There’s a lot to like and a lot to hate about Circa, the new company by Cheezburger Network and reality TV star Ben Huh and SocialThing and SimpleGeo co-founder Matt Galligan. It launches today and is on “a mission to fix journalism.” As with most things that aim to fix journalism and are run by people who aren’t journalists, I expect the press to have mixed views. I do as well.
But what it’s not is a copycat, a rehash, or derivative. People will compare it to things like Flipboard or Pulse, but Circa – love it or hate it – is trying to do something much different, much grander. Give Huh and Galligan credit for one thing: An original stab at the problem, not simply a prettier or more immediate way to display news on mobile devices. And it’s a solution they’ve been mulling for more than a year.
Galligan and Huh believe to save journalism you need to kill the article. Instead, news from Circa is arranged on digital flash cards you page through on your mobile phone. “Stories” are simply facts strung together across these cards, and most of those facts link to a third party original source.
The art of creating a good Circa piece is in finding news and piecing it together, but there is no writing, per se. There is no analysis and there is no reporting either. Galligan’s view is there’s too much of that in the world. It’s original work in that the “stories” are written by Circa’s newsroom of about a dozen people, but the facts are all aggregated from elsewhere. There are no bylines, which isn’t a big surprise since the innovation here is sucking much of the reporting and writing out of journalism.
There are some cool things this fact-based atomization of journalism allows for. You can go laterally deeper in Circa, like you can with Wikipedia. If there’s a reference in a Romney article to Big Bird you could learn more about what happened at those debates and a history of candidates backing PBS, for instance. (Or there will be more of this over time.) And because Circa knows which “flash card” you’ve read, it knows what facts you already know. In a future story it may just tell you what’s new for you.
Done right, I love that idea. Most sites fall somewhere between forcing the reporter to go back and reexplain everything in case someone is completely new to the story or assuming everyone has been following everything. The former is annoying for reporters, and the latter is annoying for readers. I was traveling in Croatia during the Presidential debates, and I saw some 50 references to Big Bird in articles (like the one I made above) and not a single one actually explained what Romney said during the debate, because each had assumed the entire audience had already read it elsewhere. A personalized ability to go as deep as you want, or just get the updates, is interesting.
The approach also allows you to “follow” a certain story, getting updates pushed to you when they happen. I love that feature – it solves a huge problem, which is that the news over-reports when a story is hot with no real new information, and then drops a story all together once another hot story emerges.
And when it comes to political news, Galligan is absolutely right: There is too much opinion and not enough facts with clear sources attached to them. The spin has gotten so great, I’ve pretty much stopped following elections and watching debates, because I frankly don’t believe any numbers thrown out by anyone. For someone to raze all of it and start again with telling me the basic facts I need to know is appealing, at least in this vertical.
In general, Circa’s approach to making over-reported commodity news that can be gathered without reporting into more of an easily digestible commodity isn’t a bad idea. Frankly, it’s the same thinking that led us to suck the 40-60 commodity, who-funded-who stories most tech blogs write as features and put them into the PandoTicker instead of the main flow of news. It’s information our readers need to know, but if it’s everywhere else and there’s not much to add, they should be able to easily and quickly scan it. I’m a big fan of making something that’s already a commodity, a commodity that is easier to consume and produce.
But to say this approach saves journalism is where Circa loses me. The core problem I have with Galligan and Huh is that I disagree with the fundamental premise that “the article” has to go. It’s based on two assumptions, both wrong in my view.
The first assumption is that the article hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. First off, articles have never been all the same. An AP style inverted pyramid is nothing like a magazine cover story. Ask any reporter who’s made the transition from one to the other and how painful it was. And blog posts are dramatically different than anything that came before — breaking hard core rules about the use of first person, how paragraphs are structured, the use of swearing and colloquial language, anonymous sources. Blogs ushered in a new way of reporting called process-based journalism that has changed old media as much as new media. The role of comments, the lack of editors, and the ability to publish instantly all forever changed articles.
To say a blog post is the same old “article” that was taught in journalism school for hundreds of years is astounding to anyone who’s written both before and after their inception. Even the ability to link between articles dramatically changed them. In the past you’d have to explain any past coverage or set the stage with background on a story, now you just link to former work. That can make stories shorter and more immediate.
You might be better off to say what’s the same in articles than list all the differences: There’s a headline, a byline (usually), a lead, paragraphs. Articles mostly all have words. That’s about it.
The second faulty assumption is that people don’t read articles on iPhones. “The article is where the biggest problems exist on the phone because it is too long and too in depth,” Galigan says. He says Instagram succeeded in photosharing, because it pared it down on mobile, ditto social networks with the more streamlined Path and mobile games like Angry Birds.
In the case of articles, I just don’t think the metaphor holds. I’d argue a collection of several hundred, or even 1,000, words on a screen is already pretty pared down. For one thing, there’s been a long trend in news — driven by USA Today, before it was driven by the Web — of articles getting shorter and shorter. I think most of us would agree, an overabundance of long, in depth articles is not the chief problem with journalism.
And personally, I do most of my reading on my iPhone, because I have it with me all of the time. If I’m sitting in traffic, on a tarmac, waiting on someone who’s late for a meeting, or rocking my baby to sleep, I’m usually scrolling through articles. There’s nothing painful about it — in fact, it’s a more convenient way for me to check up on the news. As long as I can easily scroll a page with my thumb, the length of article doesn’t bother me. And in our recent reader survey, a large percentage of our readers said they primarily read PandoDaily on mobile devices. Many of these same people said the thing they liked most about the publications was the length of the article.
Circa may well succeed for certain types of news, but it’ll be because of the inherent attributes of providing easy to digest facts in a new format that I described above, not because people feel some tyranny of the article. The article has already adapted throughout time and will continue to do so. All it means is a newsy collection of words. I don’t get how paging through one-sentence flash cards makes that substantially different. It’s just a collection of words with different pagination. In fact, if I’m one handed, trying to read a story while I do something else, continually hitting a forward button would be more of an annoyance.
Indeed, as I wrote last week, much of the media world is seeing a desire for and resurgence of long form writing.
In short, I think Circa is an innovative product that may well solve a lot of the problems I have with staying informed on current events. I just disagree with the founders on what those problems are.
If I were doing the messaging on Circa, I would get rid of the talk about saving journalism, because most people who love it — who should be the alpha users of any new media app — aren’t going to agree that killing original reporting and writing does that. I would get rid of the narrative that articles are broken. Whether they are or not is subjective, but the odds that after today people stop reading them are nil.
Instead, I would talk up Circa’s ability to go hand-in-hand with this trend towards quality writing, the way I believe the PandoTicker goes hand-in-hand with our longer form writing. It gives people the basics they need to know to be informed in an easy to consume manner. That’s something I frankly don’t get now on a broader current affairs level, because there’s not a clear source for it that doesn’t either dumb things down too much, have inherent bias in the case of politics, or take an hour to read. A Wikipedia-like approach with clear sources tied to facts, and an ability to follow the new facts stories as they develop in a seamless way: That has a lot of value.
Not least of which is that it frees you up to spend more time reading good reporting and good writing, and frees up news staff to work on that more as well. As Paul Carr wrote months ago, it’s not a single thing that will save journalism. It’s many little things. Circa may well be one of them, but it’s not the whole answer.
[Image courtesy shutterstock]