Jinri Toutiao, or Today’s Headlines, a personalized content recommendation app, suddenly stands out from among hundreds of Chinese mobile news apps as a unicorn startup.
Its novelty as a recommendation engine based on the technology of deep learning and data mining, has landed it USD 100 million in Series C funding from Sequoia Capital and Weibo Corp, and brought valuations to USD 500 million.
Prior to this, Jinri secured tens of millions of dollars in Series B from investors including Russian venture capital fund Digital Sky Technologies (DST) in 2013, and millions of dollars in Series A in 2012 from investors including SIG – the company also responsible for Jinri’s angel round funding.
Jinri Toutiao was launched in August 2012 by parent company Beijing Bytedance Technology. It was first an information aggregator. It now supplies readers with customized content by analyzing data obtained from user reading habits and social network accounts, including Weibo, Wechat and QQ, which users link to the app.
With the slogan “we are a news distributor, not a content producer”, the company has tried to build a platform to connect information more efficiently with readers, and to keep them from being lost on the Internet of overloaded information. Through the app, it offers a list of columns including “Recommendations”, “Hot News”, “Beijing”, “Subscriptions”, “Photos”, “Videos”, “Social” and “Tech”.
“Recommendations” are generated from topics users have clicked the most. It’s not a normal practice for media platforms to recommend news to readers automatically. News outlets such as Tencent news, typically use manpower, usually editors who pick hot news from other sources with authorization. But this app makes recommendations using computer algorithms. When you read Today’s Headlines, Today’s Headlines reads you, keeping track of your browsing history, your clicks, time spent on every article and your comments.
“Hot news” is most probably ranked according to numbers of pageviews and comments. “Beijing” is a column offering location-based news. “Subscriptions”, a form adopted widely by RSS readers including Flipboard, a popular American social magazine app with 70 million monthly active users as of June 2015, is the place where freelance journalists, bloggers and media companies contribute, feeding readers with original products. The company has even built a platform called “TouTiaoHao” that invites people to create accounts and contribute. The app even has a “Video” column to supply users with video recommendations.
Zhang Yiming, the founder of the app with a proven track record of success as an entrepreneur, shared his experiences in an interview. He said besides new technology, another key to the company’s success was that the company took advantage of the smartphone boom in China. “Without the smartphone boom and without the shift of reading habits from print media to PC and then to mobile phones, our business wouldn’t have succeeded,” said Zhang. The smartphone boom started in 2012 when the company was founded, and reached its peak from 2013 to 2014.
The company claims it had more than 50 million daily active users at August 2015, having served more than 350 million users at the end of last year. A top app list of 2015, released in early 2016 by Chinese data service company QuestMobile, says that the top four news apps, in terms of monthly active users, are Tencent news(with over 140 million MAU), Today’s Headlines(with over 70 million MAU), NetEase news and Sohu news. This app ranks first with the highest increase in MAU at 146.1%.
Today’s Headlines is closely followed by a couple of rivals which also use algorithms to recommend materials, including YidianZixun (meaning “a bit of info” in English), which is backed by iFeng.com and Xiaomi Tech, and TiantianKuaibao (fast news daily) launched in 2015 by Tencent.
There are other types of news apps in the Chinese online news industry. At present, the dominant ones are the mobile apps of large news portals and media groups, best represented by Tencent news and NetEase news. Another kind are the RSS readers, which aggregate most media websites, independent outlets and bloggers for users to subscribe to. To name a few, ZAKER, NetEase EasyReader, XianGuo and also Wechat Public accounts. There are also original content driven apps like DuduRibao(meaning “read daily news”), and China’s Quora equivalent, Zhihu. Both encourage readers to become editors and recommend content to others.