The story behind Toutiao, China's most popular news app

ByteDance's Beijing office. (Office Snapshots)

Zhang Yiming, Toutiao's founder, allegedly came up with the idea for an AI-powered news app after he noticed that people had stopped reading newspapers.

Toutiao started out as a news aggregator that catered its feed to users' personal interests. Since launching in 2012, however, it's expanded into a massive platform that posts stories from large media organizations and individual users.

Numbers can be hard to come by, but the app reportedly had 68 million active daily users in late 2017 and was estimated to have made $2.5 billion in revenue that year. Toutiao is a large presence inside its parent company, ByteDance, which overtook Uber last year to become the world's most valuable startup.

Toutiao, which means Headlines in Chinese, tracks what kinds of articles users read, their favorite sections, and what posts they dismiss from their feeds. The more time a user spends in the app, the better it gets at suggesting stories to them.

Speaking to FT in 2017, Toutiao's Tina Zhao attributed some of its success to timing. Toutiao was founded in 2012, just as smartphones became more affordable and common inside China:

“Back in the days when Toutiao was born, the Chinese information market was dominated by web portals like Sina and Sohu. Their mobile products were simply moving content from web to mobile, and user experience... was not good enough,” said Ms Zhao.

Early on, Toutiao came under fire for hosting other sites' content on their own servers. In response, Toutiao signed revenue sharing partnerships with news providers, similar to the way Facebook works with news organizations to publish articles on its platform.

In 2016, Toutiao struck such a partnership with Buzzfeed, allowing them to publish videos and listicles to Toutiao's massive userbase.

Toutiao also developed a bot to report results from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Familiar controversies

The company experienced several controversies in 2018.

The first came in April, when the Chinese government singled it out for publishing lewd content. Toutiao's parent company ByteDance was ordered to remove it from app stores for three weeks.

Peking University law professor Jeffery Towson said that the temporary ban was more like a growing pain than a serious setback for the company:

“Once you become very significant in news or in social media in China, you are going to work with the government, because those are areas of government concerns."

Toutiao's more recent controversies have mirrored those suffered by Western tech companies. Like Facebook and YouTube, Toutiao has come under fire for publishing fake news.

In response, Toutiao's English language site, TopBuzz, announced that it had removed 4,600 fake accounts. Later, Toutiao announced that it would reward 100 users for publishing articles that debunk rumors posted in the app.

Search engine

In August, 2019, Toutiao launched Toutiao Search, a search engine that surfaces results from outside the ByteDance ecosystem alongside content from its apps.

Zhang has previously likened Toutiao to a search engine, suggesting that this has been some time coming:

“The most important thing is that we are not a news business. We are more like a search business or a social media platform,” Zhang said in a 2017 interview, adding that he employs no editors or reporters. “We are doing very innovative work. We are not a copycat of a U.S. company, both in product and technology.”

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