Q&A: Luke Stangel, Co-Creator of TapIn Bay Area

“Mobile could make us focus again on what we do really well as reporters.”

This week, Bay Area News Group—publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and several other newspapers—will release a new map-based mobile news application called TapIn Bay Area. As Luke Stangel, one of its creators, described it, “Imagine cutting up your local paper into 10,000 little pieces, and organizing those pieces on a map. TapIn is that map.”

The app’s news content comes from the hundreds of reporters who work for the Bay Area News Group’s papers. As you move the map, the news stories change based on location, and so do the offerings under its various tabs, which include Features (interactive content), Deals (local business offerings), Gigs (which allows users to ask for specific things from strangers also using the app), weather, and events, allowing users to upvote, share, and comment on content. Alysia Santo spoke with Luke Stangel, a former newspaper reporter and one of the creators of TapIn, to find out more. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

You quit your job to start Tackable, a social networking company, with Ed Lucero, a tech startup veteran. Where did the original idea for a location-aware social network come from?

Tackable came out of my experience as a reporter. My very first job in journalism was at the extremely aggressive, tiny Palo Alto Daily News (now The Daily News). We were under really tight deadlines and we had to produce an insane amount of work. This paper’s specialty was crime news. I was in charge of crime coverage, which was a nerve-wracking job. I was listening to the police scanner twenty-four hours a day. In the morning, when I got to the office, even when I went to dinner, I took the police scanner with me.

We had to scoop every single day. It was insane. So I would go to bed and turn off the police scanner and I would wake up and have this feeling that I had missed eight hours of reality. And I kept thinking about these eight hours, these eight hours were eating me up. I absolutely needed to know what happened while I was asleep.

I started thinking about a gadget where you could link it up to a bunch of people and if they knew something was happening, they could just drop a little beacon on a map. So the idea was going to be really simple: take out your phone, take a photo of whatever you see in front of you, write a caption, and upload it to the map. So we built it and we pushed the prototype out. We realized that journalists would really find this interesting and useful, so we started showing it around to newspapers.

We took it to the Mercury News and they loved it. They told us to take our software and think about other location-aware, real-time information we could put on this map. We started to imagine news on a map, events on a map, mashing up traffic and weather and a business directory and movie listings. We were incubated inside of the San Jose Mercury News as just sort of a independent startup, so we built this in partnership with them and the California Newspapers Partnership, which is a subsidiary of MediaNews.

Are there plans to make this something larger, or is this just meant to be for the Bay Area?

A lot of our plans hinge on this launch, and if it is successful, MediaNews is going to replicate the model in Los Angeles because they own the LA News group. MediaNews is also hoping to bring it to the Denver market since they own the Denver Post and a few Denver community newspapers. I know that they are really eager to see how this launch goes so we can get into the other major markets that they own.

The plan is to roll this out as a platform for newspapers nationwide. Eventually we’re hoping that when you open up this app in New York, you’re seeing stories from different newspapers in New York all sitting on the same map, so you can get a real time sense of exactly what’s happening on a location basis.

So, ideally, papers owned by different companies would all provide content for the app?

That’s our ideal goal. We’ve shown the app around and we’re trying to gauge what the level of interest is in doing that. Potentially, you could read a story from the New York Post and a story from The New York Times on the same map. That’s going to be one of those things we’re going to have to negotiate with each company. Whether or not we can actually achieve that is going to be determined.

What do you see as one of the basic inefficiencies of traditional newspaper advertising?

My parents get the same newspaper that I do, even though I live about thirty miles away from them. Their front page looks the same as my front page even though our geographic interests are different. I live in this little community called Willow Glen and they live in Palo Alto. And they are interested in politics and housing in Palo Alto, and I don’t care that much about that. I care about dog parks here in Willow Glen and I care about a new restaurant downtown. And the newspaper has to serve both my parents and me, and plus everyone else who lives even further away from us. So what you find on the front page is a fairly generic mix of what the editors think the majority of people in the Bay Area want to read today.

But for me to find what’s near me is actually pretty difficult. Say my favorite restaurant has paid a lot of money to put this coupon in the newspaper, but I can’t find it because I didn’t look for it. My neighbors are having a garage sale and they paid thirty or forty bucks to get a garage sale listing, but I didn’t see it because it just wasn’t very well indexed.

