The Storyline Tackling News Curation with New Startup

If you want news delivered to your desktop or mobile device, there aren’t exactly a shortage of options. Just today, in fact, News.me just launched an iPhone app for its Twitter and Facebook-based link crawling tool, and Prismatic is debuting its smart news reader soon. But one stealth startup, The Storyline, which began accepting closed beta participants this week, thinks that there’s still room for a tool to emerge that tackles the news discovery problem in a unique way by attempting to surface the news that’s most useful to users first.

The Storyline, which co-founder Sujal Shah told BetaKit in an interview will debut as a web app first and then later arrive on the iPad as a native offering, will be a news aggregator that goes beyond just mining your social networks for sources; instead, Shah and co-founder Pat Arleth are working to create a news pipeline that’s organized around “editions” relevant to their readers. Editions will be organized around geographical locations or themes, but any user of The Storyline can create their own editions, too, around any core idea, which will be shared publicly and available to all other users.

Shah said that The Storyline actually solves the opposite problem from similar tools like Flipboard and Zite. “Those are hyper-personalized, they’re more about who you’re following and who they have deals with,” Shah said. “There’s a lot of stuff you miss that’s not sexy or interesting with the super-customized, super-personalized approach.” The Storyline will allow you to see what’s actually important to your community or profession, or in line with your personal interests, without over-weighting factors like sharing popularity.

In many ways, The Storyline will act as an evolution of local news sources like regional newspapers and TV networks. Shah kept coming back to the use case of a test edition created for Hartford, CT, which is where the team is based. “We’re down to one major daily paper, and a lot of independent blogs and new startup online publications,” he said. “We wanted to take our area, and create a one-stop aggregator for the whole place that understands what’s important.”

The way that The Storyline achieves that is by employing a content analysis engine that Shah called “somewhere between” the approach used by Google News and Techmeme. “We use a little bit of text analysis and a little bit of who’s talking about what,” Shah said, describing how The Storyline goes about finding stories relevant to a specific edition. But the team plans to add a human element too, and is currently looking to hire editors to help with content curation.

The Storyline is currently bootstrapped, and Shah says the team is working on getting the product ready before seeking funding. But he’s already been meeting with local news sources, and he sees an exciting opportunity to help give back to the local newsmedia from which The Storyline will get a lot of its content. Shah hopes to eventually bring The Storyline to the iPad, where he sees subscriptions as a viable option for future revenue, and he hopes to build revenue-sharing agreements with local news sources. Shah notes that people are willing to pay for targeted information like the kind found in specialty magazines, and that’s what he hopes The Storyline will offer that others don’t.

“We’ve seen Readability try this model, and we’ve seen News.me try this sort of model, but the key thing that they are were missing is that the utility was just not there,” he said. “People don’t pay for the news, they pay for what the news lets them do.”

Getting the mix right to make that case to users will be a challenge. AOL’s Editions iPad app offers something close, though without the social curation angle, and it hasn’t been a runaway hit. Smartr, another player in this field, goes the other way and focuses on the curation of friends in your network, but it doesn’t offset that with any particular attempt to engineer relevancy. The Storyline seems to have a smart balance in place at this stage, however, and reaching out to content producers early is another smart decision. Shah says the product is still about two months from launch, but those interested in taking a peek early can sign up at their launch page now.

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