At Circa We Write Stories, Not Summaries, Take Two

Circa News 1.0 launched nearly 18 months ago in October 2012, and since then we’ve learned more than we could have even imagined. But one thing that we’ve stayed true to is the idea that at Circa we don’t do summaries, we tell stories. We thought this would be a great time to revisit that concept.

Recently, the mobile news space has seen a lot of new activity. But unlike Circa, many of these new apps have placed their focus on summaries. Following our mission to inform, we think summaries provide “just enough” for a mobile  news product, but they don’t necessarily go all the way. They may look the part and talk the talk, but that’s not where we believe things should end. News summaries tend to provide little context about a story, and this may be further underscored as many news stories will evolve over time.

A cynical view of some news apps is that their summaries are a brochure to sell their longer form content. Others may use summaries to link to an external publisher’s longer form content. In the end, the core functionality is all about browsing. They may provide an illusion of informing the reader, while actually functioning as an aggregator. Now we’re not here to vilify aggregators as we think some can be truly great (who doesn’t love Techmeme!) but they are not final destinations. By nature, they don’t provide a full news experience.

A more generous view of summary apps is that their goal is to provide a full experience (not send you elsewhere), and the final product to accomplish this is a summary. With that in mind, we’d like to revisit some of the key points from the last time we posted on summaries vs. Circa’s living stories nearly two years ago.

It’s true, our content is concise, to the point and we provide links back to our sources. But Circa stories aren’t summaries. Indeed, stories can never be summaries – and we believe in stories.

Why stories at all? Why not just write a summary of each news article? We feel it would be deficient. And we use that word  carefully. It’s not that summaries would be bad – but “deficient” (“lacking in some necessary quality or element.”)

Summaries aren’t alive. They are more or less static and reflective only of the article they are summarizing. If you read two summaries of similar articles you’d still suffer the fate of news amnesia – two good summaries about Hurricane Sandy probably repeat themselves.

More important than the problem of repetition is that of scope. By its very nature a summary is a birds eye view of one article. But often it’s the subtle details in an article or the nuance across several sources that make a story come to life. This is how a reader gets informed. This is how a storyteller creates an experience…. Learning about the world shouldn’t be a chore. It also shouldn’t be mindless. It should be an experience.

Atomize not summarize

Many people look at Circa and think we are providing summaries. Sure, the veneer of our stories may be similar because they are concise but as GigaOm pointed out, Circa stories are actually longform in disguise:

While most of the services mentioned give users brief news items that they can consume quickly while standing in line at the bank or in the back of a cab, Galligan says Circa’s approach differs in one major way: since it allows users to “follow” a specific story, and get updates only about new developments on that story, it essentially is building a long-form news story over time — just in bite-size chunks.

Circa’s news stories are always short in the moment, but that’s only the beginning. We invest our time on singular storylines that evolve and build them up over time, providing continuing context through our “follow” feature. This is possible because of the difference between atomizing stories, instead of summarizing them. Being short is a byproduct of our mission, not the mission itself. Summaries are great – but they can’t let you stay in touch with stories you care about over time. When you create a summary, just like an article, there is potential repetition and no structure to the content. When you atomize content – you add structure to it. That structure allows us to serve readers better throughout the life of a story.

The mobile news space has matured very quickly, even in just the last two years since Circa’s inception. Additionally it’s been very exciting to see many of our original assumptions validated in this time. We truly hope the space as a whole can learn from our experiences in building Circa, and we hope to learn from their existence as well. 

Growing pains

At 10:43am PST Sunday morning, we sent out breaking news push notifications, alerting our users to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. We sent those notifications to every installed copy of our mobile app, on both iOS and Android.

As we prepared the push, we had a sense that this would be a big story for many of our users. Within two minutes, we began to realize that this was our biggest and fastest traffic surge ever, as our traffic increased by a factor of 15x. Then we discovered that our service was quickly becoming unbearably slow. Web pages took a very long time to load. Worse, apps trying to access stories had their connections time out, and several people were logged out inadvertently.

For big story pushes like this, we always like to add extra server capacity to our system, in anticipation of the crush of traffic. Sunday was no exception; what was unexpected, however, was that the extra servers led to their own unforeseen bottleneck deeper within our infrastructure. We’d seen a similar problem with a previous push, so we had an immediate suspicion of root causes to our troubles. We quickly took corrective steps, and within 20 minutes of the first push notification being sent, our systems were responding well to the still-massive influx of traffic.

