Prismatic wants to be the newspaper for a digital age

What did the printed newspaper provide in its heyday as the information-delivery system of choice? A collection of news and other interesting content, selected by knowledgeable editors from a wide range of sources, presented in an easy-to-scan format. Now, the supply of information we have available to us is almost never-ending — but we still need an easy and efficient way to filter it, and find what is interesting and relevant, and share it with others. The field is filled with contenders who believe they can solve that problem, including and Flipboard and Zite, and one of the newest is a San Francisco-based startup called Prismatic.

What became Prismatic started over a year ago as a two-man venture called Woven, which co-founder Bradford Cross talked about at the time as a way to harness the power of social media and what Om has called the “democratization of distribution” to come up with a better way of consuming information online — one that would blend the best aspects of tools like Twitter with the kind of automated process that many people used to rely on RSS readers for. Ideally, he said, it would fulfill the same kind of function that a newspaper used to, but with a much broader range of sources.

Like a newspaper, but in real time and social

One of the interesting things about Prismatic is that Cross doesn’t have a background in media — his specialty is data analysis and machine learning. Before he started Prismatic, he was the head of research at Flightcaster, a Y Combinator-funded startup that used multiple data sources to estimate real-time flight information. After it was acquired, Cross decided that he wanted to work on a much larger problem, and the nature of information consumption seemed like it fit the bill. As he described it:

It’s not just about personalization… it’s about how media is consumed now. In the old days, you could just go to the New York Times and get all your news, or whatever. But that’s not the case any more, and it will likely never be the case again. The news is all distributed now, to a thousand different places.

What Prismatic does is analyze as much as it can about you when you connect to it with your Twitter account (Cross says that support for Facebook and other networks will be coming, as will a mobile app — for now it is desktop only) and then start recommending things to you based on what it thinks your interests are, using semantic-filtering algorithms and so on. You can click an X to hide an article, or you can click a plus sign, which is both a vote for that content and a way of saving it to an internal bookmark list (support for Instapaper and other methods is also in the works, Cross says). You can also tweet directly from a post, or retweet someone who has posted it.

What the company offers isn’t all that different from what or Zite or several other services are trying to do:, a Betaworks venture, started with an iPad app that allowed you to eavesdrop on the streams of certain Twitter users and now has a mobile client it is trying to turn into an “Instagram for news.” Zite, a Canadian startup that was acquired by CNN last year, uses Twitter feeds and RSS feeds to recommend articles and also allows you to vote whether you like them or not. And even Twitter is trying to build some strength in the “curation” game, by buying Summify and reworking its Discover tab to provide more suggested topics, and more context.

Understanding people’s interests through data

So what makes Prismatic special? Cross says it is the data analysis and algorithms and other processes that it is able to apply to that massive stream of content that flows through a user’s social graph — and hence, the quality of the suggestions that it can make about topics or stories of interest. In many ways, this is the holy grail of any curation-based service: if it comes up with too many “false positives” over a certain period, users will simply abandon it. And ideally it will also have enough of a serendipity factor that it exposes users to things they weren’t already looking for (something newspapers do well).

In my use of Prismatic — and comparisons with, Zite, Flipboard, News360, Pulse and a half dozen other similar services — I’ve found the selections I get are consistently relevant. There is the occasional hit and miss, but it is as good as or better than Zite and orders of magnitude better than even the revamped Discover tab on Twitter. Cross says that while the user base is still small, he is seeing a high level of engagement:

We want to be like the daily newspaper for our generation, and so we wanted to see people visiting multiple times a day and hopefully about six days a week at least — and we are definitely seeing that, which really shows our concept is working.

According to Cross, many users are saying Prismatic is replacing sites they used to go to such as Google News or Y Combinator’s Hacker News. For me, it — along with Twitter itself — has become a replacement for my RSS reader, which I wasn’t using much anyway. I have built lists within Twitter around different topic areas, but in many ways Prismatic makes it a lot easier to find relevant content (especially since Twitter seems to be making it harder to manage lists). It’s like what Google News might be, if Google actually applied any of its brainpower to rethinking how content works now.

As for who will win this race, Cross says there is so much upheaval occurring in the media and content businesses that it’s almost impossible to say. “It’s easy to look at what we’re doing and what Flipboard or Twitter or Facebook is doing and say they’re all doing the same thing,” he says. “But I think the media industry in a few years is going to be completely transformed — all of these things will look very different. So we’re just focusing on how we can help people discover the things they are interested in.”

Prismatic raised $1.5 million in venture financing last year, and Cross says the service is experimenting with a number of different monetization options, including affiliate links to Amazon products such as books that are related to the content being shown. The company is also interested in partnering with traditional media outlets, he said.

We’ll be talking with leaders in tech, media and investing about how to make the most of today’s opportunities, blurred lines and all, at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads, May 23, at The TimesCenter in New York. Join us.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Shironeko Euro