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Circa looks at news the way other companies look at code — as something to build with

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There’s been plenty of talk in media circles about how the “story” needs to be disrupted, so that news can be rendered in a way that makes more sense for a real-time, digital and mobile age — but so far all we have is more listicles and slideshows, or streams of headlines that mimic a wire service. About the only company that is really trying hard to disrupt the idea of a news story from the inside out is Circa, the news startup co-founded (and funded) by Cheezburger founder Ben Huh, and it is doing so by thinking about news the way programmers think about code, or scientists think about atoms.

Circa founding editor Dave Cohn talked about the company’s approach in a recent interview with Fast Company Labs, which has been running a series on technology and the news industry. He described it as “object-oriented journalism,” a term used by journalism professor and media theorist Jeff Jarvis in discussions about how the traditional story format needs to be re-engineered (and an idea that actually dates back to at least 1997, as Cohn noted on Twitter).

That analogy in turn comes from the “object-oriented software” movement, which got its start in the 1970s and 80s, and was designed to make programming easier and more efficient by using the concept of data objects — which could then be assembled based on certain rules into higher-level software packages.

This is about as unsexy a metaphor as you could possibly come up with, but it fits the Circa model. The service breaks stories down into their component parts — it sees individual facts themselves as the atomic unit of the news, or the objects that need to be manipulated in order to convey information as efficiently as possible. That allows Circa to dispense with the traditional media habit of recapitulating all of the old details about a story in every version, which is massively inefficient. As Cohn puts it:

“I call it news amnesia. If you do articles, you have to do this since you need something new today. I think it’s as frustrating for journalists as it is for the readers. What we do is say ‘Here’s the latest fact and the story it belongs in.’ Maybe it belongs in two stories. We will then point these stories to each other.”

A related innovation at Circa — which recently hired former Reuters social-media editor Anthony De Rosa to be its editor-in-chief — is the idea of “following” a story, which allows the service to notify users when there is a new fact or update to a developing news event. This is not only more efficient for Circa itself, Cohn suggests, but also more efficient for readers as well.

The idea of “object-oriented journalism” isn’t the only connection between Circa and the world of programming: Cohn notes that the co-founders of Circa wanted to take what Github has done for programming and code — that is, created an open repository where developers can “fork” software projects to create their own, or add their own suggestions to an existing project — and apply the same principles to news.

So could Circa’s database of fact objects eventually be extended in the same way, allowing readers or even other news outlets to “fork” a story or recombine those elements in a different way? That remains to be seen, but Cohn said the service is already thinking about incorporating other atomic units of news, such as tweets, and De Rosa suggested that Circa may even start doing its own original reporting on the news stories it picks up and atomizes.

Embedded below is a video clip from our paidContent conference in April of Circa co-founder and CEO Matt Galligan talking about what the company does:

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / violetkaipa

2 Responses to “Circa looks at news the way other companies look at code — as something to build with”

  1. Benny

    This isn’t an innovation. This is a privatized form of RSS. The literal definition of an RSS feed item is an `object` which can be `followed` (“subscribed to”). Circa has privatized, branded, and productized RSS feeds — and, while I think this is impressive in itself, I think that Circa does NOT deserve the title of “innovator” when it comes to delivering news through subscription-capable feeds.

    And, for the sake of argument, Flipboard does exactly what you describe — delivers a UX around news `objects` — and also supports open RSS feeds as well (and in my opinion, an RSS reader by itself is far more advanced than Circa in terms of the massive amounts of content it can proliferate, as well as the huge potential such accessible data has in many markets).

  2. Olivier Travers

    We’ve worked precisely from development-inspired principles at Defense Industry Daily for about 7 years, years before Google’s “Living Stories” experiment and obviously way before Circa was created. We incorporate breaking news, timelines, data charts/tables, pictures and videos, and supporting online sources, into one-stop-shop ongoing articles in a way that you won’t see anywhere else. We “refactor” our articles rather than rewrite a variation of the same article again and again.

    Granted, we’re a trade publication in a very specific niche (defense procurement) rather than a general news site/app, but it would be nice to see media observers cover more than the usual suspects. Mathew, I’m happy to walk you some of our articles to show you how it works and the thinking behind it ([email protected]).