We’re truly sorry for any inconvenience that our outage caused you. We are currently working hard to change the way that our servers communicate with each other behind the scenes, so that your Circa News experience is smooth, no matter how many people are staying informed with you.

We’re looking for a few good people

Best of 2013

With our 2014 plans well under way, we’re ready to expand our team with some fantastic people. Last year we received accolades from both Apple and Google, calling us a Best App of 2013. We’ve been named a “startup to watch in 2014″ by Mashable, VentureBeat, CNBC, The Next Web, and were one of GigaOm’s most interesting things to happen in media for 2013. Now we want you (or someone you know) to join us in our mission to revolutionize mobile news.

Below you’ll find our open positions and a link to apply to them!

Senior iOS Engineer – Apply Here
As Circa’s Senior iOS Engineer, you will be responsible for the development and maintenance of our mobile applications for Apple devices. You’ll be working with other members of the product and development teams to continuously build, maintain, and evolve features within our popular news app for the iPhone. You’ll also have the opportunity to create an application for the iPad.

Lead Designer – Apply Here
As Circa’s Lead Designer, you will be responsible for being the voice of our design language. You’ll be working alongside the product and development teams to create engaging visual experiences that will help our readers consume news in new and engaging ways. Additionally, you’ll be responsible for creating visuals for the web, as well as marketing experiences that are enticing and exciting for future readers.

Backend Software Engineer – Apply Here
As a Backend Software Engineer at Circa, you will be responsible for the development and maintenance of highly-available systems that power everything that our readers and editors see. You’ll be working with other members of the product and development teams, architecting new aspects of our platform. while evolving other existing features. You’ll get to work on everything from our internal API, to text and image processing, data warehousing, and machine learning.

Frontend Software Engineer – Apply Here
As a Frontend Software Engineer at Circa, you will be responsible for the development and maintenance of highly-available web applications that our readers and editors interact with. You’ll be working with other members of the product and development teams, architecting new aspects of our platform. while evolving other existing features. You’ll get to work on publicly available web properties, including our marketing and news websites, as well as more complex applications such as our proprietary newsroom system.

Avoiding spoilers

We learned a lesson with a recent wide breaking news alert we pushed. Nearly every major news organization, including New York Times, CNN, and ESPN pushed an alert when the NFC and AFC championship winners earned a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII. We pushed one as well, and while most folks welcomed the news, a few were not happy to receive this alert. The reason is understandable, some people DVR these games and watch them later because they simply can’t watch them in real time.

We want to do better.

In the future, we’ll push an alert that simply reads “SPOILER ALERT: Click through for results of ________” which gives you the power to decide if you want to know what’s behind that alert. These kind of alerts would come into play for things like the Oscars, major sporting events, and anything else where we feel we might be ruining someone’s surprise.

We sincerely apologize if we ruined your game tonight, we’ll do our best to avoid having it happen again.

How the follow feature changes the nature of planned obituaries

It’s a well known morbid fact of the news business that organizations have obituaries ready to publish for world figures. Any news organization worth its weight in salt has obituaries ready for President H.W. Bush, Queen Elizabeth and others. Occasionally (and embarrassingly) these get prematurely published. Yesterday, sadly, it was time to publish Nelson Mandela’s.

Here’s where things get interesting. Circa published our storyline almost a year ago: December 8, 2012, to be exact. But this wasn’t premature. The storyline was slugged “Nelson Mandela’s Health.” As many know, Mandela had been in and out of hospitals for much of this year. During that time family members made statements, visited him in the hospital, the world celebrated his 95th birthday and updates on his condition were made public. All of this history was chronicled in the storyline which we had republished (or resurfaced in the news feed) seven different times before yesterday. During each of those iterations new Circa readers were introduced to the storyline, or readers that followed the storyline received updates on the status of Mandela’s health.

