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Dutch graduate students visited four U.S. journalism startups between December 2015 and February 2016 to observe how these entrepreneurs “make it work” and, in the process, redefine what it means to be a journalist. Their work is part of Beyond Journalism, a study of entrepreneurial journalism by 2015-2016 RJI Fellows Tamara Witschge and Mark Deuze, both journalism professors in the Netherlands.

What motivates a California-based technology startup to automate news production and change the way news is produced? Acknowledgement? Disruption? Money?

Based on my case study of InkaBinka, which started in 2013, the answer is all three. I discussed these motivations in great detail with InkaBinka’s founders, Kevin McGushion and Chris Brahmer.

A technology company with a journalistic product

 “InkaBinka is really a technology company,” says Chief Financial Officer Dan Stirling. “The news is a way that they found to utilize technology.”

InkaBinka publishes 10 to 30 top stories every day in short four-bullet-point summaries, using an algorithm designed by McGushion and Brahmer. The goal is for InkaBinka to be a quick and easy one-stop news source so people don’t have to visit multiple websites.

The first thing I learned from my visit is the entrepreneurs aren’t working much on the journalism side of their product. They hired an editor, Drew Gregory Lynch, to select articles every day, which allows them to focus more on technology development. Their goal is to sell the technology to a larger technology company for a substantial profit. This apparent tension between the company’s commercial zeal, technological goals and journalistic product inspired the following research question:

How does the journalistic ambition at InkaBinka relate to the focus on developing and selling new technology?

I started my research analysis by separating the journalistic product — the news summaries — from the technology side.

Using journalistic values to maximize audience

I found it interesting how those involved at InkaBinka use journalistic values to talk about their work. When asked to describe the product in a few words, Lynch answered, “Unbiased journalism.”

Stripping bias from content is an important factor at InkaBinka. There is a perceived lack of unbiased political news in the United States, and InkaBinka appeals to readers who want their information as objective and factual as possible. By automating parts of the process, InkaBinka’s news summaries are considered less biased than strictly human-driven media.

 InkaBinka makes news more accessible and manageable by presenting it in a format that suits the busy schedule of everyday life, says Lynch. While idealistic journalistic values are pursued in the aggregation of news at InkaBinka, they ultimately serve the purpose of selling the technology. Hereby objectivity becomes a commercial value — a unique selling point — as well as a core professional value.

The journalistic application and the new technology mutually reinforce each other as long as InkaBinka doesn’t sell the technology. The news app needs the technology to exist; the technology needs journalism for visibility and attention from consumers, media and potential buyers. It’s a journalistic product on the outside, with innovative technology inside.

Technology leads to one journalist selecting news

Lynch is proud of his role at InkaBinka, and journalistic autonomy is of great importance to him. But because the summarizing algorithm does most of the work, InkaBinka only needs one journalist to gather and produce daily content. This keeps down manpower costs. But given our current online sharing culture, how did we end up having just a single gatekeeper?

Although InkaBinka’s founders strive to distribute unbiased information, news distribution is not the main motivation. Selling the technology and financial profit matters the most. As professional journalism desperately seeks a working business model online, at InkaBinka it’s journalism that becomes a commercial tool in order to develop and sell the underlying technology.

Tamara Witschge Mark Deuze

Lotte van Rosmalen  
 
Guest blogger



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