Breaking News Online: How One 19-Year Old Is Shaking Up Online Media

Michael van Poppel used to be like a lot of young people, trawling the internet for interesting news about the world. Just like many others have considered doing, he created a place where he could post the most interesting news he finds, as fast as he can. Today he’s one of the most-watched movers and shakers in online news media – and he’s not yet twenty years old.

In September 2007, when seventeen years old and living in the Netherlands, van Poppel decided to launch a news aggregation business called Breaking News Online. Months later, somehow, he came into possession of a full video of an Osama Bin Laden statement before any of the major news outlets had it, and sold it to Reuters.

That was just the first strange chapter in a very strange story leading up to today, when van Poppel announced plans to release a push iPhone app for his fast-growing Breaking News Online network next month. A 19-year old announced that he would be releasing an iPhone app in a month and many people around the world took pause and noticed. How did this all happen? Asking that question illuminates some of the most interesting trends on the web today.

Why BNO is Exciting

Three days after van Poppel sold the Bin Laden tape to Reuters, he said in an interview with Inside Cable News that he’d originally reached out to CNN’s iReport with the tape. They were unresponsive. He then tried to contact a number of other news outlets before connecting with and making a deal with Reuters. Breaking News Online had already launched months earlier, but the experience must have underlined van Poppel’s belief that he could find, select and push out news faster and better than other larger media outlets. The experience probably provided some funds for that vision as well.

Since then, BNO has added editors in the United States, Ireland and Mexico to its team. The team watches news wires closely for important updates, exercises their own brand of editorial judgment in deciding what to push out through their various distribution channels and then they push it out fast.

BNO has made the most of a number of different media technologies. The team is best known for its presence on Twitter – at 800k, BNO has four times more followers than ABC News and twice as many as Newsweek. BNO also makes extensive use of RSS, email, FriendFeed and now promises an iPhone app leveraging the phone’s brand new push messaging sometime next month.

In a media landscape that some argue has transcended the old models of scarcity and physical distribution – it could be efficient research infrastructure, high-quality editorial judgment and building online channels of distribution that make the difference. Or, as blogger Mike Bracco put it on The Next Web today, “Unlike their mainstream counterparts the service does a great job of only reporting news worthy of the ‘breaking’ label. I can attest to this as well as their ability to deliver breaking news before anyone else. I have found them to consistently report news 10-15 minutes before it hits mainstream websites or blogs and well before it is ever reported on TV.” In the news game today, being best and first by minutes means it’s your link that gets passed along. Breaking News Online is excelling at that game with its short, quick updates.

On the Other Hand…

Now BNO says it will enter the world of the iPhone in August. Every major media outlet is building its own iPhone app but few if any others are charging money for them. The BNO app will cost $1.99 to download. Even crazier, BNO says it will charge an ongoing subscription fee of 99 cents per month for breaking news updates.

All of this is fascinating, but isn’t BNO still just an aggregator? In traditional media outlets “aggregator” is a dirty word (unless they are the ones doing the aggregation). In fact, Breaking News Online does very little original reporting. The company is going to monetize its research flow, editorial judgment, distribution channels…and links to other peoples’ content. If BNO is successful, there is a real risk of original content publishers objecting to the fact that someone else has found a way to make money off of (links sending traffic to) their content.

Imagine if the Huffington Post charged money for an iPhone app that pushed links to its pages aggregating content from elsewhere. Major media companies would blow a gasket. Ariana Huffington told those companies at a Congressional hearing on saving newspapers this Spring that if she sends them millions of readers and they can’t figure out how to monetize that traffic – that’s their problem. Some companies gasping for air didn’t find that convincing and insist that aggregators hand over some of the only money that anyone in the media ecosystem has figured out how to make online. Admittedly, if the professional reporters on the ground aren’t getting paid – then there’s going to be less content for aggregators to aggregate.

BNO says it doesn’t think of itself as primarily an aggregator, van Poppel says it will do even more original reporting as the company expands.

The internet is changing everything and it’s changing itself fast enough that it’s a challenge to keep track of it all. Recurring, mobile micropayments for near real-time aggregated news content delivered using push delivery? It’s hard to think of a sentence that packs more hot-button concepts into such a small space. That’s pretty impressive for a 19 year old.

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