Repackaging the News for Smartphones

Is creating fast food journalism, or reinventing it?

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

We call it the information age. Everything, from farming to medicine, is being transformed. And the fastest changes are to fields that consist purely of information—music, books, banking, and most of all, journalism.

An April wire service headline said, “New York Times gains in otherwise grim newspaper sector.” The three newspapers in the U.S. that have circulations over a million—The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today—each keep adding digital subscribers and losing print ones in large numbers.

Increasingly, those digital subscribers are turning to mobile devices for their news. The shift from print to tablet isn’t enormous, but the phone is a different thing entirely. And so, of course, there’s a company trying to change the way we read news on our smartphones.

It’s [the website] called—that’s rather cleverly spelled C-I-R-dot-C-A, so that the “CA” is the country code Canada and no “dot-com” is needed. My guest today is its founding editor David Cohn. He has a master’s degree in journalism, and before Circa, he founded Spot.Us, a nonprofit organization that championed local reporting—and local funding of reporting. He joins us by phone.

David, welcome to the podcast.

David Cohn: Thank you for having me.

Steven Cherry: David, the company website has a kind of motto: “At Circa we don’t write articles, we create story lines.” What’s the difference?

David Cohn: Sure. So articles are—I think of them almost as a box that we stuff text and photos and other things into, but story lines are these things that continue on as the story evolves. So, for example, Turkey, right? There has been unrest in Turkey going on now two weeks, and every day news organizations have to write a new article every single day to sort of capture what’s happened and sort of push the story forward for that day. But we don’t. We actually thread facts, quotes, stats, events, and images together to create the story line, and the story lines evolve over time, and we constantly update them.

Steven Cherry: Newspapers have a long, narrow column width that seems ideal for a device like an iPhone 5, but you changed the format as well.

David Cohn: Yeah, so what we’ve done with Circa, I think there’s two big things: The first is we’ve sort of changed the aesthetic and the look and feel to make it easier to read on the phone, because I think we’ve all had the experience of reading an article on a phone, and there’s been pinching and zooming to try and get the text font the right size and scrolling around, because the article is longer or things like that, and that’s just sort of a poor user experience.

And so that’s one of the first things we’ve addressed again by breaking down the news into what we call “atomic units of news,” and it’s a quote, a fact, a stat, or an event, or an image. But the other thing is that in breaking down the news in that way, we’re actually saying, “These are the elements of news,” and we thread them together to tell that story. And that thread can evolve over time as new facts or new information comes to light.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, so let’s say I’m following that Turkey story. Let’s say I read what you have so far today, then it takes me a couple of days to come back to that story. What’s my experience? Am I just sort of scrolling quickly past until I see something that I don’t recognize?

David Cohn: No, that’s—one of the things that makes Circa unique is this idea that we treat different types of readers differently based on what background context they have. So on Circa, these story lines, which, again, is a collection of these points, you can decide to follow the story, and if you do follow the story, we can then sort of keep track of what facts you have consumed and what is new since last time you came back.

So maybe you only have the ability to check in on world events, you know, maybe just during your commute or the 15 minutes you’re standing in line, or whatever the situation is, you certainly don’t want to use that time catching up and reading information you already have consumed. You want to find out what’s new. So, again, because we’ve broken down the story into these elements, we can say, “Oh, Steven is back. Last time Steven was here, he followed this story about Turkey, and he already read this speech from the prime minister, and he read about the protest and the people arrested on Wednesday. But today is Friday, and he doesn’t know what happened Thursday or Friday, so let’s give him those points first. Put that up at the top.”

Steven Cherry: So you don’t have long feature articles, or at least you sort of break them up into these atomic units. For a lot of our readers, certainly, and I think a lot of magazine and newspaper readers in general, these are the best, most important stories.

David Cohn: Yeah, I mean, I think there are certain types of stories that aren’t really conducive for Circa at this point in time. A really great example of that would be narratives, and this is not because I don’t think they’re important. I mean, certainly there is still room for the 2000-word-long narrative essay, where it starts with a sort of scene where you meet a character and you don’t really learn what the sort of news element to that certain character is until later on, right? And those are great. They sort of touch the human soul. But what Circa’s trying to capture is the sort of breaking news aspect of journalism, which is also, I think, a very noble and important part. It’s sort of the “What’s happening right now?” question.

Steven Cherry: So how does this work? You have staff editors that are writing or rewriting these news stories?

David Cohn: Yeah, we do. So I’m director of news, and we have an editorial staff of 12, and we recently hired Anthony De Rosa. He’s going to be acting as editor in chief. They are based around the world, some on the East Coast, some on the West Coast. We have someone in Beirut and someone in Beijing, so we are 24/7.

And they basically look at what’s happening in the world, look at the news, and are constantly creating new content, you know, rewriting of the news to some degree, looking for facts that will back up, or doing fact-checking, or the little bits of information that really give someone an awareness of what’s happening, and, again, threading that together into these stories.

Steven Cherry: So, I guess, first of all, are there any rights issues here if you’re sort of relying on the content of others?

