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Watching the Watchdog: Will This Man Bring Quality to Online Journalism?

04/01/2013 05:30 EDT | Updated 06/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

He's young, lean, handsome, well over six feet tall, has dark, curly hair, a smile that makes women go weak at the knees, wants to build a better world and is the son of a famous Liberal Party leader.

No, he's not the one you're thinking of. Instead of trying to become the next prime minister of Canada, this one's trying something even tougher.

He wants to improve that uncontrollable wild west provider of instant information, the world's largest functioning anarchy, the Internet.

His name is Ben Peterson. He's 35 years old and the son of David Peterson, twentieth Premier of the Province of Ontario.

Peterson the Younger is already co-founder and former executive director of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) which has grown to become Canada's largest international media development NGO.

At JHR, his mission was to train and encourage African journalists to report on human rights issues. Over its thirteen years, the organization sent Canadian journalism trainers to seventeen African countries, some of them the sort of place where human rights are welcomed with the gun.

Now Ben Peterson is co-founding again. This time it's Newsana. (Motto: Connects you to only the best news and ideas.)

Here's its official description: "Newsana is an online community of experts and thought leaders who share, discuss and work together to choose the five most essential news stories and ideas of the day on the topics of their expertise."

Peterson's latest project is backed by some heavy media hitters who seeded it with a very healthy half million bucks. Among them are Gary Slaight (President and CEO, Slaight Communications), Prem Watsa (Chairman and CEO Fairfax Financial Holdings) and Mohammad Al Zaibak (President and CEO, Canadian Development and Marketing Corp.).

These aren't the sort of men who back a startup just because it's a really, really progressive idea and will look great on their résumés.

I talked with Ben Peterson about Newsana over a couple of beers at Scallywag's, my local watering hole.

Knight: You started with Journalists for Human Rights. Now Newsana. It's like your second attempt to save the world. You gonna do this for ever?

Peterson (Laughs): This is not saving the world. This is entirely different. This is saving high quality journalism.

Knight: Why?

Peterson: There's a huge problem trying to sort through (the Internet) to try to find the best. It might not be on the Globe and Mail or New York Times. It might be on a random blog ...

Knight (Interrupting): Or it might be on Huffpost which I write for?

Peterson (Politely): Very likely ... if you're writing for Huffpost. (Returns to more serious matters). From a news consumption perspective, we're overwhelmed by the amount of content available for us and we need to figure out where are the best stories and ideas on the subject we are most interested in.

There's a number of aggregation platforms out there. You can go to Twitter where you get tons and tons of information fired at you all the time ... a shotgun blast of information. It doesn't solve the filtration problem. The quality of the content on Reddit is quite frankly embarrassing. They let anything go on their site.

Knight (Sceptically): And there are moral boundaries in Newsana?

Peterson (Firmly): Quality boundaries. We, as an organization need to have certain standards so we make sure the quality of our participants and the quality of our content is high.

We are an invite-only community. So in order to become part of our curation community, you have to either apply or be invited by one of our current members. It's expert sourcing. By people passionate and knowledgeable about the topics they curate. We're not going to be doing celebrity gossip. But we will have arts and entertainment or film on our site.

Knight: On that matter, Huffpost specializes on nipslips and baby bumps ... stuff like that. I looked at your site today and couldn't even see a single cleavage. How can you expect to be successful?

Peterson: (Ignoring the temptation to discuss nipslips and baby bumps): Newsana is a social network first and foremost so that as long as our community is happy posting stories and sharing those stories, we believe we'll generate the type of traffic we want.

Knight: You're not paying anybody for the stuff you use!

Peterson: We're not putting the story on our site. We're providing a link to the story. In fact, we're celebrating and driving traffic to those news organizations that are producing high quality content. As opposed to the way most sites drive traffic to not high quality content but to shitty content. Reddit is a primary example of that.

At the end of the day, we want to celebrate, reward and give higher profile to the best and smartest content out there and at the same time provide value to our users to find the best content as quickly as possible.

Newsana is not a website. It's not a news site. It's not the Globe and Mail dot com. It's more of an online community.

Knight: Are you eventually going to sell it to Google for a couple of billon dollars?

Peterson (Laughs): I don't think Google would be interested. But if the principles behind Newsana would at some point be better served by us merging or being bought or whatever, I could look into that. I'm interested in building Newsana as a viable profitable company, but as a company that adds real value and makes a mark on what we're trying to accomplish which is creating a better filter for high quality content.

For the last 20 years the internet has been dominated by one trend. The single biggest thing it's allowed us to do is throw information on line. Chuck it in. Throw it in.

I believe that a lot of winners and losers over the next 10, 15 years will be determined by how we take all this information and do something useful with it. Sort through it, filter it, create more knowledge based on a better synthesis of knowledge, based on all the stuff that's been thrown on line.

I think that respecting the wisdom of people, respecting people who know what they're talking about, and trying to figure what's the best of that content out there is a good place to start. If we can get the right group of people behind us and we can get a proper amount of momentum, we can actually create something that will be beneficial for news consumers and lovers of high quality news everywhere.

Knight: So you do want to change the world?

Peterson: I want to do things that have an impact.

Knight: And this is the best you could come up with?

Peterson: Yes. (Grins) For now.

Full disclosure department: This interview has been condensed and edited. Also, some years ago I spent six weeks training journalists in Ghana for JHR. The pay was so miserable that Her Canadian Majesty's tax collector accepted it under the heading of expenses.