Info Valet leads to Circulate

An article about the new Circulate created by 2008 Reynolds Fellow Bill Densmore

Sorry, wedding planners: happy couples will soon have a faster and cheaper way to find ads for discounted designer duds or a Consumer Reports articles on best honeymoon getaways.

It’s called Circulate, a new Internet-based service that will provide consumers a customized news and advertising report, and monitor it so readers won’t get blasted with duplicate stories and sales pitches.

Publishers and editors rarely care about weddings, but this should get their attention because Circulate pledges to drive more traffic directly to their news sites, not just to what a Google search might produce. That, in turn, gives advertisers, from retailers to reception halls, a pre-screened audience that’s ready to spend money, not just surf around.

Circulate is the first commercial test drive for Bill Densmore, a member of the inaugural class of Donald W. Reynolds fellows. Veteran journalist Densmore and others will officially unveil Circulate May 27th at “From Gatekeeper to Information Valet: A Workplan for Sustaining Journalism,” a conference in Washington, D.C. It already has a major media supporter: Densmore says the Associated Press has pledged its support.

A staunch advocate for the importance of journalism in a strong democracy, Densmore is pushing to create alternative channels of sharing news, which spawns new lines of untapped revenue. It’s the new bottom line if editors want to continue to fund a strong news report, whether covering local governments or investigating a corrupt company.

“Circulate is what’s needed to support journalism,” Densmore says. “This is a service that solves problems for consumers and publishers.”

Ever since Densmore and his wife sold their community newspaper in 1992, he saw the Internet’s “fat pipes” of information cannibalizing readers of the local paper.  Most news organizations have not solved that problem. 

“There has been a notion that technology has been opposing professional journalism,” says Jeff Vander Clute, a Palo Alto, CA based consultant who has created a variety of social networking applications. “But you can use the technology to benefit journalism.” He cites the example of how most news organizations chase the same stories as their competitors, giving readers a steady diet of sameness when they do a web search. “Organizations that stay in that mode will go away,” Vander Clute says. “We have to have widespread collaboration.”

Densmore’s goal is to create an environment where news organizations get more money from website traffic, which then frees resources for even more journalistic work.

“It’s very, very easy for people to pay for information if it’s valuable because it makes them money,” Densmore says. That’s why people read Consumer Reports and The Wall Street Journal.  And there’s also value seen by the smart, literate consumer who “gets that investigative reporting really matters.” That level of influence has a ripple effect: it also attracts advertisers who want those educated eyeballs.

Advertisers want folks who are ready to buy, not just glance. Consider Densmore’s own experience when he spotted a USA Today ad telling about U.S. Postal Service shipping rates.  This was a subject of interest because he prepares to move some goods. “If I had Information Valet, I would’ve gone into my profile and checked shipping services,” which would generate news and offers just for his needs. “Think about the remarkable inefficiency of that ad,” he says.  Very few readers who saw it, acted on it.

Circulate will also have a social networking component so consumers can chat with others who share their interests, whether its on planning the wedding or commenting on the NFL draft.

Consumers’ interests change over time, and content providers need to give them the chance to opt in and out as their wants change. Densmore uses the example of parent-teacher organizations. It’s a sustainable group because new parents come and go as their children advance through school. It’s the same idea with tailoring news and services. Readers aren’t always planning a wedding. When the big day is over, they can disconnect from that search and move on to, say, planning a nursery.

“We’re putting the user back at the center of the solar system,” Vander Clute says.

Densmore is finishing his Reynolds Fellowship, but will stay involved with Circulate, which will become a Palo-Alto based spin off from the University of Missouri and the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Densmore will be joined by technical advisor Vander Clute and two other partners, Martin Langeveld and Joe Bergeron.


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