Circa’s David Cohn on writing mobile-first news by Susan Johnston

Posted on December 11, 2012

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When the much-ballyhooed news app Cir.ca launched in October some reviewers predicted it would change the way we consume news. Others wrote less favorably about the company, which raised $750,000 in seed funding, and its (currently) free product. Cir.ca is a new type of hybrid—original content produced by curating, cutting together and commenting on other outlets’ work. It’s neither a news outlet with a mobile-friendly app or a reader-style Flipboard clone. Instead, Cir.ca aims to create a new type of news format that can keep up with, even benefit from, the information overload that typically accompanies a breaking story rapidly spreading across the media and social networks. And it’s native to the iPhone, not a transplant from another platform.

Cir.ca has a small newsroom but relies primarily on other sites’ content. Download the Cir.ca app and you’ll see news stories which are boiled down to the barest essentials for reading on an iPhone. You can follow stories to receive push notifications with updates. Looking for traditional links and attribution? With Cir.ca you need to hover over a special icon to see where the information came from.

Ebyline recently talked to founding editor David Cohn (whose last startup, Spot.us, gained a following) about writing mobile-first news, covering Sandy and pushing the industry forward. Excerpts of that conversation follow.

How does the editorial process at Circa compare to more traditional news outlets?

At Cir.ca we don’t write articles. We do tell stories, but we don’t tell it in the format of an article. And that story is comprised of different information like statistics or quotes or facts or images or events where we would pinpoint something on a map.

Every single one of our editorial team has touched the story of Sandy at one point or time, because it is constantly going 24 hours and evolving over the course of two weeks-plus. So we had the story of power outages, the story of deaths. We had a story on the transit issues. So every day during the power outages, we didn’t write new articles about the power outages, we just added to what we knew about that power outage at that time or changed the number of people that did or didn’t have power. In the end, I think we ended up having maybe 30 different stories about Sandy.

How does Cir.ca measure engagement? Is it people clicking on headlines or how often they’re opening the app and following stories? What do you think is most telling?

It’s a little early right now because we’re looking for a different kind of user behavior, which is that idea of following a story. People are familiar with the idea of following RSS feeds and people are also familiar with following individuals or companies on Twitter or Facebook. But the idea of following a story is kind of different. And so for me, I’m most interested in how many people are following the story.

There has been some discussion online about whether the type of writing that you’re doing is aggregation or curation. What are your thoughts on that?

I would call it curation just because it is very thoughtful. And in some respects, it’s almost its own kind of reporting. It’s not necessarily feet-on-the-ground reporting but it is original research. With things like the election, we’re all working off of the same sort of data and information, the different counties’ reporting and things like that.

How do you think Cir.ca might impact the news industry in the long term?

There are a lot of mobile readers like Flipboard or Pulse but they’re more [like] technology that is taking content and putting it in a wrapper. We’re actually creating content, and we’re putting it in our own wrapper as well but we are as much a news operation as we are a technology operation. And I think, in a larger picture, if you take a look at the way we’re sort of rethinking content, I would like to think that we’re pushing the boundaries with the larger industry to rethink the way we package content in general and the way we present information.

Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.