Ben Huh, The Man Who Popularized Internet FAILs, Wants To Reinvent The News

Onetime 'Meme' Merchant Turns to Tech for Serious Content

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Ben Huh has built an Internet empire on humor, pratfalls and a healthy dose of Schadenfreude. And now he wants to dramatically alter the way news is delivered.

Ben Huh is co-founder of news app Circa.
Ben Huh is co-founder of news app Circa.

Mr. Huh is the founder and CEO of Cheezburger, a sprawling network of sites that includes FAIL Blog, The Daily What and Know Your Meme. The online publisher has not only helped shape Internet culture but also given rise to the word "meme."

Last year, Mr. Huh co-founded Circa, a mobile app that provides users with summaries of news events that a team of about 15 editorial staffers compiles from third-party reports and, increasingly, original reporting. In June, Circa hired Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa to be its editor-in-chief.

Mr. Huh, who will present at Ad Age's Digital Conference in San Francisco on October 15, spoke with AdAge about how to make money from mobile journalism, the future of news delivery and more. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

Advertising Age: Circa is free and there are no ads. How do you plan to make money from it?

Ben Huh: I have no idea. I'm sure [co-founder and CEO Matt Galligan] and his team will go figure that out at some point.

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AdAge: So how long until you expect a return on your investment from Circa?

Mr. Huh: That's a good question. I don't really know. For something as fundamentally woven into society as journalism, you give it longer. You're not jumping into a fad. I think Circa has the opportunity to fundamentally change the way people consume the news. The team at Circa can predict its traffic by the number of people following their stories and which stories they're going to update … because readers follow stories and not topics or people. They also know what every individual knows from Circa. If I read a post that contained the location of Zanzibar, Circa now knows that I know where Zanzibar is. That's an incredible amount of data that is going to fundamentally change the way journalists cover news stories.

AdAge: Does that mean you can start tailoring stories for each individual reader?

Mr. Huh: Yes, that is absolutely correct, but that is two, three generations out. We're not telling you something that is news, we're telling you something that is news to you. And that is a fundamental shift.

AdAge: Do you think there's potential harm in that? If I'm into celebrity news and all you give me is news about celebrities, doesn't that mean I'm not going to be a very well-informed person?

Mr. Huh: There's a fundamental problem, which is that as a business we have to give the customer what they want. On the other hand, we believe that if you had a choice between Miley Cyrus and the war in Syria, you would likely consume more news because you realize what you're interested in and what you know are two separate things and you might want to know both.

The problem is that based on the economy of page views and eyeballs, news sites are acting like entertainment sites. That's part of the problem of incentive. What I'm trying to figure out is how we change that incentive. And that's what I'm asking the folks at Circa. Does your business model cater to a more knowledgeable user? Do you all align towards that or are you guys still replicating the world of eyeballs and therefore you're incentive system will over time change your product. That's a question we haven't answered yet.

AdAge: Do you envision a time when you break news on Circa?

Mr. Huh: I think every good news organization will have to learn how to break news. We have an editor who lives in Beirut. He actually got a Google Doc from a person who lives in Syria -- I don't know how he was able to do that -- but it was written in Arabic. He translated it and published it to Circa.

AdAge: That's a big deal.

Mr. Huh: Yeah, that's a huge deal.

AdAge: What else are you thinking about these days?

Mr. Huh: Right now I'm working on the relationship between form factors and content formats. There are these inner looping relationships between devices that become popular and the content that we create. The content that we create actually needs to conform to the form factor because we tend to use devices very differently.

Our peak usage for tablets is Sunday nights, where our peak usage for desktop is weekdays during the day. That tells me that people would probably prefer to consume types of content in different places during different times of the day or week. We, as publishers, need to understand and think about that. That's where my head is now. As more devices proliferate -- let's say there's set-top TV, Roku, Apple TV and Smart TVs, what does that do to content? What are the opportunities for creating brand new formats of content?

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