At Circa we are incredibly efficient because we don’t have to write the backstory every time there is a development to a story. Once, when I used the Mandela health story as an example of this, pointing out that in the event of his death, we already have the history of his health for the last year pre-written, an editor pointed out that every news organization has an obituary ready for Mandela. True; but there is no relationship between the reader and those unpublished stories. Because those articles are pre-written and can’t be dynamic they were hidden until the moment Mandela passed. Meanwhile, Circa established a relationship with readers to follow the storyline and get updates about Mandela through a living and evolving storyline. It’s a relationship that blossoms over the period of a year. We become the news source through which they follow the story of Mandela and it’s a rich and contextually filled relationship. We can keep track of where they left off in the story so that whenever news does come out, we can provide them the most important information within the context of what they already know. It’s just another example of how the classical process of producing news (the pre-written obituary) doesn’t take advantage of a dynamic and living web.

Circa 2013 Year in Review: The Year’s Top Followed News

Circa 2013 Year in Review

We put a stake in the ground when we started Circa that the metric that would be one of our guiding principles is the “follow.” When a reader follows a storyline with Circa, it tells us they care enough about it that they want to enter into a direct relationship with it, and receive alerts when there’s something new as that specific storyline evolves.

All signs point to desktop news consumption falling further and mobile continuing to grow exponentially, and a unique aspect of using mobile devices is being able to get notified anywhere, anytime. This is both a gift and a curse. We’re now reaching a point of push notification saturation. Our solution is to put the choice in your hands and allow you to decide what’s important enough to push. You could say we have two main goals: to inform and to respect your time while doing it.

As we reach the end of our first full year in existence, we wanted to look back at which stories you decided were important enough to enter into that all important “follow” relationship with. These stories triggered some emotion or interest that caused a great number of you to want to be kept apprised of its development. They are Circa’s biggest stories of 2013 by the metric of ‘follow.”

2013′s Top Followed Circa Storylines

1. Government Fiscal Debate Fall 2013

This storyline could have easily been called “Groundhog’s Day” as we’ve seen this scenario play out before and will likely see it play out again in early 2014. Luckily, our format has the unique advantage of utilizing the history of this ongoing debate to put it all into context.

2. Boston Bombings Investigation

This was one of our first and perhaps defining “breaking news” events we covered in real-time. Previously, the 2012 election was the biggest event we covered but that was something we knew was coming and could plan for. This tested our skill at using the platform to show how we could rely on accuracy over speed. While many others wound up rushing to be first and wrong, we kept our readers up to date without sacrificing our reputation. We are proud to say nothing Circa pushed needed to be corrected later.

Circa Traffic Boston Marathon Bombing

3. Edward Snowden – NSA Leaker

Perhaps the investigative scoop of the year. Circa has followed the saga of the Edward Snowden himself, now living in Russia, as well as the “Snowden effect,” the myriad of revelations Snowden leaked that has become public. It is a spider web of spying and state secrets, but because Circa shows how the storylines are all related, a reader can get context and understand the relationship between PRISM, XKEYSCORE, MUSCULAR, Britain’s role through their spy agency GCHQ and the impact everything is having on technology companies in the U.S. This is perhaps the most “clustered” group of storylines followed only by the group of stories following the Syrian civil war.

4. LAX Shooting-November 2013

This was a story where we wound up doing a lot of primary, direct to source reporting. Our team went directly to the LAPD and to the LA County Coroner to verify information about the shooting to ensure our reporting was rock solid. In breaking news situations like these there’s often a rush to get information out quickly and rely too heavily on other news reports which can sometimes result in the “telephone game” as information either comes from unreliable sources or loses its veracity as it moves through several filters. While we watched most of this play out on social media as many others did, we used that information to inform ourselves but didn’t report what we saw until we could verify it independently. This was another example where we were careful and deliberate and didn’t need to correct information later while others were forced to retract.

5. Fukushima Nuclear Cleanup

It’s an environmental story with lessons for the whole world. It was in following news of the Japanese tsunami in March 2011 when Circa Co-founder Ben Huh first began to realize that “breaking news was broken.” The cleanup efforts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following the tsunami continues to this day, with the constant potential of serious radioactive contamination of the local environment. This storyline, along with our coverage of tsunami debris washing up on U.S. shores, are examples of how the follow feature has value almost three years after an initial event.