So this product flips that equation around. All you do is open up the app and we’re going to send you everything: your local articles, local sports scores, as well as your local deals, local ads, and in the future, local classifieds. Really everything that we have, we assign a location to, and we can actually drive a lot more engagement with that. Businesses pay a lot of money to get their ads and their coupons into the newspaper. They’re really looking to make sure their ads are well displayed to the right customer. So by organizing those ads and coupons on a map, we think it can drive a lot more conversion; a lot more customers coming in through the door and asking for those deals. There’s a lot of business owners that took a leap of faith on this because we don’t have any users yet.

For the Gigs feature, what struck me about that was it seemed almost like a reporting tool. Is that what it’s meant to be, or is it just for anyone to place requests on the map?

Gigs is essentially the original Tackable product. We left it open intentionally because we want to see how people use it. It could be that you drag that little pin over and you drop it down on the map and you write about something what you saw there. We have early beta users, about sixty, so the product is not fully out yet. But we’re keeping it kind of nebulous. What we’re finding is people are using it in ways that we didn’t imagine, so we’re leaving it open intentionally to see how the public uses that feature and plays around with it.

What do you see as the potential problems for this app?

I’m a journalism purist, so I think that one of the best things about the newspaper is that you have an editor who decides that a story is very big and it’s something that you’re not thinking about. You may not have seen that on TV or Facebook, but this is important, so I’m going to put that on your front page. But with this product, because all news is location-based, that serious story is not coming to you necessarily, at least for version one of this product. What we’re hoping to do is try and figure out how we can bring the editor back into this process. That’s a harder problem, but we’re hopeful that we can do that.

The nice thing about a newspaper is it gives you a broad view of what is happening in your region, your state, the nation, and the world. This product does not have that because it is focused on hyperlocal. At some point I would like to bring that back but I would say that’s the weakest part of this app.

It comes to that balance of how technology can help inform you in a substantial way and not just a consumer-based way. How could this sort of technology change the way news organizations produce the news?

It is funny how technology has changed the role of the journalist and the things that journalists are interested in. When the Internet came around, journalism organizations were, and still are, focused on getting clicks. And that kind of popcorn journalism, it’s driven very much by traffic, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good direction to go in. The Huff Post-ization of the web, picking out the broadest stories, “Justin Bieber Sneezes,” and putting that on the front page to get that traffic. I don’t think that a great direction that we’ve moved in.

Because every time you open an app it knows where you are and it knows exactly who you are because you’re only opening it up on one phone, mobile makes it possible for newspapers to create a much more personal product and a much more location-aware product. It is able to bring us back down to hyperlocal in a way that I think is positive. I see that kind of counterbalancing the popcorn nature of journalism on the web, and I think that mobile has the potential to make us focus again on what we do really well as reporters, which is local news.

If you are working for a community newspaper or a community radio station, chances are you’re providing the very best local coverage. There is no blog that’s out there that is producing that content better then you. It’s really a question of how do you get that content out to the right people? If it’s on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, you know, all of that content is location based. I can consume the three or four stories that are relevant to my neighborhood immediately, and then go on with my day.

What I’d like to see is newspapers give up the celebrity coverage and allow other people to do that much better, like TMZ, and focus on what they do really well, which is local news. But that’s just my personal thoughts.

So when the app first opens up and gives you the top five stories for your area, how are those stories decided on?

That’s currently decided by an editor. At some point we could automate that, so say this is the most clicked on story today, this is the most buzzed about video today, this is the most shared deal today, then that becomes something updated throughout the day, and is much more real time, essentially allowing the crowd to vote with their clicks. But that could be in later versions; right now it’s still being decided by humans.

Oh, those pesky humans. It sounds like you’re already into some serious thinking about version two.

We have a saying in the Valley that we live by, which is: iterate or die. So every week we’re producing something that’s better then the week before. This product is going to look a lot different in a year from now and we hope that it’s much bigger in a year from now. It’s just going to be a whole lot of work to get us to where we want to be. When we think about our ideal app it’s this national product that you can take anywhere. At some point we’re hoping that two versions of the same news article are sitting in the same location to provide a robust look at what’s happening. And then with Gigs, allowing the community to weigh in and say this is what I saw or let me show you what I know about this thing. So it is news, but it’s much larger then news. There’s all sorts of things that we can place on this map, and our goal is to produce a product that people find interesting and useful and to help them be better citizens. That’s just one of those things that we’re just going to push for until we either win or lose at this thing.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,