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More and more smartphone users in Japan look to news curation

by Akky Akimoto

Special To The Japan Times

Curation isn’t just for museums anymore. There has been a recent uptick in the popularity of smartphone apps that customize news for users in Japan, and this customization is called kyurēshon.

The idea of getting news via your mobile phone goes back to NTT Docomo’s i-mode service, which was launched in 1999.

However, when smartphones arrived from overseas, the control Japanese carriers traditionally had in directing how their customers got the news was lessened, thanks to the app system on iPhone and Android devices. Cellphone carriers pre-installed apps to try to sway users, but it was almost impossible to force them in the direction of the carriers’ choices. This has presented a significant opportunity for news-curation apps.

The SmartNews app presents news from other media organizations by displaying the first paragraph of a story before linking to the original source. The service, launched in December 2012, makes content available when you’re offline as it allows users to copy its content onto their own devices. This has led to content providers complaining that users don’t click the links to the original stories, which means advertising banners on the support sites go unseen bcause of less traffic. Users don’t mind, though; the app counts more than 3 million downloads and 75 percent active users (those who have opened the app at least once since January).

Some media now accept that usage of their news content is unavoidable and that at least it is worth being listed on the app as a “recommended channel.” SmartNews allows media to opt out of having their content listed, but these days every eye counts when it comes to page views. SmartNews’ efforts are paying off; Google awarded its Android version “Best App 2013″ on Google Play.

Gunosy is widely seen as SmartNews’ main rival. It was launched in November 2012 and had been downloaded 1.8 million times as of March this year. The app analyzes social media habits and uses the data to recommend news stories.

On March 14, cellphone carrier KDDI announced it had invested an undisclosed amount in Gunosy. Japan’s second-largest carrier has a good past record in such investments, supporting once-underdog social network Gree to help surpass former-giant Mixi.

Gunosy launched a TV ad campaign featuring superhero Ultraman in an attempt to broaden its user base. This resulted in the acquisition of another 700,000 downloads. Gunosy has also released British and American versions of its service for iOS.

Following its KDDI alliance, Gunosy was remodeled to allow for quick glances of general news. It now features a design where users swipe through stories in a way that’s similar to SmartNews’ app.

Antenna is another major player in the news-curation game. It calls itself a “curation magazine” and features a photo-centric design that resembles the already-successful Flipboard app out of California. Apple’s App Store named Antenna its “best app” of 2013.

In August, Internet marketing-research company Macromill invested ¥1.5 billion in Antenna and took a 25 percent stake. In April, it passed 3 million users in terms of app downloads and PC registrations. The app could be a major player — this week the company recruited TV personality Rola for a new commercial, which is always a sign of financial health.

In addition to those startups, Line News is backed by Japan’s largest social network service. Line counts 50 million domestic users and, although no official numbers have been disclosed, industry watchers estimate Line News has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

Other local players in the news aggregation field include blog and bookmark service Hatena’s Presso app; Vingow, which provides a news summarization feature; NewsPicks, which focuses on economic news for the most part and just announced they have hired the chief editor for Toyo Keizai’s online edition; and Mynd, which is taking up the design that Gunossy used to use — perhaps grabbing some hardcore Gunossy nostalgists.

With the increase in news-curation apps, media outlets and bloggers say they have noticed a rise in traffic to their sites — in some cases crediting the apps for bringing them more eyes than Google Search, Twitter or Facebook. The apps themselves are available for free, but some include ads between articles.

SmartNews, Gunossy and the others have made a bet that Japanese will increasingly read news via mobile devices, so capturing the majority of this market could mean big business. The race to curate is on. Let’s just hope they can find enough content.

  • Scott Reynolds

    Hmmm. No photos or links. Kinda disappointing in an article about Web trends.