Ongo is an ambitious digital kiosk. Launched last week, it was founded last year by Alex Kazim, a high-tech executive who worked at Ebay, Skype and PayPal. Kazim lined up an impressive group of investors: Gannett, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the venture capital firm Elevation Partners whose portfolio includes Facebook, Yelp and Palm (now part of HP). Altogether, Ongo raised $12m, an unusually large amount for such a project (marketing activities will consume a large fraction of the company’s funding). Headquartered in Cupertino, California, led by a mechanical engineer, Ongo carries more Silicon Valley DNA than its media siblings. As an advocate of greater technology input in media companies, I’d say it’s a good thing.

Up to a point. I see Ongo as too much of an automated aggregator as opposed to an edited news product. In this respect, Ongo might be a good start, supported by a neat tech implementation (both on the web and on the iPad), but we’re not there yet.

Let’s have a look.

Business-wise, Ongo is a paid-for kiosk. For $6.99 a month, it includes a basic set of  publications. Then, you add titles of your own choosing. As you’ll see below, the bill builds up quickly:

In this simulation, I’m getting five publications for free. Then, for a hefty $35.96 per month, I get four more titles… that are available for free on the web!

Am I missing something?

This is counterintuitive enough to force to make two assumptions:
– Some of these titles will soon switch to paid-for models; this could be the case for the Boston Globe (part of the New York Times Company, itself about to roll-out its paywall next month — is the $14.99 rate a prelude to the coming standalone price?). Most of Ongo’s catalog is likely to follow; otherwise, there is no point in subscribing to the service. (As for the Guardian, to my knowledge, it is meant to remain free).
– Ongo founders bet the true value of their service is harboring in a single place paid-for publications that are currently disseminated all over the web (and therefore require separate logins and, soon, payments). This is a huge bet on the value of simplicity and convenience.

Strange pricing choices aside, Ongo’s concept faces two big challenges: interface design and the commitment of its main editorial drivers.

First, on the web or on the iPad, Ongo is flat and dry. Its designers have deliberately chosen to remove the layout or the visual identity that defines a title. Again, they bet on the convenience of having everything displayed on the same site. In another departure from the usual web page structure, they opted for a “skimmer” style, based on a panel-like navigation: no more scrolling here, you jump from one screen to another.

The result isn’t convincing. Ongo’s iPad edition shows every story at the same level. In the example below, the second screen of yesterday’s “Page One” (2nd screen of page 1, that’s novelty) mixes up a Taco Bell story drawn from USA Today and pressure on the White House to condemn Hosni Mubarak.

And should you select navigation by title (in the example below: the Washington Post), you will get this bizarre page structure in which a US representative’s dental ordeal is displayed on the side of the main Egypt article — while the secondary Egypt story is sent at the opposite corner of the page:

This is a perfect illustration for the limits of automated aggregation. Without a proper dose of human editing, of rearranging news streams to make them consistent with the news cycle hierarchy, any machine-driven system will inevitably produce contents structures disconnected from readers’ expectations. Serious news websites rely on well-trained editors for their home page or use A/B testing procedures, to determine on the fly which headline is the most likely to be clicked on. Even a captive — i.e. subscription based — clientele will not easily abandon its ingrained news reading ways.

The same applies to visual references. Print or digital newspapers, or web pure players, all give a great deal of thought to interface design. They strive for a combination of unique visual identity and easy navigation. Ongo simply cannot expect to attract or retain readers by encapsulating everything into the same dull layout. (We’ll come back to the issue of merging design and digital constraints in a future Monday Note).

The second challenge is what I’ll call the “broken toys pawned off to poor kids” syndrome. In 1990, when the world discovered the horrendous living conditions in Romanian orphanages, European families began giving toys to charities. Used toys, of course. Broken toys, in fact. Charities were understandably pissed. In business ventures, the “broken toys syndrome” occurs when a partner is so reluctant to play its role, that it keeps its involvement to a bare minimum. In Ongo’s case, two critical audience attractors — the New York Times and The Financial Times — are not really playing the game. The NYTimes feeds the platform with a selection of stories, many of them one or two days old. As for the FT, it provides so little content that it doesn’t even fill its allocated space on Ongo’s iPad screen (see below).

These two institutions should make up their mind: either they are on board with Ongo for a price consistent with their current (or future) rate — perhaps applying a discount if they want to push the new platform — or they stay inside their cosy walled garden and established brands. At this stage, Ongo presents the two “Times” as being part of its product. But, at this stage, these iconic papers are far from being really there. As readers quickly see through the scheme, this type of incentive isn’t going to help.

As far as subscribing to Ongo, although I expect to cough up about $600 this year for a wide range of digital news contents, I won’t flash my Visa card for Ongo — yet. Tomorrow, perhaps: this one-week old site has the brainpower, the backers and the funding to become the powerful platform for online news this industry badly needs.

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