Today Circa launched its mobile news app to the public after being in stealth mode since December 2011. The free iOS app was built to be a mobile-first news reader, and presents stories as flash cards populated with maps, stats, and short descriptions, rather than as a summary that links to a longer article. The content is provided by Circa’s 12-person editorial team, and is designed to help readers get a quick snapshot of a news story, rather than an in-depth text article.
The company is founded by former SimpleGeo and SocialThing founder Matt Galligan and Cheezburger founder Ben Huh. In a blog post announcing the launch, Galligan said that Circa aims to fix what he believes is the poor user experience often offered by news outlets on mobile devices, saving users from endlessly zooming and scrolling, while also providing a concise and constantly-updated look at breaking news.
Galligan said in an interview with BetaKit that they decided to build an app based on custom content rather than aggregating existing articles and multimedia because their approach to reporting the news relies on curation by a team of editors. “We don’t believe that an algorithm can authentically produce the kind of coverage that we’re looking for,” Galligan said in an interview.
Circa’s flash card-style article format means that users get a quick snapshot of any event, and can swipe to see each point or view citations to dive in deeper. Readers can also subscribe to updates and receive push notifications anytime an article is updated, so they could for example follow an event like yesterday’s Red Bull Stratos space jump and get notifications when Felix Baumgartner jumped, when he landed safely, and any other important details as they crop up.
To go along with its consumer-facing app, the company also built a content management system for its team of journalists. Galligan said they built it to cater to the structure of the stories, each of which is comprised of different data points, whether a quote, map, or fact. Each of those points has a separate entry in the backend and can be applied to multiple news events, so for example one quote could appear in multiple stories. “We had to built this custom because it couldn’t just be one big box, every single point has its own entry on the backend and we had to build a sophisticated system to be able to make that work,” he said.
Galligan told TechCrunch in 2011 that he wanted Circa to change the way breaking news is written, distributed, and read. Early buzz included speculation that the company would be a WordPress-like content management system, and Galligan was quick to say that it wasn’t another social news app or aggregator a la Flipboard and Pulse. While the end result is displayed differently, ultimately the app is a mobile news reader in the same vein as those social readers and others like Prismatic, which debuted an iPhone app in August, albeit Circa features custom content rather than aggregated feeds from third-party sources.
The idea for Circa is based on Huh’s The Moby Dick Project, which he outlined in a blog post in May 2011. In that post he said that consuming news is broken because editors quote from other articles to flesh out coverage, which can be redundant for readers. He also said the front page mentality of a newspaper doesn’t apply to the web, and that there’s too much pressure to drive traffic rather than create quality content.
Since it’s a free app, Circa will face the same challenge as so media organizations today: providing quality content while also making money. Galligan said they will be exploring several monetization options down the road, potentially including native advertising, or products on the back-end that wouldn’t impact the reader’s experience, similar to Bloomberg’s professional services. He also said licensing the platform to media organizations so they can create their own stories on the app is a possibility.
Circa provides a fresh approach to how people report on and consume news on their mobile devices, but becoming a reader’s go-to app will mean luring them away from the sources they already visit on a daily basis, from individual publications’ native apps, to topic-based mobile news readers like Prismatic, which lets users browse the news by source or keyword. And it also limits its pool of readers to iPhone users, though Galligan said they’ll be branching out to additional platforms in the future.
The company, which has $900,000 in funding to date, has a lofty goal of recreating the way people consume and create news. While it’s trying to be different than the news aggregator du jour, it will still face an uphill battle in trying to get readers, and ultimately advertisers or customers, to buy into the idea.