Ongo defies automation in aggregation with hand-picked news

ongo front page

“Content curation” has been a buzz word in the past couple of years, and even social networks like Twitter and Facebook have notably evolved into user-sourced content sharing platforms. Much of today’s deliberate curation services recommend content algorithmically, based on your particular taste in news. But automated suggestions pose the inherent risk that we may only consume stories and angles tailored to our existing beliefs. A budding service that clearly distinguishes itself from its competitors is Ongo, a news curation platform that combines the best of automation and manual curation, thanks to its team of expert editors.

Because algorithm-based curation platforms suggest articles based on your selective taste in news, readers may be isolated from “must-read” news that gets filtered away. Other people who rely on Facebook friends for news may have experienced the agony of realizing that they’re days or even months behind the latest news.

Ongo is unique in two ways. First, it has built its platform based on authoritative sources of news from the New York Times and Reuters. It prides itself on a strict standard of quality for news delivered to Ongo users, while boasting partnerships with the top content providers within each genre of news.

“I think the biggest differentiator that I see when I look out at the landscape of our competitors from an aggregation standpoint is that we really focus on news outlets that carry with it more of a traditional brand,” Ongo COO Dan Haarmann told Digital Trends.

Second, Ongo is run using an internal algorithm recommending a selection of 10,000 articles daily for its editors to choose from. The editors will then curate authoritative and must-know news. It’s a daunting number, but with 40 publishing partners representing just over 100 publications,  60 RSS titles curated from the Web, plus 80 more publication deals in the works, this is just the beginning.

Just who is responsible for the manual aggregation? Kevin Skaggs, Ongo’s Chief Content Officer and former Executive Producer of SFGate.com, is at the helm of curating the daily news. “He comes from a more traditional news background where he’s looking out over the course of the day and deciding how he’s going to program the day with all the news that’s happening. We’re hooked into trending topics, but we’re not actually surfacing that stuff via an algorithm,” Haarmann explains.

On the front end, the publications are packaged into “Titles” that users can pick and choose to appear in their news feeds, whether it’s TechCrunch for “Technology,” or Pitchfork for “Arts & Entertainment.” The caveat is that while some publication Titles are free to read, many other titles require a monthly subscription ranging from $0.99 to upwards of $9.99 for The Chicago Tribune.

ongo titles

But Haarmann is confident that Ongo’s two competitive advantages, and that the ad-free experience merits the base subscription price of $1.99 per month per user. To date, Ongo touts over 20,000 subscribers, a growth attributed to the last four months when the number of subscribers grew 200 percent month-over-month. On the other hand, you may also be getting a deal on your favorite publications. For example, you may be limited to 10 New York Times articles per month, but you’re on Ongo, you can read up to 20 curated NYTimes articles per day.

Ongo was birthed from an incubator that Ongo CEO, Alex Kazim, had started back in 2007. It wasn’t until 2009 that Kazim and Haarmann ramped up their efforts with Ongo and consequently closed a $12 million series A round of funding from The New York Times, The Washington Post and Gannett in June 2010. In January 2011, the team subsequently launched its beta Web application and finally officially launched out of beta on July 2011.

Ongo was the product of a few years of aggressive research in Web-app-based curation platforms, but at the conclusion of the original research, the iPad had just been released. Noticing its need for a cross-platform application and considering the rise in popularity of iPads, Ongo recently launched its simple-to-use iPad application.

foreign policy Ongo ipad app

Its smartphone platform, on the other hand, is merely a mobile version of its Web application. While we’d love to see a mobile app, our wish will remain unfulfilled until Ongo figures out a way around the 30 percent commission (which is its margin) for every in-app purchase or app purchase from iTunes and Google Play.

While there’s admittedly room for growth and potential in the curation platform, the editors are the one thing that Haarmann assures us will never be excised from the service, despite the overhead costs of maintaining the team. The human element, after all, is what sets Ongo apart from a field of computer-powered competitors.

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