David Cohn: Not really, because we don’t do copy/pasting or anything like that. I mean, certainly we are relying on information to find out that there are protests in Turkey, and that information could be tweets, it could be an Associated Press article, it could be a New York Times article, but the fact that there are protests in Turkey is not a copyrightable fact, right? Facts are not copyrightable. I mean, everyone has the right to write about them. Sorry for the alliteration.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, so I’m glad to hear you’re doing a certain amount of fact-checking—something that I think CNN forgot was part of the fundamental journalism process. But I take it there’s no actual original reporting?

David Cohn: There is no original reporting in the sense that you might be picturing, which is to say there is no “boots on the ground” reporting, Turkey being a really perfect example. You know, I don’t have somebody in Istanbul reporting on the scene. The type of reporting that we do do or aspire to at times is more along the lines of or PolitiFact or even, which is a popular fact-checking website. So there is a kind of Internet sleuthing or Internet researching—you might even venture to call it reporting—that does go on, that we do, but again, it’s not your Woodward and Bernstein–type reporting.

Steven Cherry: You mentioned Anthony De Rosa, and I was going to ask you about him. You know, he comes from Reuters, which is the wire service world, which is where I would expect you to draw a staff from, but he was their social media editor. Is that right?

David Cohn: Yes, he was.

Steven Cherry: So does he have a reporting background?

David Cohn: He actually has a really interesting background. He does not have, again, a traditional reporting background, again, in that sort of Woodward and Bernstein kind of fashion. He actually came into the position because he was brought in by Reuters when a company was acquired, and he was sort of on the tech end, and he just started writing. And eventually he amassed a very serious following on Tumblr, basically kind of covering the news or keeping track of what was happening on his Tumblr blog, and eventually Reuters brought him in. Anthony is fantastic because he has a good tech savvy as well as a good understanding of journalism, but he’s not burdened by any of the practices, which is to say at Circa there are certain principles that we want to hold on to, such as informing people with facts to the best of our abilities, but the practices are what we want to question.

Steven Cherry: I wonder if you’ve gotten any criticism of Circa so far, that it’s sort of like a fast-food version of the news. I have to confess, the “atomic units” did remind me of, I don’t know, Chicken McNuggets or something. Is there enough nutritious information here to make for a healthy citizenry?

David Cohn: I would actually argue that in some sense it has more value. It is one thing to say that you can learn more about some event in the world by sitting down and reading 2500 words, but the fact of the matter is that people aren’t doing that, right? So when you follow a story and consume little bits of it at a time, if you do that every day over the course of two or three weeks, you end up actually with a greater understanding of something. It has more nuance. It has more context. And your understanding of it has evolved over time, rather than the sort of like force-feed attempt to shove vegetables down someone’s throat.

So what we do put in there is really serious content. If you look at what Circa is covering, it’s not celebrity gossip. It’s not sort of, you know, just meaningless banter. We are sort of covering the real important issues of our day. It’s just that we’re organizing it in such a fashion that it doesn’t feel too laborious to consume it all, and it does evolve in front of you over time.

Steven Cherry: Circa’s available for free now. What’s the business model?

David Cohn: There are a few different possible ways that we’ll make revenue. Right now we are angel funded, and so that is not necessarily a revenue model—that is just an explanation for how we’ve gotten to where we are.

I think one of the ways we might make money, which has become a little bit of a buzzword right now, is called “native advertising,” which is to say there will be stories in Circa that will be called out and obvious as sponsored, but they will be sponsored. But they will behave just like our stories do, which is to say, again, people can follow a sponsored story, and that sponsored story will provide updates to them about some organization or product or whatever over time.

I think the main thing if we go down that route is to be transparent about what is the editorial content, where we’re just trying to cover the world, again, to be as factual as possible, and the sponsored content, which I think would still be factual, but the reason it would be there is because it is sponsored. That’s one way we could make money. There are others, one including licensing, working with other organizations that see a benefit in organizing news the way we do to create a relationship between the reader and the story and things like that.

Steven Cherry: Getting back to the question of original reporting and investigative reporting, I mean, those things are on the decline, right? So for every ProPublica, there’s 100 news organizations closing their foreign bureaus, laying off reporters, closing their doors entirely. Your previous company, Spot.Us, was more along the sort of ProPublica “boots on the ground” lines. Do you miss that?

David Cohn: I mean, there are certain aspects of everything I’ve ever done in a career that I miss. But, again, I think the challenges of Circa—it’s not that I miss one over the other, it’s that they’re very, very unique. I mean, I think the challenge with Spot.Us really was looking at the process of money in journalism and questioning how to make that more transparent and more participatory, and, of course, trying to answer the grand question of “How can we get more money to do this kind of investigative reporting?”

Circa, again, is not necessarily doing that “boots on the ground” kind of reporting, but it is asking this really almost philosophical question about how do we organize information so that individuals can sort of comprehend something over a period of time, and how can we treat individuals differently based on how much information they have? And that’s a really important question in order to sort of achieve, again, the greater goal of an informed citizenry.

Steven Cherry: Well, David, I think both are needed, and I think it’s pretty impressive that you’ve had a hand in both sides of it, and certainly if anything needs to go mobile, it’s the news, so thanks for cofounding both of them, and thanks for joining us today.

David Cohn: No problem. Thank you for having me.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with David Cohn about reinventing the delivery of news, on our smartphones.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Photo: selimaksan/iStockphoto

This interview was recorded Tuesday, 11 June 2013.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli
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