Startup Watchup plans to reinvent news video consumption

14 March 2016

Caterina Visco

FaranoGEN has always been a strong supporter of young media entrepreneurs through its competition Startups for News, running for a fifth time this year. 

A great example of this entrepreneurial spirit is Italian journalist and young entrepreneur Adriano Farano. In the following interview, Adriano give advice to young entrepreneurs and talks about the future of video and his app Watchup which allows users to build their own newscast browsing content from local, national, international news sources such as Bloomberg, CBS, CNN, but also Vox Media and AJ+.


You've come a long way since your first entrepreneurial adventure with CafeBabel in 2001. Tell us more about your journey and the idea behind Watchup.

My story starts in 1989 when I was nine years old. Yet, I still remember watching my first ever newscast. It was about the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In that moment, I realised the power of video journalism. The next day at school I discovered that none of my schoolmates had heard the news. Back home I took some sheets of paper and I started scribbling a newspaper. I produced at least five issues with some friends of mine. When the teacher discovered that we were selling it, she banned the publication. 

Fast forward to 2010: after the experience at CafeBabel, the first news site founded with the idea of building a pan-European conversation, I sailed to California for a Knight journalism fellowship. After that, I stayed there as an entrepreneur in residence at Stanford University’s StartX accelerator. I decided to go back to my initial passion for video journalism and started Watchup. My vision is that we are entering a post-traditional TV era where multi-channel, personalised newscasts will be the new normal.

Video and mobile are two of the most important trends right now. How do you think they will change the journalism landscape in the near future?

I think the future of video is already here and it’s called “over the top” (OTT): it’s the next stage in the digitalisation of our media consumption, when the streaming model will take over the living room to replace traditional television.

It’s already happening with devices like Fire TV and Apple TV.  We started our startup journey with the mission of creating the first streaming news service for the mobile age but in the last year we realised that the most popular way of using Watchup is actually on TV. 

That’s why we launched Watchup on the new Apple TV. More and more Americans are deciding to “cut the cord” to avoid an expensive subscription to cable that is often not offering what people want. In this new ecosystem, OTT is now the perfect option for whomever wants an on-demand experience. 

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Photograph courtesy of Watchup

What do you think is changing in the way video journalism is produced, distributed or consumed?

One of the most interesting trends in video journalism is the multi-platform model. Content is currently being produced for specific platforms, so that it can be consumed more organically by the users. But, in our experience, high-quality video journalism resonates with users regardless of the device they are using. When a story is broken, when a publication’s editorial tone is loud and clear, when a powerful story is told — no matter the device — it will be heard.

Making mobile and TV converge in one, consistent, digitally consumed experience is exactly what Watchup does by making this wealth of journalism content available on a wide array of devices. The transition from a mobile first world to a multi-platform media consumption model is a powerful one.

Another interesting trend is the transformation of local news. According to the latest Pew Research report, 75 % of Americans watch local news on a regular basis. But the way local news has been historically distributed is mainly via the traditional TV model. Thanks to an investment from Tribune Media, we have realised the big potential of local news and learned about efforts to innovate in the field. 

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In an interview with the Los Angeles Times you hinted that your main target are young adults. What are their characteristics, what kind of content are they actually consuming the most and how?

The 18-35 year old so-called Millennial generation represents the biggest portion of our customer base, especially on the gaming consoles Xbox 360 and Wii U. Millennials are very demanding, and they have specific tastes. They have no patience for live TV news, and for good reasons: live seldom offers the density of content they have been accustomed to with other aggregation products, such as Spotify or Netflix.  

Being able to consume on-demand video journalism is a dream come true for the Millennial news junky, who represents our primary audience target. Plus, with the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election in full swing, our users want to be informed but they aren’t satisfied with just one point of view.

As you mentioned Watchup is not only available on mobile devices but also on gaming console like Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii U. Do you think that such platforms are gaining momentum compared to publishers and distributors? 

Right now, gaming consoles represent a huge opportunity for publishers and editorial networks. For us, Xbox 360 and Nintendo WiiU became an interesting outlet. We discovered that a gaming console can also be used by the whole family to check the news. Our challenge was to do something very new in the field, and now we are the 6° app on WiiU (near big names such as Netflix, Hulu and YouTube) and the only one related to news.


Photograph courtesy of Watchup

In your presentations, you always talk about the "lasagna design", the art of revealing information in layers. What is it exactly? How is it part of the Watchup experience?

Watchup's current UX comes with a multi-layered user interface centered on a multi-channel video experience, often called "lasagna design." I used this image the first time thinking about my grandma’s meal. At Watchup, we are continuously working on new ways to conceive app design by layers of information. While designing websites has been all about what to show, designing tablet apps, according to lasagna design, is all about what to hide — and how to hide it. And we think that this clean, elegant design approach is perfect to serve our goal.

Personalisation and engagement seem to be keywords for everyone in the news environment. It is also a pivotal feature of Watchup. Why do you think they are so important?

In our view, a video news app should put user’s interests and behaviour at the centre of the user experience. Every day we ingest about 3,000 videos directly from our partners' feed and then we apply machine learning techniques to create your perfect newscast. But the final result is always way more diverse than if you were using just one app from one news provider, because we source more than 160 channels. 

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Social media and chat apps: these platforms seem very attractive for your audience. What do you think of them and their role in journalism? How do you think they are impacting the news industry?

Messaging apps will become a great way for news brands to build consumption models that are more conversational. But I am more skeptical on the success in the long run of news brands building their own bots to handle user content demands. That's because I am convinced there is a better, faster way to handle these demands than having to engage with a bot to ask for news.

I would add that social media are a great way to introduce content, but a deeper understanding necessitates an alternative method. When I use Facebook and news content is pushed to me in the middle of some cute baby picture or the latest soccer related meme, I have the feeling I am simply scratching the surface. Not surprisingly, Facebook knows that and that’s why it counts a video view at three seconds while YouTube does it at 30 seconds. The attention span is so limited.

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Photograph courtesy of Watchup

Let's talk a little bit about the Italian media landscape. Why did you feel you had to leave in order to make your ideas successful? Do you think something has changed in Italy since you left?

If I had not left Italy I honestly do not think I would have ever made it. Bureaucracy, lack of meritocracy, could still be the major obstacle for me. We are speaking about a country that should invest more in young people and young ideas. On the other hand, Silicon Valley, where Watchup is incubated, is a sort of El Dorado for those who want to grow their startups. We are talking about an ecosystem where there are no walls between those who do, those who think and those who invest.

Anyway, my Italian heritage has always helped me to inspire a positive attitude in everyone I talk to. I will never forget when the former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Gordon Crovitz, as I was pitching my idea to get him as an investor of Watchup, told me "If you left the Amalfi Coast, one of the most beautiful places in the world, it must be because you really believe in your idea. I’m in”.

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Cafe Babel has been Adriano first adventure as entrepreneur

What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur?

Never give up. Perseverance is what ultimately makes the difference between a good entrepreneur and an amateur. Then, focus, focus, focus: I know so many people who have always had side projects. Not a single one managed to launch a real company. If you believe in your idea, go for it and focus on it 200 % That said, ideas are cheap. Many people have reached out to me and said: “I have a great idea, but I don’t know how to find money, how to hire, how to do this and do that…”. The reality is that, if it’s a great idea, someone else has thought about it too. What makes companies great is the level of execution. This is something harder to understand for us Europeans.