There are many aspects of Circa that are entirely unique. For example – we believe our design approach is particularly well suited for a mobile news experience. But the fact that we’ve designed the reading experience for mobile is itself not a unique strategy. While we know our careful attention to design sets us apart from many other mobile news apps – that alone is not what makes us different.
Rather – the big “so what” about Circa is how we’ve changed the form of news itself. The building blocks of news for Circa are different and what makes us newsworthy (pun intended) lies beneath the surface.
We don’t produce news in a traditional article form, but we do tell stories. Circa’s stories are a combination of “points” or individual updates. Media thought-leader Jeff Jarvis refers to these as “assets.” We tend to think of them as the “atomic units of news.”
Points in Circa might be facts, statistics, quotes, events and images. One can imagine other “atomic units” of news as we don’t claim our list is exhaustive and we may add more in the future. But the idea is that constraints about what can be included in a Circa story optimizes the content to be comprehensive, concise, and factual. There is no “opinion,” “deep thought,” or “analysis” atomic unit of news.
Step one is simple enough – we break down the news into atomic units – providing clarity and saving the reader time. It’s certainly a different way to tell news stories – but not necessarily by itself mind-blowing (although it can allow for mind-blowing data manipulation detailed here).
Remember – we don’t write articles, we tell stories. We try and capture the stories that represent the national zeitgeist of the day, the week, the month and so on. This is to say – the news cycle is not “24-hours.” We don’t start every day with news amnesia. When a story lasts for several days or weeks – it’s still just one story. We don’t write about week-long stories in a series of repetitious articles.
Let’s take a simple example: the skydiver who recently jumped from 24 miles above the earth (the stratosphere). His jump was delayed twice before finally making the plunge on a Sunday. With each time he postponed, most news organizations produced an entirely new article. Each article had to contain the same background information with just one additional bit of information – the fact that his jump was postponed and a new date was set. With Circa, this wasn’t the case. We produced a new point with each update but the background information was already there. More importantly, if you were returning to the story and had already read the points previously produced, the App would recognize that and jump you ahead to what is new. If you are brand new to the story – that’s okay as well – Circa starts you at the beginning with all the background information so the latest points make sense.
This addresses a problem typically found in reading news – context. Different readers have different knowledge about different topics. Is it reasonable to serve the “new” reader and the “returning” reader with the same content? Currently the “day two” article, as crafted as it is, can waste the time of returning readers or leave new readers in the dark. It certainly doesn’t account for the way people live their lives – often dipping in and out of news consumption.
As you may have gathered from the example above, our format gives us unique opportunities for additional functionality. This includes our “follow” feature where a reader can subscribe to the granular news updates within a story – something that is brand new to reading the news. Sure – we can all follow entities (individuals or businesses, etc.) on Twitter or Facebook or follow the RSS feeds (or social media channels) of news organizations – some with very strong niches. We can even follow a hashtag on Twitter to get a flood of information about a topic.
None of these, however, are individual stories that might evolve on their own.
As a juxtaposition: one can follow #election on Twitter but that is not a story. Rather, it’s more akin to a firehouse of information that is topically related. We could probably do that as well at Circa – but then we couldn’t claim to be telling stories. A point about Obama’s poll numbers would appear next to an image of Obama at the U.N. – because #obama is related.
A Circa story includes thoughtfulness around the ordering of points, the experience for new/returning readers, what to/not include, and ways to get additional context.
Along those lines, the additional context is provided by a feature that appears in the app as “Related Stories,” and provide us as storytellers with a very unique tool.
We’ve talked about the relationship of a reader with a story over time. But what about the relationship of different stories to each other?
Stories aren’t topics (as mentioned above). Naturally they will have limits about what is/isn’t included, and sometimes stories may simply exist to provide background for others.
The continuing investigation about what happened at the U.S. consulate in Libya on Sept 11th is an ongoing story. If you didn’t follow the chain of events in Libya/Cairo and much of the Middle East that week – then the “ongoing investigation” would seem like foreign speak. But at any time in Circa we can “bridge” to a story that already exists or create one to give proper background. These are what Jeff Jarvis calls “paths.”
For example: the first point in the Circa story on the Libya Investigation is a fact that reads: “Emails sent hours after the attack specifically said the militant group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others…”
‘What attack in Libya? Wait, who died?’ a new reader might wonder. But there is a Related Story that we bridge to at the bottom of that point which goes over the details of that tragic event. One tap away, the reader can get all the background on what happened in Libya. The uninformed reader might then read a point in that original consulate attack story that references the anti-Muslim video. Want details on that? No problem – just follow the bridge to the story that goes into detail about the video, its making and more. Perhaps while reading that story you got curious about the now named filmmaker. Want to learn more? Follow the bridge in that point to the ongoing story about Nakoula Nakoula and his criminal court case. You probably get the point.
As you can see – natural clusters of stories exist and we hope to find many ways to surface these clusters. But the point remains, these bridges allow a reader to get a much better understanding of stories over time. They’ll also allow a reader to “go forward” as a story transitions into something new.
Take, for example, the extradition of terrorist suspects from the UK to the United States. That story lasted a few days and eventually “ended” with their extradition to the U.S. But happened next? Their court cases began. The story of these individuals in court, however, is an entirely different story. A new point was added to the extradition story (alerting anyone following it) which contained a bridge to the new story about their court case. If that’s a story you don’t seem to really care about, then you might not want to follow this new story. That is a unique kind of reader filtering that story bridges tend to allow. It also gives a unique storytelling tool for our editorial team. We can bridge “back” for background or “forward” to show a story is transitioning.
Circa’s editors are not necessarily doing the original reporting for our stories, but they are always producing original content that involves original research – something that is reflected in our source citation.
Taking the lead from “transparency is the new objectivity” points in Circa are cited. This serves two purposes.
First – it’s part of the “link economy.” If somebody wants to to read an article, document, tweet, or whatever we sourced, great. We don’t want to trap readers or pretend like we are the end-all-be-all of news and information. That’s just silly.
More importantly – it provides a sense of accountability and trust. How can a reader believe what they are consuming on Circa? We show them why and they can judge for themselves if they think we are using trustworthy sourcing. Every point has a reason – every point has a source. This is a unique level of transparency. News organizations rely on each other for information all the time. If they are forward-thinking they will often acknowledge it with a link. We acknowledge it with every atomic unit of news, with every building block that makes up a Circa story. It is part of our essence to source every fact, quote, event, image, stat. We don’t include information that we can’t back up in a transparent fashion.
Circa will constantly evolve as an app and we’re dedicated to improving our design and feature set. We’re also incredibly committed to expanding and improving our content. But the base upon which we are expanding is fundamentally different from the way traditional stories are told. With that in mind – there is no telling exactly how the concept will grow. But we do believe the idea of breaking news down into discrete points, following stories, and more is an idea whose time has come.