Interview: Mayank Banerjee from Compass News

Hannah Brown 4 March 2017

Mayank Banerjee, previous president of the Oxford Union left in order to found start up ‘Compass’, a new app that aims to revolutionise the way journalism works. I asked him what has gone wrong with news, how Compass would change it and what it’s like to be the CEO.

Where do you feel news has gone wrong?

We’ve ended up too reliant on one point of access. Most people of our age spend hours on Facebook, now our way of finding out about what’s happening in the world. That’s all well and good for a reminder on a birthday party or where your friends have just been on holiday, but it gets slightly awkward when it relates to news.

Facebook is designed to maximise positive engagement which means that it’ll always show you stuff you’re likely to ‘like’. So if you’re someone who thinks Jeremy Corbyn is the second coming, Facebook’s algorithms will show you articles that reinforce that opinion. If you think Donald Trump is the antichrist, it’ll show you the latest Frankie Boyle piece for the Guardian telling you exactly that.

We think we can do better. We can provide a news source which is easier, quicker and more fun to use than Facebook, but without all the filter bubble problems it has brought up.

Our “get your bearings” feature is a good example: it’s our unique take on breaking news – we digest the top 5-10 stories of the day, giving you a 100-word summary you can swipe through.

What drove you to start Compass?

It was partly this realisation about how Facebook was distorting my worldview. I went into the 2015 general election pretty convinced that Ed Miliband would be the next Prime Minister. After all, I had constantly been reading articles on Facebook telling me that. Turns out that was slightly wide of the mark and I woke up the next day pretty confused, and based on my Facebook feed, so were most of my friends.  

That led to me thinking this might be a worthwhile topic for a thesis, which in turn led to me reading up about how exactly the industry worked and how much financial trouble it was in.

Next thing I knew, I had become obsessed with figuring out a solution and eventually I dropped out of university to do this full time and it’s been a pretty crazy ride ever since.

How did you go about making Compass a reality?

With great difficulty. Turns out it’s not a great idea to drop out of university to fix an industry that a whole host of people far smarter than me have struggled with.

May 2016 was a pretty crucial month for us. An offer of investment that we thought we were getting fell through at the last minute and although it didn’t seem it at the time, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us.

We panicked and completely reassessed everything we were doing. We changed some core ideas and then started rigourously testing everything out. Not long after, we met another one of my co founders, Matilde, who prioritised getting stuff done, as opposed to just talking about it. Luckily, since then things seem to have been going pretty well and we’re incredibly excited about our launch at Cambridge this week.

What is it like to transition from student to CEO?

I’m not really sure I ever think about myself as CEO.

Still, it’s a very strange experience to go being a student to having to make decisions which impact on other people’s lives. If I mess up my job, people don’t get paid their salaries, can’t pay their monthly rent and that’s a genuinely terrifying thought. At the same time, that fear is also a good thing as it also forces me to make sure something like that never happens and every day is focussed on trying to get better at my job.

What are your hopes for the future?

Our goal with Compass is a pretty straightforward one: We want to help people make better informed decisions about the world they live in. Journalism is a crucial part of that process – but right now the consumption method is completely contradictory to it. We think we can change that.

It could be as momentous as an undercover investigation leading to the impeachment of a president, or as mundane as using a restaurant review to decide where to take a date on a Friday night. The really important thing is that we always think there will always be a need for well researched journalism to help you make that kind of decision.

Our job is to figure out a way to get you access to those kind of stories, but also finding a business model to allow them to exist in the first place. That’s really our long term goal with Compass and if we can go some way to achieving that, we’d be delighted.