Eric Johnson

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Breaking News Is Broken and Circa Wants to Fix It

Want to get news on your smartphone? You’ve got plenty of options. But if you ask Circa CEO Matt Galligan, none of them is especially good.

“The content gets a different design, so that it fits on the screen and the fonts look appropriate, but the content itself hasn’t changed,” Galligan said. “The time that you consume with this device is dramatically different.”

Circa, which launches today for iPhones after nearly a year of secrecy, is a news app designed specifically for mobile. Its modest goal: To completely overhaul breaking news and the experience of receiving updates on a developing story.

For starters, the editorial staff has completely ditched the idea of reported articles as we know them. Instead, their team of 12 writers in the U.S., U.K. and China aggregate small bits of information about the day’s top happenings as they come out of various sources.

These bits, internally called “atomic units of news,” are strung together into original stories. Each piece of a story, the CEO says, is like a flashcard: Users swipe through them one-by-one, and learn at least one new thing from each card they reach.

Readers can then tap a button to follow specific stories and be notified when Circa’s editors add new flashcards with new information. That could happen in five minutes or, for some stories, it might not happen for months or years.

Galligan argues that this format is better for mobile users because they mostly use their phones in “gap time,” like waiting at the bus stop or in line at Starbucks. So, Circa is to a news magazine what Angry Birds is to a much more expansive game like World of Warcraft.

It’s an elegant attempt to connect with our short attention spans on the go, especially since Circa keeps tabs on how far readers make it into a story. It’s not in the debut version of the app launching today, but Galligan says his team is planning a feature that will recommend new stories based on what Circa knows about what its users know.

The company’s clever full name, Circa 1605, shows they’ve done their homework, since 1605 was the once-disputed year of the world’s first newspaper. But they’re not the only ones to realize that traditional news articles are often comprised of smaller, separable pieces.

For instance, many journalists use Twitter to pass along bits and pieces of stories as they arrive. And most prominently, Storify lets its users read and create stories about events (like, say, the D10 conference), based on other peoples’ tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube videos, and so on.

However, Galligan emphasizes that all of Circa’s content is original — which is technically true, but its writers are mostly piggybacking off of the legwork of professional and citizen reporters on the ground, converting their various updates into those “just the facts, ma’am” flashcards.

So, the app can’t replace journalism as we know it, but none of the site’s founders seem interested in doing that, anyway. Founding Editor David Cohn (previously, the founder of crowdfunded-news site also dismissed the idea that any gaps Circa fixes can somehow “save journalism.”

“No one project has that ability,” Cohn said. “You’re going to try to do too much — so much so that you’re not going to do anything.”

But there are definitely gaps to address. Circa co-founder Ben Huh (a.k.a. the I Can Haz Cheezburger guy) seems to have been mulling over the problems with breaking news for some time. In May 2011, he wrote on his blog:

“… the experience of consuming news sucks… After the initial 3 paragraphs that contain the latest update, the rest of the article is just a regurgitation of the previous 24-hours worth of stories that I’ve ready [sic] 9 times before.”

Of course, this doesn’t take into account narrative-driven news like a feature story following up on events that are already said and done. And Galligan readily admits that the deeper analysis offered by periodicals like the New Yorker and the Economist isn’t on Circa’s horizon, at least for now.

As Cohn remarked at a recent meetup of San Francisco-area journalists, though, the format of the news determines how it makes money, so it’s kind of a big deal. Since most media outlets make their money online from serving ads to as many people as possible, they’re encouraged to keep posting more-or-less traditional stories.

But both Cohn and Galligan are keeping mum about how Circa will make money off its stream of stories and flashcards. Whether or not the app is a hit will help them figure out what story to chase for themselves.

(Below, check out a portion of my interview with Galligan, in which he demoed the new app):

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald