Ad-Supported News Streamer Haystack Adds Millions of Users, Rebrands (Exclusive)

Haystack News
Courtesy of Haystack News

Haystack News

"Just this year alone we have acquired between 2 million and 3 million users," CEO Daniel Barreto tells THR.

Advertising-supported streaming news provider Haystack has added more than 2 million users this year, with people looking for news about the novel coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests among the drivers, co-founder and CEO Daniel Barreto said.

"Just this year alone we have acquired between 2 million and 3 million users new to Haystack," he told THR. The firm has not disclosed its total user count, but said it was in the millions, suggesting a figure below the 10 million mark. For May, the company recorded a 145 percent audience gain compared with the year-ago period, it said.

The company, which offers users tailored local, national and global news in video clip form, on Wednesday also announced that it has rebranded its curated streaming service from Haystack TV to Haystack News and launched a new logo and on-screen look to showcase the recently launched Newsline, a personalized news ticker that is already available for Roku users.

Haystack offers a personalized news feed by allowing users to pick topics they are interested in, and giving thumbs ups or downs to news segments, in addition to topical streams (i.e. all coronavirus or election 2020 stories). It said it has this year also seen further growth in watch time after 2019 marked its fourth consecutive year of more than doubled watch time. Overall, Haystack said it was on track to "more than double watch time in 2020 to exceed millions of hours monthly."

Watch time is "driving engagement, and we are doing millions of hours of news consumption each month," and growing, Barreto said.

"The key thing is we are riding a big wave, which is cord cutting and the transition to over the top, and we have positioned ourselves as the AVOD news leader," he explained to THR. “We have seen a big uptick in consumption primarily in March and April with the virus," the CEO said. "A lot of it is people wanting to find local news, what is happening in their communities. We have seen a big jump. We see these sorts of spikes with big news events,” which can also include weather issues and hurricanes.

Importantly, Haystack is sticky for new users, argued Barreto. "It’s a key thing we measure. Before the [Black Lives Matter] protests, it was kind of a slower news cycle and you could see on Google Trends that the amount of people searching for news was at pre-COVID levels, but we plateaued at a much higher levels, so we were able to keep people around," he told THR.

Customized preferences allow Haystack users to follow celebrities, companies, local news, weather and other things they care about. "Haystack can help you on a daily basis” beyond any major breaking news in the spotlight, Barreto said. And with cord cutting accelerating, there is more upside for the privately held firm even outside major news, he argued.

Barreto highlighted that the company's revenue share model aligns interests with its content partners, allowing them to participate in that upside. For example, Haystack signed a deal with ABC News over a year ago. “This year they are giving us a lot more content, because they are seeing it is really working and moving the dial for them," said Barreto.

Key here is sharing information. "We are not like Netflix, where everything is a black box," he said. "You give them content, they don’t give you any reporting. We are very transparent with our content partners. We let them know exactly how much they made every month."

Speaking of making money: is Haystack profitable? "It depends on the month," Barreto said, adding he and his staff of around 20 are focused on growing the company.

Revenue is part of that. “Advertisers love OTT, because it’s very similar to what they have been doing,” the CEO said, sharing that Haystack's advertising clients, signed up via programmatic advertising, include firms from such TV staples as consumer goods, car companies and insurers.

Haystack is available on all smart TV platforms, and some Vizio TV sets now even come with remote controls with not only a Netflix, but also a Haystack News button.

The company is also well funded after another investment round last year, which took the amount raised by the firm to date to $6.5 million. Top investors in Haystack include the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Stanford University’s StartX Fund, Uhuru Capital, Zorlu Ventures, AltaIR Capital, and SVLinks.

The company has nearly 300 U.S. broadcast stations, including the ABC owned stations, CBS stations and stations from such broadcasters as Hearst, Cox, Meredith and Scripps, supplying Haystack with local news content, making it the only AVOD news service with local coverage for more than 90 percent of all local U.S. markets.

Its national and international content providers also include ABC News, CBS News, the Associated Press, Bloomberg, Cheddar, CNET, Euronews, Gamespot, Newsy and Yahoo Finance.

AVOD has been a focus for the broader entertainment industry over the past year or so. NBCUniversal recently soft launched Peacock, which will in July roll out more broadly and which has an AVOD tier at its core. Fox Corp. earlier this year acquired advertising-supported streamer Tubi. And ViacomCBS said in May that its ad-based streamer Pluto TV's domestic monthly active users grew to a record of 24 million-plus.

Barreto also expects more upside momentum ahead for Haystack. "This is a period of remarkable growth for Haystack, with downloads and usage surging as we accelerate our performance across all platforms," he said. "The importance of free access to news could not be more apparent as we battle a global pandemic, economic dislocation and social unrest."