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Ongo, NYT-Backed Digital News Startup, Launches Today

The venture is headed up by Alex Kazim, former CEO of Skype. With an iPad app in the offing, does this represent a threat to Murdoch’s Daily?

Ongo

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Ongo, a two-year-old startup billing itself as “the complete destination for digital news,” debuts its aggregating website today, with an iPad app to follow soon (pending Apple approval). The Cupertino, California-based company, headed up by tech veteran Alex Kazim (former Skype CEO), recently garnered $12 million in funding from the New York Times Company, the Washington Post Company, and Gannett Company, which owns USA Today and many regional newspapers. The site launches with 22 content providing partners.

Ongo aims to become the one-stop shop, the real digital home for news junkies, by aggregating content from leading providers, all while keeping readers on its own pages. Why would providers, who want traffic on their own sites, agree to such an arrangement? Ongo has set up a revenue sharing model (Kazim declines to specify the percentage shares that go to each partner). Ongo charges $6.99 per month for a basic package (USA Today, Washington Post, select New York Times content, plus one other source of your choosing), and users can add additional content for $0.99 extra. If you sign up by the end of February, you get the first month free.

Since Ongo expects its iPad app to be approved shortly, is it positioning itself to be a competitor to News Corp.’s long anticipated Daily? Not quite. Ongo doesn’t produce any of its own content, but rather aggregates stuff that’s already out there. And whereas the Daily is iPad-exclusive (one of the reasons we’re very skeptical about the Daily‘s prospects), Ongo doesn’t intend to go that route, planning to focus on other devices in the near future. “We believe in being device agnostic,” Kazim tells Fast Company.

If anything, Ongo seems something of a throwback–having more in common philosophically with News Corp.’s shuttered “digital newsstand,” Project Alesia. While adding the caveat that it’s “hard to say what Alesia actually was,” Kazim explains why he thinks Ongo has managed to take off where Alesia ran off the runway. “We’re a startup,” he explains. “Even with the investment we got from the Times, the Post, and Gannett, they hold collectively a minority stake in the company. We’re not a consortium, we’re not owned by an individual publication–we have no hidden agenda, and they [i.e., partner news sources] don’t have to have questions around strategic issues.” Not exactly the case when Rupert Murdoch’s minions come knocking at the door of the New York Times with a business proposition.

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Ongo touts a number of “smart features,” most of which are fairly basic, intuitive, or foreshadowed in other products like personalized homepages. Still, many should prove useful: Being able to search for one topic across multiple sources, for instance, brings a LexisNexis-like functionality to a broader audience. You can choose a set of topics you’re interested in, creating a sort of “news playlist.” Ongo is also implementing a clippings feature, and “invitation-only clubs,” or discussion groups (borrowing a page from the Daily‘s exclusivity gambit). Ongo also employs professional editors to curate the most important content and push it to Ongo’s homepage.

Ultimately, a suite of interesting features, but nothing self-evidently “disruptive,” to use the buzzword. Will Ongo offer enough added value to justify users forking over seven to 10 bucks a month? With a set of major players in the news business betting yes, we’re interested to see how Ongo fares.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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