Summary:

Among a host of apps and services that are designed to give readers a short take on breaking news that they can read on a mobile device, Circa says it is different because its short news updates are essentially building a long-form news story over time

There have been a flurry of new apps and services released recently that are aimed at giving users short hits on breaking news, from Jason Calacanis’s Inside app to Yahoo’s new Tech News app, which is based on its acquisition of algorithm-driven startup Summly. Circa, a mobile-news startup we’ve written about a number of times, often gets lumped in with this growing group of services because the updates it sends on news stories tend to be short — but co-founder and CEO Matt Galligan says what Circa is up to is actually quite different.

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.

“There are all these competitors coming into the space, and everybody seems to be chasing the same thing, which is short. But to me that’s just the veneer of what we do — it was never the end goal. We try to give people the minimum amount of information necessary at a given time, but what happens is Circa ends up being sort of like long-form, but over time.”

This happens because Circa delivers multiple updates or “points,” as it calls them, over the days and weeks and even months that a story continues to develop. For the company — which was funded, and co-founded, by Ben Huh of I Can Has Cheezburger as a way of rethinking how journalism works on a mobile device — the “point” is the atomic unit of news, the smallest viable piece of content. But like atoms, those pieces can be used to build a broader story by adding them together and giving readers the ability to follow the story as it grows.

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David Cohn, director of news for Circa, explains this approach by using the example of a story about the ongoing Syrian civil war. The story is currently composed of 17 discrete points or updates that have been delivered to users who have chosen to follow the story — but it also includes more than 70 additional points that have been “retired” or removed as the story has unfolded over time. Points or updates are retired when new information makes them obsolete or untrue, Cohn says, but that information has still been consumed by readers.

So someone who has been following the story since Circa first created it in 2012 would have gotten almost 100 points or updates about the Syrian civil war — and that’s just one of several different stories on different aspects of the issue. Based on the length of an average update or point, Cohn says, that amounts to reading a more traditional news story of almost 5,000 words over the lifespan of that topic.

“Granted, it’s not sitting down and reading 4,500 words in one classic long form article. But it provides depth and a rich understanding of the issue that is developed over time and appreciates the nuances of history unfolding over time.”

One of the reasons why I’m so interested in Circa is that this modular approach — combined with the “follow” feature the company introduced when it launched in 2012 — is one of the first real attempts to rethink and/or innovate around how we consume news now, and particularly on a mobile device. And Galligan and Cohn are right that it is (or at least arguably should be) about more than just giving people short news hits so they can feel like they are informed. It’s about giving people content in different ways that make sense for them.

Jeff Jarvis has written a lot about how the “story” format that we associate with newspapers and most online news is outdated, and needs to be rethought for the way we consume news now, and I think he is right. And one of the ways of rethinking it is to break it down into its component parts or atomic units, which is what Circa is trying to do. Whether it will catch on remains to be seen.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Yuriy Chaban

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