6. Super Typhoon Haiyan

It was one of the world’s biggest weather events since Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. The storm enveloped Southeast Asia, with the Philippines bearing the brunt of the storm, the deadliest in the country’s history, leaving 5,719 killed in Haiyan’s wake. We covered the story for nearly a month, and continue to update on the recovery efforts. The residents there have a long way back to return to life before the storm, and we intend to track their journey all the way.

7. Twitter Files For IPO

Perhaps the biggest tech story of the year was the seven year old social networking service, that changed the way many communicate, opening their company to public investment. After Facebook stumbled out of the gate of their own IPO, the NYSE which took the stock to market, sought to learn from their mistakes and were careful to ensure they could handle the large anticipated demand. Our tech editor Nicholas Deleon tracked this story all the way from the moment the company made it known their intentions to go public and explored all the angles of what made Twitter an attractive or risky investment, in the eyes of experts. The IPO event will stand alone, but we’ll continue to update as any new, major moments happen to the stock and company moving forward.

8. Apple’s Rumored Future Lineup

As exciting as Apple keynotes are, they also cause aggravation. Many people flee Twitter to avoid the repetitive nature of their stream as “Stenography Twitter” takes place and everyone repeats the same information just released. One of the many things Circa brings to the table is a way to cut through the noise and simply get what you need to know. We shined by updating our Apple keynote in real-time with just the facts around the new products and by following the story, you could even avoid the keynote entirely and still know exactly when a major moment happened during the event, allowing you to continue your day and be productive yet still be in the know.

9. Gunshots Fired Outside Capitol

In October when we launched Circa News 2 and included breaking news as a new feature, we had no idea how long it would take till the first truly “breaking” news story. Turns out it would be only three hours later when we learned there were shots fired outside of the U.S. Capitol building. Our staff quickly spun into gear, getting a breaking news alert out and simultaneously trying to make sense of what was going on. Nearly half of all readers to the storyline followed it, and received individual updates as they happened in real-time, culminating in no injuries, but one death – that of the shooter whom had a history with depression and mental illness.

10. Obamacare Rollout Begins

We covered the bumpy rollout for the Healthcare.gov website from the moment it was unveiled and delivered all the investigation into what went wrong, along with primary source documents that showed how many anticipated the website would be unable to handle the demand but was released anyway. We’re now covering the effort to fix the issues as the government’s self-imposed deadline just passed on Nov 30th. We’ll continue to track how well the website holds up along with the fight over Obamacare itself among Republicans and Democrats.

Honorable Mentions

Banksy’s NYC Street Art

While it wasn’t necessarily breaking news or even an example we’d have thought of, when Banksy set up shop in New York and began creating guerilla works of art there, the city and art lovers the world around were captivated. Each time Banksy put up a new work Circa had it covered in one singular evolving storyline, and anyone following it got a push notification about it.

Mars Rover Scientific Mission

This one gets an honorable mention simply because it’s one of our favorite storylines here at Circa. We continue to enjoy covering the Mars Curiosity rover as it goes about its scientific mission on the red planet, with each and every new finding ending up as a point inside of this ever-evolving storyline. We love this story so much, the Mars Curiosity rover plays a starring role in our introduction walkthrough for new users.

In closing

Traditionally, media companies have been beholden to the pageview and only more recently they’ve started to say they’re more interested in unique visitors. The ad market is still less mature and thus relies almost exclusively on the pageview as currency. As always, at Circa we’ve set our sights higher and believe that ultimately mobile and “the follow” will win the day, and a big win for news readers.

Anonymous Source-aholics Anonymous — Reporters have to go cold turkey on citing anonymous sources

Mystery man/ Leslie bourne on Flickr (CC/CU)
MYSTERY MAN/ LESLIE BOURNE ON FLICKR (CC/CU)

Two very popular people have been in the news lately: “Senior government official” and “Law enforcement source.”

