What is a mobile news company, and do we even want one?
When Circa announced that it had poached Reuters’ social media boffin Anthony De Rosa to head up its editorial team, it scored a victory on two counts: Suddenly, 60,000 people – the sum total of De Rosa’s Twitter followers – had heard its name, and, finally, it got the opportunity to change perceptions about what it actually is.
Since launching its news-reading app in October last year, Circa has had to endure being lumped in with news summarizing services such as Flipboard, Prismatic, and especially Summly, which has since been acquired by Yahoo for $30 million. Look, I even did it myself!
By hiring De Rosa, an editorial guy from a big-deal news organization who has the respect and retweets of the media illuminati, Circa got the chance to circulate its message among an audience it would otherwise only have reached at the time of its launch. And now that everyone’s watching, the startup wants you to know this: It is not the second coming of the Huffington Post; it is the first coming of news machine built for smartphones.
“We’re a mobile news company,” says co-founder and CEO Matt Galligan. “We’re not a news aggregation app or summary app.”
Given the initial confusion about Circa’s mission, it shouldn’t be a surprise that much of the reporting about De Rosa’s appointment to the position of Circa’s “editor in chief” has stemmed from a profound collective insight that translates as something along the lines of: “Huh?”
Circa already had a “director of news,” David Cohn, and it doesn’t do any of its own reporting. So why would it need an editor?
Well, Galligan says, De Rosa will be overseeing editorial staff, as well as helping define and expand the Circa’s editorial vision. Cohn will occupy a role that sits between the developers and the editorial team.
While it rejects the “summarizer” label on account of having human writers who curate, cut down, and repackage existing news stories – to which they then link in footnotes accessible only by hitting an “info” button – Circa is, at its core, a deliverer of other people’s reporting. Which kind of sounds exactly like Flipboard and Prismatic. And Summly.
The difference is that Circa gets humans heavily involved in the curation and editing process. It is attempting to optimize news so that it can be read easily in the palm of your hand. That means much of it dribbles into the app in bits and pieces, with a paragraph here, a paragraph there, and updates on breaking stories as they develop. The app (iPhone only) also allows you to follow stories so you can stay on top of what’s going on in the case of a major news event, like the Boston bombing, via push notifications.
This, so far, is Circa’s vision of what a “mobile news company” looks like. No reporters – just curators and editors, and the ability to keep tabs on stories as they unfold, all packaged expressly for your iPhone.
De Rosa is a believer into the vision, part of which involves doing a better job than Twitter at filtering the noise from news events as they break. “I feel the role of the human editor is still so important to be able to sift through all that information, gather up what’s being reported, and make sure a lot of the stuff that’s on Twitter you can share with a wider audience,” De Rosa says. “The thing about Twitter that’s a gift and a curse is that there’s just so much information there – there’s so many sources that you can pick and choose from.” That can make it difficult to discern what’s really relevant, and what you need to know now, he says.
In a Fast Company interview, De Rosa said he felt trapped in the traditional article format, which emphasizes an inverted pyramid model that puts the most important information at the top of a story and works down from there. Such an approach is not the best way to present a story that is in progress, he suggested. “We’ve been presenting news in a digital format for almost 20 years now, and we’re still really kind of stuck and tied to this inverted pyramid model, which I think is really kind of broken,” he told the publication.
De Rosa sees Circa moving into tablets at a later point in its evolution and says there’s an opportunity to go after a “leanback” experience there, in which longer-form, more engrossing stories could find a home, perhaps with multimedia elements baked in. He cites the Guardian’s recent multimedia story about a Tasmanian bush fire as an example of what could work great on tablets.
Once that happens, then Circa’s vision of news could essentially be characterized a two-pronged strategy: mobile phones for quick, info-heavy news and tablets for involved reads. The latter could draw on the back catalog of material Circa has built up by repackaging and updating stories from the past, De Rosa says.
However, there is something just a little naive about this vision. It is clear that mobile devices will play a huge role in the future of news consumption – perhaps more important than any other platforms. But such an approach to news turns it into something that is read as if it is an activity to be conducted in the little breaks in the day when you happen to find a few spare moments. News, effectively, would be relegated to having to compete against games, text messaging, or Instagramming while you’re on the bus. And it would have to live in an app.
In that way, Circa captures well the mobility and dynamism of news, but it ignores the need for it to be ubiquitous, always available on whatever device or platform the reader happens to have in front of them. For a large part of many people’s day, that device is going to be the PC that sits on their office desk. By forcing readers to consume its news only via a mobile app, Circa neglects all the bored office workers constantly checking Twitter and hitting “refresh” on their favorite news sites in desperate search of distraction. Not everyone is as earnest a reader of news as the people who feel compelled to put every app that falls into the App Store through its paces. And not everyone is going to want to receive their news via push notification.
Perhaps realizing these challenges, Circa has made its stories available on the Web. But in this case the Web is clearly a second-class citizen, being lumped with the same format and design as is presented in the mobile app. Just as it’s wrong that news organizations should consider mobile platforms secondary to the Web experience, it holds that the Web shouldn’t have to wait in line after mobile.
Similarly, Circa has a lot of work to do on social, which was a big reason for hiring De Rosa. So far, its main account has just 6,000 followers on Twitter, while its dedicated news feed has about 350 followers. That's not a good strike rate for an account that has sent out nearly 4,000 tweets.
The challenge for De Rosa will be to build Circa’s presence to the point where it has even a fraction of Reuters’ reach. The company De Rosa is leaving behind might be bureaucratic, cumbersome, and saddled with the legacy baggage of old media, but it goes everywhere, and it tends to get there first. To get to that point, though, Circa might have to reconsider its mobile-centric viewpoint.
That might end up making it a plain old news company, but there's value in that, too.