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These Whartonites Want To Burst Your Political Bubble

Newsflash: Donald Trump is a terrible president.

Counter-newsflash: Actually, Donald Trump is a great president.

It’s not news that Americans seem to be more politically divided than ever. And it’s not a new theory that the blame for our at-times-bitter polarization lies, at least in part, on our ability to tune out opposing views by being more exclusive than ever in our news feeds and Facebook friendships. Now three MBA candidates at The Wharton School may have created a solution. PolarNews, an email-based media startup, is a counterpoint to the custom-designed news experience that works to break readers out of their personal media bubbles by pairing articles with opposing perspectives.

Here’s how it works: PolarNews might give readers a New York Times story that is skeptical of Trump’s motivations on immigration, then pair it with more credulous offering from the New York Post. Ot it might juxtapose a Washington Post piece on Trump’s sinking poll numbers with a Fox News discussion of its own poll showing Trump trusted more than the media.

“Our ultimate goal,” says Davis Filippell, PolarNews co-founder, “is to inspire people to think for themselves. And what that looks like is really giving people access beyond what traditional sources would create — getting people to really converse and be engaged in the right conversations.” Adds co-founder Matthew Alexander: “It’s really important to us that we’re not telling our readers what they should think or how they should feel about a topic. We’re just saying, ‘Here’s something that happened, and here are these two media outlets’ opposing takes on it.'”

LOST ‘COMMONALITY OF EXPERIENCE’

PolarNews co-founder Amelia Bell: “We recognize what a tricky space the media is in right now.”

In a recent commentary at Business Insider, David Siegel, co-founder and co-chairman of Two Sigma Investments, writes that what he calls “infinite personalization” may be good for business — think algorithms that tailor online ads to user demographics and interests — but it is very bad for “commonality of experience,” the glue that holds together a society.

“Thanks to infinite personalization,” Siegel writes, “we’re losing commonality of experience just as a record-high 77% of Americans polled by Gallup see the nation as fundamentally divided about ‘the most important values.’ Correlation isn’t causality, but common sense certainly points to a connection. Even with the same raw facts available (to those who would search for them), infinite personalization likely contributes to increasingly slanted and divided views about the issues of the day. Algorithms will find news (valid or otherwise) and suggest friends likely to validate one’s views, shielding us from alternatives and stealthily reinforcing our differences.”

That’s what PolarNews wants to fight, says co-founder Amelia Bell. Urging readers to “Get Informed,” the daily bulletin may offer opposing views on the high-profile loss of a book deal for a firebrand media personality or the appointment of a three-star general as national security adviser — or both, and perhaps more. And of course politics — particularly the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump — has played, and will continue to play, a big role in PolarNews’ bulletins.

“It’s been really interesting to watch after the election how the polarization of the country has continued,” says co-founder Amelia Bell, adding that while many in media talk about the problem, few offer solutions. “Obviously right now it’s something that is the topic du jour, but it’s something that we’re interested in in the long-term. It has a lot of staying power and it’s interesting to see the different ways that people are attacking the issue.”

NO PLANS TO MONETIZE — YET

Davis Filippell

PolarNews has traction. In the last two weeks alone, the startup has gone from 800 subscribers to more than 1,600, continuing its average of 30% week-over-week growth for the last two months. Filippell says talks are underway with potential investors, and being Whartonites, some initial conversations have been held about incubation and seed funding. But while PolarNews seems to have momentum with write-ups in the Daily Pennsylvanian, Philly.com, and elsewhere, its founders are focused chiefly on continuing their “organic” growth through word of mouth.

“What we’ve been most excited by is not the press coverage by branded outlets, but certain individuals have just been commenting and mentioning it on sources where people are engaged in media and news,” Filippell says. “It’s been great to see that kind of organic growth in the sense that someone was originally referred by someone who was referred by someone who posted something on a blog.”

The three founders agree: Plans to monetize the site have taken a backseat to growing the user base, though they don’t rule out some form of advertising in the future.

“I think we recognize what a tricky space the media is in right now, so we’re trying to be really creative about the different ways that we can approach this,” Bell says. “We are leveraging the Wharton network, talking to professors and colleagues to see what are creative ways that we can really monetize this once we are established.”

NO BACKGROUND IN MEDIA — UNTIL NOW

Matthew Alexander

None of the three founders has a background in news media. Filippell was a management consultant working with media companies, Alexander was a policy adviser in the Texas legislature for a couple of years, and Bell worked in PR for a tech company. “We all came to this because of interest,” Filippell says.

For Filippell, that interest was sparked by Brexit, the referendum to leave the European Union held in June of 2016. Working in London at the time, he saw that the conversation leading up to the vote and immediately after “was a very self-reinforcing and one-sided one, and led to a lot of individuals looking for answers.” Two months later, back in the U.S., he saw the same effect.

“It was repeating itself here in the U.S.,” Filippell says, “and that’s what gave us the inspiration to sit down and start sending PolarNews.” The first email went out in October, and emails have followed every day since.

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