New app Timeline brings explainer journalism to mobile

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It’s the era of explainer journalism and we have a new entrant to the list. Mobile app Timeline seeks to give you historical, on-the-go context about breaking news, current events, and random stuff. It’s like Wikipedia meets Circa meets Vox meets The History Channel, and it’s addictive.

Timeline launched a few weeks ago. In the way that Circa built a new, on-the-go format for a news story with its bite-sized cards feature, Timeline is creating a fresh form of explainer journalism, one that’s mobile first.

Here’s how it works. The home feed of Timeline shows you a list of potential stories to scroll through. The topics range from fairly evergreen, like “The surprisingly tumultuous history of socks,” to newsy, like “California’s vaccination problem,” to pop culture-y, like “Super Bowl ads reveal U.S. psyche.” They leave a curiosity gap, one that’s not too clickbaity, prompting readers to click for more.

Screenshots from the homescreen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day's stories

Screenshots from the home screen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day’s stories

On its individual story pages, Timeline presents a quick “in brief” summary of the news or the topic at hand. Then readers can choose to skim the content in the overview timeline format or click to read each section more in depth. Videos, imagery, and pull quotes lend a stylish, magazine-like air to the design and break up the chunks of text. Depending on the topic, the timeline can extend months, decades or even hundreds of years into history.

For now, Timeline has hired professional writers to write the posts, so the historical context is easier to understand and more enlightening than the jumbled, jargon-filled text of a Wikipedia post.

For example, the timeline on the history of Super Bowl ads considered the larger so-what of why these ads matter to America: “When viewed with a discerning eye, these commercials reveal the American zeitgeist at the time: What is valued, what is feared and what is accepted as common knowledge.”

Timeline taps into what makes Wikipedia addictive — this swirling vortex of information about random things you never thought about before — and makes it mobile-friendly. Instead of perusing Instagram while you wait in line, perhaps you’ll be tempted to tap on Timeline.

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Is Timeline taking on Circa or Wikipedia?

At first glance, the app’s nearest rival might seem to be mobile news app Circa, but that’s not really the case. Circa focuses on breaking news. People encountering the news for the first time can peruse previous updates on the issue, but the timeline isn’t historical in scope. “Ultimately, I don’t consider us a news organization, I consider us an information organization,” CEO Tamer Hassanein told me. “I would compare us more to Wikipedia than the New York Times or Quartz.”

The Timeline app frequently tackles evergreen or feature topics and doesn’t aim to cover breaking news unless its historical back story is compelling to one of the curators.

Of course, that limits the amount of information the app can offer. Hassanein hopes to eventually scale up to a user-generated content system, but that will come with a host of fact-checking and accountability dilemmas. The app is deliberately avoiding controversial topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict until it solidifies its editorial strategy.

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Does anyone want explainer journalism on the go?

Sites like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and the New York Times’ The Upshot were all created that under the premise that in the noisy digital journalism age, we needed more background on breaking news. But it’s proven difficult to explain context accurately while under the time crunch of the rapid fire Internet era. Since Timeline isn’t focused on breaking news, it might be able to avoid that problem.

Timeline’s real struggle may come in the form of app store noise. Despite the addictive nature of the app, its initial premise is a tough sell to the procrastination masses. Surf history instead of Kim Kardashian selfies during your down time? Not a sexy pitch.

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