When you, the reader or viewer, see or hear either of these mysterious figures cited, proceed with caution. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • CNN’s John King and the Associated Press report that the Boston Marathon bombing suspect had been arrested and taken into custody. King based his information on his unnamed “law enforcement source.” The AP never clarified where their false information came from, presumably parroting King or the same “law enforcement source.” They both wound up being wrong.
  • NBC, CBS falsely report that Navy chief petty officer Rollie Chance is the suspected gunman in the Washington Navy Yard shooting. NBC continued to name the wrong suspect even after CBS corrected and didn’t retract until sometime after 1pm.
  • The New York Times, the New York Daily News, Buzzfeed, and once again CNN and the Associated Press falsely report that the Washington Navy Yard Shooter was armed with an AR-15. All of them cited anonymous “law enforcement sources” while Buzzfeed simply created a listicle claiming “The Navy Yard Shooter Used The Same Style Weapon As Sandy Hook and Aurora.” Buzzfeed never bothered to pull the post, instead opting to change the title to“Officials Now Say That The Navy Yard Shooter Did Not Use The Same Style Weapon As Sandy Hook And Aurora” and at the very end of the post add, “The FBI has stated that they officially have no information about Alexis having an AR-15 in his posession during the attacks, contrary to earlier military reports.” The New York Timeslater updated their article but haven’t bothered to inform readers that they removed the reference they had earlier with the false report that the gunman was armed with an AR-15.The New York Daily News even ran the false report of the AR-15 on their cover. The AP’s story online still falsely stated at the time of this article being published that the gunman was carrying an AR-15.

The AP’s online article at the time of this post being published still carried this false report
  • The New York Times became so addicted to the use of anonymous sources in their Syria and New York mayoral race reporting, their own Public Editor called them out on it. She cited one reader’s comment that stated: “As usual, The New York Times is more than glad to help the most powerful leaders in the world get their message out without having to worry about little things about accountability, counterarguments, other facts and various unknowns…”
  • The Associated Presss ran this photo which they stated was related to the Navy Yard shooting. They later retracted the photo after learning it was not related to the shooting. (Update: AP now says the photo was redacted because they couldn’t confirm if the photo was related to the shooting, Buzzfeed has details about how the photo has now been confirmed by AP, who plan to potentially release the photo)

AP ran this image stating it was related to the Navy Yard shooting, it later retracted the photo.

Respect and trust must be earned and every mistake should chip away at the credibility of the organization running these reports. However, I wonder if the average reader or viewer actually remembers these mistakes or if they continue to trust again and again. Jon Stewart provided this depressing commentary:

“The lesson they take from this is, it doesn’t matter how much they betray our trust, we’ll keep coming back.”

I wish he was wrong but I suspect he’s right.

Real Talk: Pondering how headlines became uninformative

On Sept. 5 Techmeme made headlines. Literally. It was the first time that the popular aggregator began writing its own headlines instead of excerpting them. The change is a win for readers and for Techmeme. You can read Gabe Rivera’s reasons for the change here.

tl;dr version: It comes down to understanding what the relationship is that Techmeme has with its readers. Techmeme provides a service where readers get value out of skimming headlines and then leaving the site when they find something they want to read. If Techmeme does a good job, the reader will be loyal and come back. It is a relationship of trust that builds value over time.

So why change in the first place?

Somehow, after almost a decade, the excerpted headlines stopped working for Techmeme. For better or worse headlines evolved and so too must the larger news ecosystem, which Techmeme is a part of. This is not the first post to notice that headlines have evolved:

Take A Minute To Watch The New Way We Make Web Headlines Now.”

Are you a sucker? 8 secrets writers use to trick the smartest readers into reading their shittiest writing, backed by psychology and scienti-logical awesomeness

Somehow the priorities of the new headline schema are out of whack with the priorities of Techmeme. So what is that new schema?

Exit SEO, Enter SMO 

It was only back in 2006 when headlines went through their last evolution. Captured best in the article “This Boring Headline Is Written for Google,” journalists learned that their headlines had to be SEO friendly. We all learned what that meant and the tricks of the trade. SEO was all the rage!

Only six years later SEO is cluttered with black hat actors and while effective in search, these boring headlines are anathema for social sharing.

Enter social media optimization: the idea that you can, through tricks and tactics, increase the virility of content. More people will share the content and the people that see the shared headline will be enticed to click into it – in order to satisfy the emotionally alluring nature of the headline itself. Share, rinse, repeat.

There is a formula for this. I’ve seen the founder of Upworthy write it out with mathematical symbols.  “At Upworthy, the team has tried to boil virality down to this quasi-scientific equation: “Virality = strength of the applicability of content and packaging x shareability of original content x size of distribution + luck.”

