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"Following a story is unique to us, and you can’t do that with a summary": pioneer David Cohn on Circa, copycats - and Candy Crush

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"Following a story is unique to us, and you can’t do that with a summary": pioneer David Cohn on Circa, copycats - and Candy Crush

At the forefront of the movement since it began, he has been involved in a number of innovative projects such as AssignmentZero and  He has written for a variety of publications and was a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s journalism school.

He spoke to the World Editors Forum's Nick Toner about Circa’s plans for the future, how news organisations can adapt to the mobile world, and revealed his personal favourite apps.

Has anyone successfully copied Circa?

Cohn: “I’ve seen some organisations and some attempts…I wouldn’t want to say copying but trying to sort of capture some of the same things that we’re doing. A lot of the focus is on brevity. It’s true that Circa is brief, but that’s not what makes Circa unique or what makes Circa work. Again, from our point of view, what makes Circa different is that we structure stories. We’re not doing summaries – I’ve seen a lot of summary apps, for example.

We make a distinction between summaries and stories. A summary of the Boston marathon bombing would be like: two brothers set off bombs at the end of the Boston marathon, there was a chase, one was killed, one was captured. And that’s a fair summary. But that’s not really a good story. So we tell stories by breaking down the facts, the quotes, the statistics, the events, the images, and threading them together. I’ve seen a lot of apps that are doing summaries, and I think they have some of the same aesthetic, maybe, as Circa, and because they’re brief and short, the way Circa stories are brief and concise, people think that they’re kind of the same but we make a distinction, we think they’re very different.

For example, the biggest thing is you can follow stories on Circa, and to my knowledge we’re still the only one that allows you to follow stories in that way, you can follow topics and hashtags in other apps, other organisations but following a story is unique to us, and you can’t do that with a summary.”

Does Circa have long-term plans for European expansion?

Cohn: “[Circa] is admittedly US-centric in terms of the content, and the audience - they’re hand-in-glove. We try to take an international approach in that we cover a lot of international stories, but they are international stories that we think are interesting or important to an American audience. We do want to expand, though; we can very easily imagine situations where either we grow as an editorial force, or we partner with other editorial forces around the world. So we can partner with a German-speaking publication, Italian-speaking publication, Spanish-speaking etc, or I could also imagine an English-speaking partnership that is more European focused, whether it be England or something like that. Through partnership we would really create a kind of co-operative. That’s something we have talked about. We’re further away from that than we are from, say, launching a sponsored content kind of thing for our current American audience, but that is something we are thinking about – how does this grow globally.”

What should news organisations should consider when going mobile?

Cohn: “What are the use cases and who’s the competition? Because it’s not actually other news organisations. I don’t think that Circa’s competition is NYT Now or, you know – name your mobile news app. I think it’s Flappy Bird, I think it’s Candy Crush. Those are the things people default to and there’s been recent studies that have come in terms of the amount of time, and people spend more time now on their mobile than they do on the desktop and they really use only a handful of apps – four, six, something like that…If you’re not in one of those few top apps then you’re not going to be used.

The other thing that’s important to keep in mind is the context in which people use mobile phones. It’s very different, they touch it many times throughout the day, it’s the first thing and the last thing that they usually touch, but it’s very short periods of time. Their mental state is different than the mental state that they might be in when people would grab a newspaper or even go on a desktop to read news. And so we have to think about the content in that way and present it differently. 

There [are] two aspects to this: one is the design and the aesthetics, which of course have to be different, but I think that there is something to be said about the form and the structure being different as well, to try and meet these needs. At Circa, there’s an aesthetic to it – we’re working on the 3.0 which is going to be even cleaner and crisper, but there’s also a change in the structure of news for Circa. We break down stories into what we call atomic units, they come out as cards, and we tell the stories by threading those together.”

What's the role of native advertising at Circa?

Cohn: “We don’t do it now, and when we do roll it out it will be transparent, so people will be able to easily distinguish visually what is paid-for, sponsored content versus our editorial content. Imagine a story in Circa that is sponsored. There is another Avengers movie coming out, Avengers 2. So imagine that is a story on Circa – “Avengers 2 is going to come out in 2015”. People can follow that story, the same way people can follow our editorial content, and that way when Marvel or whoever is the company behind the Avengers, want to tease and release a new image of Captain America doing something or a new video clip of the trailer, or whatever they want to do to tell the ongoing story of the release of the Avengers 2 they can do that and those updates will go right to people’s phones. So that would be the way those advertisements are going to work. It would be more valuable than a banner ad because there’s a relationship that builds over time with people who follow those threads.”

What's your personal favourite app?

Cohn: “There’s really obvious ones like Facebook, Twitter, things like that. I use, which has an interesting app which is for personal finances. ...As a result of working at Circa, for work, I use something called Trello, they have a decent app that we use for work so I can get stuff done from my mobile phone. Quip, that’s another one. Those are productivity apps, I use them a lot.”

Photo credit: David Cohn


Nick Toner


2014-09-01 12:24

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