Lauren Goode

Two New News Apps, Designed for Mobile Phones

If you’ve ever read news articles on your smartphone, at some point you’ve probably hit a pay wall, pinched and squeezed your way around a tiny-type font, or gotten frustrated with the overall experience on a mobile browser. And yet mobile devices are rapidly changing the way we consume news.

So, for this week’s column, I took a look at two new mobile apps that present snippets of news tailored to fit a smartphone screen. I tried to view these through the eyes of an average news consumer, rather than as a journalist working in the fast-changing news industry.

The first is Summly, an app that has received as much attention for its “human-free” news-gathering technology as it has for its 17-year-old creator, Nick D’Aloisio. It scans longer articles from established news sources, and picks a few sentences to create a summary.

The second is Circa, which is trying to build its own mini newsroom. About a dozen editors generate stories across a variety of topics, which are then broken into short bits. Some of these stories are written by Circa’s own staff, based on original reporting, but many of them borrow from other people’s reporting and cite other news outlets.

Both apps are free, and available on iPhone only, with Android and tablet versions in the works.

It’s too early to say whether mobile apps like these — or apps like Zite and Flipboard, which aggregate content on mobile — are the future of news. Both Summly and Circa do a good job of presenting news bits in a mobile-friendly format — but those news bits could still use some work.

The fact that Summly’s algorithm can assemble three-sentence news stories without a human editor is impressive. The app also lets you create news topics — for example, I created one called “basketball” and another one called “health and fitness” — that within a few seconds were filled with related “summlies,” or summaries, of stories from around the Web.

But the bot-produced summaries don’t always flow well, and sometimes contain grammatical errors.

Circa produces mostly well-crafted news stories that follow a basic narrative. And readers can “follow” favorite news stories and get updates on them. At best, the writing is a little bland. At worst, it’s hard to know whether to trust the reporting of such a news outlet.

Neither Summly nor Circa show writer bylines — again, I’m trying not to approach this as a writer — which could be a detriment to some readers who do trust or enjoy following their favorite writers. Then again, the Economist magazine still doesn’t use bylines.

Summly officially launched Nov. 1. Its teenage founder has received funding from several high-profile backers, and on the tech side, Summly has been working with SRI International to develop the language-recognition technology it uses to generate stories.

The app goes through an irritatingly long animated video the first time you fire it up. From there, the app directs you to a cover page and then a tile page, where about a dozen news topics are listed, including sports, science, entertainment and arts, politics and world news.

At the top of each short story is a feature photo that takes up about a third of the iPhone screen, along with a headline and the original news source. Some of the outlets I saw credited were the Associated Press, CBS News, USA Today, CNN Money, Engadget, Golfweek and Design News.

The swipe gestures in Summly are pretty nifty. Tapping twice on a Summly summary will bring you to an extended version of the same story. Swiping down brings you to the original news source’s Web page. Swiping up brings you back to the tile page.

But the “summlies” can be a little disjointed, and some lack proper punctuation. A summly from the Los Angeles Times included the one-off sentence, “Use of torture by authorities has risen in Mexico, groups say” — no period, no further information about which groups are alleging this. In a sports story, the sentence “Northern Illinois players are greeted by Orange bowl committee members” appeared in the middle of the summarized story — which was obviously a photo caption.

Summly says that it is constantly improving the technology to refine the summaries.

Circa, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to suffer from the same grammatical errors or story-flow issues. It breaks stories up into short “points,” often with good-looking art, photos, maps or graphs sprinkled throughout the story. Light-gray bullet points on the right-hand side of the screen act as a scrollbar as you swipe through the story, to let you know where how far you’ve read.

When you first open the app, it sends you directly to a list of story headlines, rather than topic pages. There are, however, topic pages in another part of the app where you can find top stories, United States, politics and world news, if you prefer to browse that way.

The Circa stories I read included headlines like, “$1.4 million of ivory seized in Hong Kong,” “Meteorite challenges timeline of water on Mars,” and “Many seats still in question in Obama’s second-term cabinet.”

Again, the biggest difference between Circa and Summly is that Circa has actual writers creating these stories, although it’s impossible to know who these writers are. Sometimes credit is given to another source — in the case of the Hong Kong ivory story mentioned above, the source was originally ABC News.

Circa also gives you the ability to follow, or favorite, stories. Then, if you allow for push notifications in the app, you’ll get updates every time that Circa story is updated. I wanted to follow the New Delhi rape case, for which Circa quoted four different news outlets, and Circa updated me as new news came in.

Both apps will show stories that might be behind pay walls at other news outlets, though Summly only summarizes these before dragging you to a pay wall, and Circa says it attempts to do its own reporting for these stories. Summly also has an arrangement with News Corp., which is the parent company of AllThingsD, to show some Wall Street Journal content through its own topic tile on the app.

Will apps like Summly and Circa fare better than, say, the ill-fated Daily iPad newspaper, or do a better job of serving up the news than aggregator apps? It’s tough to say, especially in the case of Circa, which is trying to create new content. Despite their differences, both apps, have at least found new ways of making mobile news reading a bit easier on the eyes.

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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