Video news app Haystack wants to be the CNN for cord cutters

Netflix is for dramas, Hulu Plus to catch up on broadcast TV shows — but where do cord cutters turn for new coverage? That’s a question that Ish Harshawat struggled with himself after giving up on cable a few years ago. In 2013, he and a friend decided to build a solution: The news clip aggregation app Haystack aims to be a kind of CNN for cord cutters, stitching together a personalized and continuous stream of clips from a variety of sources.

Haystack first launched its Android app a year ago and quickly followed up with an iPad app that offered much of the same functionality optimized for a slightly bigger screen: Upon first launch, Haystack asks users to select topics they are interested in as well as confirm their location. Haystick then generates a playlist of timely videos that starts auto-playing, with an option for users to delete upcoming videos from their queue or add additional sources, hashtags and topics.

Haystack's iPad app asks user to pick topics.
Haystack’s iPad app asks user to pick topics.

Videos can be watched on the mobile device itself, but Haystack also integrated Chromecast support from day one, and Harshawat told me that the company has seen “lots of activity” for Chromecast. Haystack also debuted as a featured app on Android TV last fall, and the startup released a dedicated iPhone app this month.

I’ve been playing on and off with Haystack over the last couple of months, and have to say I like the experience, especially when combined with Chromecast: The stream of videos feels enough like a news network, showing things that have happened over the past few hours. But it’s also notably different from the ever-repeating coverage on your typical news network in that it’s personalized and interactive: You can just skip a clip you don’t like. Essentially, it’s to traditional TV news what Pandora is to radio.

That also means that there are no segues. That means less cheese, but also a slightly more disjointed feeling. Haystack is trying to improve on this by at least making clips sound more uniform, automatically adjusting the playback volume to make sure some clips don’t blow out your TV soundbar.

Haystack on an Android phone.
Haystack on an Android phone.

Harshawat also said that the company is looking to add some human curation over time. Right now, all the videos are selected by algorithms, based on metadata coming from YouTube as well as social data on Facebook and Twitter. Eventually, Haystack wants to have 10 percent human and 90 percent algorithmic curation, something he compared to the way Techmeme works.

The company is also thinking about eventually adding ads to streams, or partnering with broadcasters and other news outlets to make money. But for now, it’s focused on just growing its audience. Harshawat told me that the app’s video views have been growing 40 percent month-over-month, but declined to comment on more specific numbers. He did add that active users watch around 80 minutes of video with Haystack per week on average.

Haystack is definitely catering to a growing audience, if recent data about cord cutting is any indication: Pay TV providers lost 125,000 subscribers across the U.S. last year, according to Leichtman Research. With HBO and other networks going online, that trend is likely going to accelerate this year — and all those cord cutters will have to get their news fix somewhere.

This post was updated at 12:45pm to clarify that Haystack’s video views, and not number of users, have been growing 40 percent month-over-month.