year. It has now raised $60 million to date.

GoSite is, in a sense, a play for more inclusivity in tech: its customers are not companies that it’s “winning” off other providers that provide website building and hosting and other services typically used by SMBs, such as Squarespace and Wix, or GoDaddy, or Shopify.

Rather, they are companies that may have never used any of these: local garages, local landscapers, local hair salons, local accountancy firms, local dentists and so on. Barring the accounting firm, these are not businesses that will ever go fully online, as a retailer might, not least because of the physical aspect of each of those professions. But they will need an online presence and the levers it gives them to communicate, in order to survive, especially in times when their old models are being put under strain.

Goode started GoSite after graduating from college in Michigan with a degree in computer science, having previously grown up around and working in small businesses — his parents, grandparents and others in his Michigan town all ran their own stores. (He moved to San Diego “for the weather” he joked.)

His belief is that while there are and always will be alternatives like Facebook or Yelp to plant a flag, there is nothing that can replace the value and longer term security and control of building something of your own — a sentiment small business owners would surely grasp.

That is perhaps the most interesting aspect of GoSite as it exists today: it precisely doesn’t see any of what already exists out there as “the competition.” Instead, Goode sees his purpose as building a dashboard that will help business owners manage all that — with up to 80 different services currently available — and more, from a single place, and with minimum need for technical skills and time spent learning the ropes.

“There is definitely huge demand from small businesses for help and something like GoSite can do that,” Goode said. “The space is very fragmented and noisy and they don’t even know where to start.”

This, combined with GoSite’s growth and relevance to the current market, is partly what attracted investors.

“The opportunity we are betting on here is the all-in-one solution,” said Vinny Pujji, partner at Left Lane. “If you are a carpet cleaner or house painter, you don’t have the capacity to understand or work with five or six different pieces of software. We spoke with thousands of SMBs when looking at this, and this was the answer we heard.” He said the other important thing is that GoSite has a customer service team and for SMBs that use it, they like that when they call, “GoSite picks up the phone.”

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