These headlines have a schema not to inform, be easily scannable or send you away for more information ala Techmeme. They are designed to go “viral.”  At best, the priorities of a viral headline are meant to entice you to share and reward your friends’ dopamine centers for clicking in.

But just as SEO had a dark side, so too does SMO. These headlines are innately inward looking and self-referential, whereas more traditional headlines would refer to the world in an attempt to quickly inform. The propensity of headlines with a “?” at the end are proof positive.

“Is this the reason why X did y?”

Is the news organization asking me? Shouldn’t they know?!?!

H/T on the image: http://alexshye.wordpress.com/

There is an entire law about why these headlines are bullshit (Betteridge’s law of headlines says if a headline has a ‘?’ in it – the answer is always “no.”)

For a headline scanner, SMO headlines mean the only way to accomplish their goal (of getting a sense of the day’s news) requires lots of clicking into articles, and a lot of potential disappointment (“I actually didn’t care about this”), hence the popularity and humor of HuffPost Spoilers.

 It Comes Down to Relationships: What is Valued and Measured

In the end, it always comes down to money. What is the relationship a publication has with readers and how do they monetize. Of course, in between those two is the all-powerful “metric.” If you are monetizing banner ads, your metric is all about eyeballs. What most publications measure is eyeballs. How long those eyeballs are on a site. How many pages before the eyeballs leave. Everything is about eyeballs.

Headlines aimed at virality are grounded in this metric. They are meant to draw eyeballs in. The reader gets a release of dopamine (filling in the emotional gap the headlines create) and in exchange the publication gets a pair of eyeballs while the gap is closed.

At circa, with the follow function, we measure … people. They are not mere eyeballs. They make a choice to follow a story and we keep track of what they know and don’t know. We keep them up to date on the facts around the storylines they are interested in. That is a relationship that develops and lasts over time.

From a fantastic PaidContent article recently: Metrics can improve newsrooms but only if the culture is ready.”  Please excuse the long excerpt – but when something is good….

Editors worry that the influence of metrics will lead journalism down a path recently skewered by the Onion in which Miley Cyrus’s tongue will always take precedence over military action in Syria. Those editors are right to warn of the unintended impact of thoughtless metrics.

We saw it in medicine when U.S. hospitals agreed to make public their mortality rates in the 1990s. What better metric? However, it turned out that the easiest way to improve mortality rates was to stop admitting the sickest patients (luckily the practice was stopped).

We see it in education, where Atlanta schools superintendents were recently indicted on racketeering charges because they forgot that their goal was not to have the highest test scores but to educate their students. And we see it in publishing, where linkbait, content farms and slideshows are the consequence of chasing pageviews.

In each of these scenarios, people confused what was measurable with what mattered. The purpose of a hospital is not to minimize the number of sick people it deals with, the purpose of education is not to narrow the minds of its students and the purpose of publishing is not to simply make people click more.

In this, the obsession with pageviews has let us all down. Pageviews do not measure the quality of a piece of content or its ability to hold and engage an audience; it’s a measure of the provocativeness of link copy. That’s it. It’s highly gameable, and by separating the metric of success (clicking on the link) from any relation to the content itself, that means the cheapest, most provocative link creator will always have the advantage.”

We have to start questioning what it is we measure. Is it eyeballs, or the relationships we have with real humans (readers)? Is that relationship one-off or does it blossom over time? Does that relationship serve your greater purpose – or just serve a metric?

Headlines should be content, not advertisements for content; the internet equivalent of a carnie caller trying to get you to “step right up, step right up and see the 10 things that will X your awesome day.”

 

The unit of news we all already use

At Circa we “atomize” news or break down news into its “atomic elements.”

At first this may sound like highfalutin nonsensical jargon. But the truth of the matter is that this is something every news organization already does very regularly and that readers are incredibly accustomed to it.

Think about the recent San Francisco International Airport crash. Take a moment to remember the story. What image comes to mind. Is it the one below?

This image was taken by David Eun, a passenger on the flight. It was shared on Path (disclosure: Path CEO Dave Morin is an investor in Circa) and then quickly went viral on various social networks. As a unit of information being shared, it was then inserted into hundreds of news articles about the crash.

Matthew Ingram wrote: “If you don’t like the chaos of breaking news you better stay off Twitter.” It is intentional, but also normal, that in this article Ingram embeds several tweets. Each of these tweets existed as individual units elsewhere. Ingram just brought them together to help tell a story and make a point.

