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Newsy finds fertile ground growing multi-source news in Missouri

Newsy has grown since 2008 into an outlet that produces about 100 stories a week and strives to become the name in mobile news. Screenshot of Newsy’s iPhone app courtesy of Newsy.

Telling the story of his move from northern California to middle Missouri, Jim Spencer peppers in a couple of punch lines that have become well-polished with use. In 2008, Spencer relocated from San Francisco to Columbia, Mo. to start Newsy, a provider of multi-platform, multi-source video news analysis.

“I explained to the folks in northern California,” said Spencer (below, screenshot from crunchbase.com), “that really the two main reasons I was doing it was the quality of the wine and the excellent weather that we have here in Missouri.”

Though Spencer jokes about his motivations for founding Newsy, he has some very serious aspirations for the startup. “There’s a huge opportunity to win in this mobile video news space, and that’s what I’m really focused on,” Spencer said. “If we hit that, if in five years someone says, you know, mobile video news, and the word that pops out is Newsy, then I think we would’ve accomplished what we came to do.”

Newsy, which won the 2011 Appy Award for Best News App, delivers the news of the day in video clips 2-3 minutes long that feature reporters synthesizing information from a variety of news outlets. Newsy produces not only the video clips but also the apps on which they play, striving to provide “context with convenience.”

At a time when many news outlets cater to specific niches, Newsy seeks to provide coverage that runs the gamut — presenting Fox News alongside MSNBC and Al Jazeera juxtaposed with the BBC.

“Algorithms can’t really do context,” Spencer said. “They can tell you that there are 100,000 stories about Anthony Weiner, if not more, right now, but they can’t really tell you the difference in how they’re being covered. That requires usually some type of human interaction, and so that’s what we do here.”

‘Blistering hot’

Lately, Newsy has been providing its brand of convenient context in much larger quantities. Jim Flink, Newsy’s vice president of news operations, came to the company in 2010, when Newsy was producing 3-4 stories most days.

“Gradually we just started making small changes, you know, and we set the bar a little bit higher,” said Flink (left, photo from twitter.com). “And we said, ‘Well, let’s do seven.’ And then, ‘Let’s do 10.’ And then, ‘Let’s do 12.’ ”

Today, Flink said, Newsy eclipses 100 stories in an average week. That story load has included more than 50 in Mandarin and several more Spanish, and Flink said plans are under way to expand to other languages.

Newsy has brokered syndication deals with outlets like AOL and The Huffington post, and Flink said even more syndication arrangements are in the works.

Last month, Newsy unveiled v 3.0 of its iPad app, which includes an all new interface and features faster loading times, a new tappable news ticker, new push notifications, the ability to share stories on Facebook with a single tap and the ability to tweet Newsy videos with just one sign-in. Additionally, Newsy dropped “.com” from its name to signify its commitment to the mobile space, which Spencer said demands nonstop improvement.

“The pace of innovation right now in the mobile space is blistering hot,” Spencer said. “I’ve kind of been doing this for awhile, and I’m telling you it is moving faster than anything I’ve ever seen in my life. The pace of innovation is incredible, absolutely incredible, and in order to be able to win in this space, you have to be able to innovate. And that means taking an app that is four stars and finding a way to get it to 4.5.”

Added Flink: “If news organizations are not rushing with every resource and with every intellectual fiber of their being toward mobile space and high quality video, I think they’re missing something.”

To keep up with the pace of progress in the mobile space, Newsy last month introduced an entirely new iPad app. Screenshot courtesy of Newsy.

School ties

Although it’s something short of a sommelier’s paradise, middle Missouri is a mecca of journalism. Columbia is home to the University of Missouri, which touts the oldest and arguably most esteemed journalism school in the nation.

Spencer, who grew up in Kansas City and earned a master’s degree in journalism at Missouri, launched Newsy in Columbia due in large part to his alma mater’s journalism pedigree. In spending two decades after graduating from Missouri between New York and San Francisco, working at NBC, AOL and Ask Jeeves, Spencer realized something.

“We were hiring really smart, talented people,” Spencer said, “but they weren’t any smarter or any more talented than (Missouri journalism) school graduates. And I thought, you know, we could put it here in Columbia, create jobs here in Columbia, create opportunities for my fellow alums and grow the company.”

Newsy now mines Missouri for talent in a feeder relationship that Spencer likens to Google and Yahoo building their empires on the foundation of Stanford computer science students. Spencer, Flink and Alex Wharton, Newsy’s vice president of marketing and community, serve as adjunct professors at Missouri, and students from the university fill all sorts of roles in the Newsy newsroom, which Flink said numbered 97 during the spring semester.

“As they come through here, we’ll end up hiring them part-time if they’re great and we’ll end up hiring them full-time if they’re absolutely fantastic,” Spencer said. “And so we have this steady access to one of the best talent pools in the world.”

“If news organizations are not rushing with every resource and with every intellectual fiber of their being toward mobile space and high quality video, I think they’re missing something.”

– Jim Flink

That talent is drawn to Newsy by one of the same factors that helped Flink, a 20-year veteran of television news, decide to join the Newsy team last year. “They come into this newsroom,” Flink said, “because this sort of represents the newsroom of the future.”

Big opportunity

Despite its ties to Missouri’s journalism school — in addition to the adjunct work Newsy employees do, Newsy gave Missouri an equity stake in the company at no cost to the university — Newsy is a privately held company. Newsy has raised $4.25 million in outside funding to bankroll the operation and brings in revenue from advertising on its mobile platforms and arrangements with its syndication partners.

Boasting that impressive and growing stable of partners and an expanding newsroom, and working in a space that, by all accounts, could soon be ripe for the picking, the Newsy team believes it’s cultivating something in Columbia that is capable of bearing great fruit. And that’s no joke.

“I could’ve never imagined a year ago where we would be today,” Flink said. “And I know for a fact that I have no idea what we’re going to look like 12 months from now, except for that I know that it’s going to be so much bigger and better than I cam imagine.

“And I don’t mean that to come off as Pollyanna or optimistic. I just think that the amount of opportunity that rests in this place at this time at this juncture of … journalism history, it’s truly astounding.”

For more on the new iPad app Newsy introduced last month, see the video below.

Video from NewsyVideos on Vimeo

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