Media

Wired editor leaves journalism, starts company to improve it

The Internet has fundamentally changed the way people consume content, as well as the way writers and editors create it. Today, Contextly has emerged from stealth mode to change the way digital journalists provide context in their stories.

Contextly was founded by Ryan Singel, a veteran journalist who cofounded the Threat Level blog at Wired. After a decade as a writer and editor, Singel is leaving to run Contextly full time. The guiding principal behind the company is the belief that context is everything, and the tools available to reporters are inadequate.

Contextly offers a plugin for WordPress that makes it easier for writers to include related links. Right now, connecting to other articles involves search engine queries, multiple tabs, and copying and pasting. These steps make telling a full story more time-consuming and frustrating than it should be. However, telling the full story is necessary not only to engage readers, but also to relay the news with as much truth and value as possible.

“Readers crave context in news, even as a reporter’s job of putting the day’s story into a larger picture is hard to do when speed is essential and the news cycle never stops.” Singel said in a blog post announcing his departure. “But writers — good ones — know that the day’s work is just part of a long-­term story that they and their co­workers have been telling for years.”

Online journalism has been descried as a step down from print publications, where information had to be verified by two credible sources and every article was fact-checked. However, one of the benefits of consuming news online is that readers can track down the truth for themselves and find background information and alternative perspectives. It also puts a massive store of knowledge at the disposal of reporters who can use it to inform their writing.

“Writers like related links because they make them feel like they are not just putting out yet another story that feeds the Internet beast, but that they are telling a larger story,” Singel said during an interview with VentureBeat. Those links are more important than people give them credit for. If you are reading something in a newspaper, it is not easy to go find out more information. Links can help readers discover new content, learn more about topics that interest them, and verify original sources.”

While building Contextly, Singel approached the design from an editorial perspective. He said writers have a deep institutional knowledge and need an efficient way to express it and tell a more connected tale. The widget “marries editorial control with serendipity,” and according to early beta testing on Wired, Contextly increases page views, as well as time-on-site. 

There is also a data analytics component. The engine gathers data on site visitors and produces readable reports that writers and publishers can use to inform their work. Use cases range from large online publications like Wired to individual bloggers to companies that are using their blogs to engage customers. As with any form of digital media, more traffic means more revenue.

“There is so much going on in online journalism,” Singel said. “There is so much experimentation and so much demand on writers. What we are hoping to do is make writers’ and publishers’ lives easier and more profitable, as well as explore fun new things. The online journalism world hasn’t totally figured out what the business model is and what readers want, and hopefully we will play a good part in figuring that out.”

Down the road, Contextly will release a series of other tools for digital publishing, but right now, Singel and his team are focused on related links. Monday will be Singel’s first day as a full-time entrepreneur in over 10 years, and while he expressed sadness about stepping out of the daily news cycle, he said he’s looking forward to the journey ahead. Read his full blog post here.

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