Whether it’s the Tweets of the Boston Police Commissioner or a Facebook post from the brother of the Newtown Elementary School shooter, digital elements which exist outside of news articles are frequently brought into articles on a regular basis. No journalist should blink an eye at this statement. Your average media consumer is savvy enough to understand when an element (or unit) is brought in from another digital source to enrich a story. There are great examples of it, lame examples of it and entire companies built under the presumption that storytellers will want tools to easily create stories out of units of information that come from other platforms ie: Storify.

Other articles have been written about what we internally call “object oriented journalism.” Admittedly this has a tone of geek/jargon to it. The phrase is really one we use internally. But once we explain that tweets, instagram posts, etc., can be thought of as “objects,” it starts to come together. The photo above was an object in hundreds of stories. Any tweet can be used, recombined and reused to form other stories.

One big distinction between how this is practiced by news organizations and Circa is that we do not limit ourselves to assuming the interchangeable bits of information have to come from the “social media” world. We believe that every fact, quote, statistic, event or image is a unit of information that should be identified as a unit whether or not it first was produced by a social media platform. We have a strict sense of every paragraph being “an idea.” Moreover, we can reuse and recombine these ideas and keep track of what a reader has consumed in order to better serve them. This is how we overcome ‘news amnesia.’ It also allows the reader to stay in the mode of consuming ‘bits’ of information rather than an entire article, which is inline with how people already consume information on social media.

The flow of information already happens in bits and bites.

A new metric to count in News: The follow

“If you hopped into a time machine that spat you out sometime between 1996 and now, you could almost pinpoint the year by the words used to describe an organization’s Web traffic. Hits? That would be 1998 or so. Page views? 2003-2005. Unique visitors? 2006-2007. Odds are that 2008-2009 is going to be the year of ‘time spent,’ as in, ‘an average user spends four minutes and thirty-five seconds on our site.’”

Much has changed since I wrote that for Columbia Journalism Review in April 2008. I applaud efforts that are trying to push the boundaries in what we count and how we count it. The social web has made “sharing” often called “engagement” a new and important metric.

In any case – metrics matter because what you count determines what you sell to advertisers and how you make money.

Engagement, even if we have trouble defining how to measure it, has value either because it bolsters a bottom-line metric (that can be monetized) or because “engagement” helps advance the relationship between the publication and readers. Some in the media space say relationships formed through “engagement” are more valuable than other metrics like “clicks” (eyeballs). If you ask journalism professor and media pundit Jeff Jarvis; journalists are in the relationship business.

So what does it mean to have a relationship with a reader? Can this even be measured?

At Circa we’ve created a unique relationship with readers through the “follow” feature. The feature creates a unique measurement of a story’s performance and it is at the very heart of how we try to serve readers.

The “follow” is a metric of what our readers know

Our “leaderboard” has classic stats based more or less on “eyeballs” but it also includes a “follow” count. We can see how many people have “followed” a story in the last hour, the last 24 hours and how many have unfollowed (happily always our lowest number). The follow count doesn’t represent “eyeballs” to monetize with banner ads but rather relationships. Each follow is a decision by a reader to keep in touch, for us to keep track of what they know and alert them when something new happens they aren’t aware of. From an editorial perspective – that’s valuable information which allows us to serve a reader better. It also lets us know exactly how many devices will be alerted when we update a story. It’s not a theory about what we need to do to make something “engaging” – it’s a number and each number is a unique person that will get the update.

It leads to counterintuitive examples of success. With each push during the week of the Boston Marathon bombing we found a rush of readers come back to the app. But we also found that the time they spent on the app decreased after their first visit. This makes perfect sense, however, since we highlighted the new information and the readers understood that if it wasn’t highlighted – it was information they already knew and didn’t need to spend time on. If we were a publisher that had to monetize time spent, we’d be in trouble and might come up with listicles, “analysis” or other tricks to increase eyeballs and return visits. But if we are an organization that puts value in the ongoing relationship – we are in luck, because we found with every push the reader came back trusting that we would provide just the latest information and wouldn’t waste their time.

To the extent that Circa is an experiment in changing how we deliver news, it has also required us to rethink and experiment with what metrics are of value and why.

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