The Browser: Intelligent curation is serious business

Henry Lane Fox

Despite his rakish appearance, garrulous talk and intense enthusiasm for the Web, Henry Lane Fox has always been something of a quiet man on the U.K.’s Internet scene. Perhaps it’s no surprise since he has long lived in the shadow of his sister, Martha, who made her name as the head of — probably the most famous British company to emerge from the dot-com bubble.

Yet while Henry may be less well-known, he was also a co-founder of the site, although he quit about six months after the business had floated. He later went on to try his hand at other businesses, from the glamorous world of champagne bars in London to the decidedly less bubbly realm of manufacturing.

Now he’s having another go at being an Internet mogul as the CEO of The Browser, a site that offers links to a wide variety of writing around the Internet.

Curation for the curious?

The Browser says its aim is “to help our readers discover the best writing.” While Lane Fox is not a fan of the term “curation”, he admits that it is the current buzzword that best explains what the site does: find and aggregate links to interesting stories online, with a fairly high-minded tone.

“The challenge for us is to get a manageable reading list that will appeal to the intellectually curious,” he explains when we meet in his office, squirreled away in the upper reaches of a building in the very center of London. It’s about “trying to find the best writing across a range of subjects”.

Each day is spent finding good material. Today’s recommended reads, for example, include an essay on income inequality in India from Guernica magazine, and an opinionated piece on the use of torture by British and American military that ran in the U.K. Independent. It’s a varied bag.

Indeed, in the room next to us, the site’s small staff is sifting through the pile of recommendations, tips and finds that they build up during the day. The team, led by Bob Trevelyan, a former BBC editor, uses a variety of technologies to narrow down their vast selection of possible articles to a couple of hundred stories each day before going and taking a closer look.

“The key is then that they are read by somebody,” says Lane Fox. But aside from excellence, there is no other bar. “We don’t take the Longreads long-form view that something has to be 1500-plus words to be worth reading. We just really focus on quality.”

Henry was brought in to run things last year at the behest of the site’s main investor, Al Breach.

He inherited a site that was trying to amalgamate two different identities under one roof, both of them too narrow to be profitable. There was The Browser itself, which was well-liked by a small portion of the American intelligentsia (“a loyal, quite academic audience,” he says, who had a tendency to like “tough” material). And then there was the small literary interview site FiveBooks, which encourages well-known thinkers to share their thoughts on their favorite books.

“[The Browser] got this niche audience quite early on; it launched in 2009 and was picked up quite quickly by David Brooks at the New York Times, (s nyt) so that gave it a nice spike in traffic,” says Lane Fox.

But when he arrived, he “looked at the site and it was growing, but had sort of reached a plateau. FiveBooks had been set up in the meantime… and it had a very up and down period. It was quite difficult to see how it was going to monetize itself.”

The idea was to bring the two together to build a destination site that generated its own material, linked to others and simply built an audience by recommending great reading. Bringing the two together has worked so far, with unique user numbers rising to 250,000 per month (around 50,000 are dedicated readers, he says) and more on the way.

Expansion plans include turning more passers-by into hardcore fans, as well as stepping away from text and into multimedia.

The site plans to extend into “videos, photo-essays, different kinds of content. We don’t necessarily want to restrict ourselves… it would be easy to get caught in a niche business, and I’ve seen that happen to a lot of people online.”

Even in this broad sphere, though, The Browser is not without competition — indeed, its strategy is somewhat reminiscent of what The Atlantic is doing with its Atlantic Wire, video curation and photo collation.

‘We’re quite prepared to say there’s a cost to what we do’

The big question, though, remains: Can curation be a serious business?

Lane Fox says yes, because it’s useful for everyone: readers who get to find more material, publishers who get more targeted traffic and advertisers who know they’re talking to a high-level audience. But it’s not just an advertising play; he’s also not scared of asking readers to pay when the time is right — for example, when the site releases a subscription app for the iPad (s aapl), which is coming soon.

“We’re quite prepared to say there’s a cost to what we do, so let’s say we’re going to charge you for it. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable situation to put ourselves in,” he says. “In a way, it’s a similar model to Instapaper, who I think took a great decision to stand up and say, ‘We’re a small company, we need to be funded, you have to pay for what we do because it’s good.’ They are going to be monthly subscriptions at a very low cost, hopefully 69 pence a month will be an easy purchase to swallow.”

Financial Times HTML5 app

But it’s not necessarily so simple. The financial side of app subscriptions are a big deal right now, most notably when the Financial Times (s pso) recently removed its apps from iOS App Store in a long-running argument about Apple’s share of subscription revenue. The Browser doesn’t have those disagreements, says Lane Fox — not least because it’s a smaller concern.

“It’s a slightly false argument sometimes to look at this and say Apple’s being greedy and stealing 30 percent of the cash. In the end, that’s not an audience you have, and it’s not a platform you have access to. You have to take quite a long-term, big-picture view of it.”

That is not to say he is entirely satisfied. In fact, the company spent a long time last year building technologies to help magazine publishers make revenues, presumably without involving Apple. It turned into a dead end, but one that may arise again in the future.

“It’s extremely difficult to build consensus right now in the publishing industry — and it’s not a problem that we alone have, it goes for everybody from Google (s goog) to Flipboard to ourselves,” he says. “That was the biggest challenge we faced last year, because I thought we could crack it, and I’m still ambitious that in the long run that it could be very valuable.”

In the meantime, trying to solve an impossible conundrum looks like little more than an easy way to get sidetracked — and today, Lane Fox says his most important task is simply to keep growing The Browser’s audience.

“From our side, the key right now is to build the business as fast as we can. We’ve got money for another year, and we’re trying to do some clever marketing deals,” he says. “Right now I think our challenge is, quite frankly, getting the word out to as many people as fast as possible, and finding a very clear way to describe what we do.”