Mark Johnson on innovation, personalization and user-experience design in media

Mark Johnson is CEO of Zite, a personalized magazine app.

Mark Johnson is CEO of Zite, a personalized magazine app.

I first met Mark Johnson at SND St. Louis in September 2011. The now 35-year old CEO of Zite — a personalized magazine app acquired by CNN earlier that year  — was the definition of unassuming. Sporting a curly fro, eyebrow ring, t-shirt and backpack, I actually mistook him for a college student. Our first conversation had us discussing everything from cocktails and news design to architecture and taxidermy. Here, Johnson talks innovation, personalization and user-experience design in media.

Tell us a little about who you are and your background before Zite.

I am from Buffalo, NY, but studied philosophy at Stanford University, which is how I got to the Silicon Valley. After school, I spent a few years as a product manager at SAP and then jumped into the world of startups as a product manager. I worked for SideStep (a travel search engine acquired by Kayak), Kosmix (a categorized search engine acquired by WalMart), and finally Powerset (a natural language search engine acquired by Microsoft). I ended up spending two years at Microsoft as a product manager lead for Bing, where I ran a team that generated all of the captions — title, snippet, URL, and associated metadata — for all Bing search results. Around that time, I became advisor to Zite and helped them transition from a web-based service to an iPad application. After a successful launch of the iPad, they asked me to become CEO of Zite. Considering it was the best product I had ever used, I decided to jump back out of comfortable corporate America and into the startups shark tank.

How do you explain what you do to your family?

This is probably the easiest job to explain to my family, since they are all avid Zite users. My mother, @kindergeek on Twitter, gets a lot of her educational reform news from Zite and is one of our biggest fans. And my family is proud that I work for CNN, so that’s easy for them to explain to their friends.

Zite learns what you like and gets smarter as you use it, analyzing millions of articles every day.

Zite learns what you like and gets smarter as you use it, analyzing millions of articles every day.

How does Zite personalize a user’s magazine? What’s the secret sauce?

We’re pretty open about how our technology works, since doing personalization well is pretty darn hard. We even did a blog post about it. I’ll boil it down though into a few key aspects of Zite’s algorithm. First, we look at millions of documents per day and are able to categorize those articles, blog posts, and videos into over 40,000 categories. That gives us a breadth that few, if any, other news readers can claim, and allows users to discover gems that they would have never otherwise seen. To personalize those millions of sources to an individual user, we look both at the content they’ve read and what people like them like. If you like certain topics, sources, authors, or even writing styles, we’ll show you more of those; but also, we’ll show you articles that people similar to you like, since that injects Zite with a dose of serendipity.

Why is technology important to the media industry?

Technology is important to every industry. The media industry is severely behind in technology, business models, and innovation, which puts them in a particularly vulnerable position. I look forward to seeing a lot of disruption from startups over the next 5 years.

What can journalists and technologists can learn from one another?

I believe that journalists should partner with technologists to reimagine how they can tell a story. Some of this is already happening in the form of data journalism, but I’m imagining something much bigger. It’s amazing to me that with the web, mobile devices, and especially the iPad, journalists tend to write stories in a format very similar to newspapers and magazines of a century ago. Surely we can be more creative!

What inspires you?

I like to enjoy life — food, hiking, wine, music, for example — but don’t require that those things necessarily inspire me at work. I find that inspiration comes when you don’t look for it.

What advice would you offer someone interested in launching a media-related startup?

Do it. Period.

What do you think of the experience on most news sites? Are there some you love? Some you hate?

The only time I visit a news website is if something serious is going on in the world or I click a link from my Twitter feed. Almost all of my news consumption is from aggregators. When I’m forced to visit a news website, I’m always horrified at all of the extraneous links on the page. I wish news organizations would realize that a better user experience is worth far more than a horde of low-revenue ads.

Who do you see as really pushing innovation in media?

I find Buzzfeed to be an amazing amalgamation of link bait and investigative reporting. I never thought that was possible. I’m also really interested in Circa, which I believe has begun on the path to changing the atomic unit of news by breaking up the story into facts and optimizing it for the mobile screen. Finally, I love Matter.vc, a small incubator South of Market in San Francisco. Corey Ford and first class are doing some interesting things and I look forward to seeing what the next class comes up with.

Share a lesson you’ve learned during your time at Zite that might be useful for journalists.

Don’t be afraid to battle with lawyers. Zite could have never been released if we had gone through a legal review and I’m glad that we did. There were some bumps at the beginning of the road because of that, but ultimately, media companies came around to the Zite value proposition.

(Kyle Ellis is a designer for CNN Digital in Atlanta and digital director for the Society For News Design.)