When the news-summarizing startup Summly shut down last March, it was easy to imagine the company had simply been swallowed by the Yahoo machine. Like so many founders before him, Nick D’Aloisio had sold his company to Yahoo only to see it shuttered soon after. Its core technology was absorbed into Yahoo’s news app less than a month later, used to summarize the day’s events. That was the last we heard from D’Aloisio, who sold Summly to Yahoo for a reported $30 million at the age of 17 — until today.
On stage at Yahoo’s keynote, D’Aloisio revealed the project that has occupied him throughout his final year of secondary school. Yahoo News Digest is a sleek, highly visual app that presents you with 10 or so algorithmically generated news stories from Yahoo’s network, twice a day: once in the morning, and once in the evening, in a rhythm that mimics the way people once read morning and afternoon newspapers. "We don't think this is a new paradigm," D'Aloisio says, in an interview with The Verge. "We just think we've done it right for mobile." Yahoo selects stories for the digest using a combination of algorithms and human editors, and sends you a push notification when your digest is ready. The result is one of the best-looking, and most quietly provocative, newsreading apps we have seen in some time.
One of the most quietly provocative newsreading apps we've seen
In one respect, Yahoo News Digest represents the continuation of an effort to rethink news consumption that D’Aloisio began when he started Summly at the age of 15. But the app is also a radical departure from Yahoo’s usual style. For starters, it eschews personalization in favor of strict curation — everyone in the United States will receive the same digest, regardless of their location. "We’re not saying these are things you’re going to be interested in," D’Aloisio says. "We’re saying, these are the things you need to know about." And at a higher level, News Digest offers a direct rebuke to the fundamental design principle of the Web 2.0 era — the endless scrolling feed.
The forthcoming decline of news streams is an idea that has lately gotten some traction amongst tech thinkers. Writing in The Atlantic last month, Alexis Madrigal lamented that the activity streams popularized by Facebook and Twitter have become "the organizing metaphor for the web." "It is easier to read Ulysses than it is to read the internet," Madrigal wrote. " "Because at least Ulysses has an end, an edge. Ulysses can be finished. The internet is never finished."
D’Aloisio had reached a similar conclusion earlier this year, after he had become a product manager at Yahoo working in London. Unusually for someone his age, D’Aloisio is quick to say that print newspapers had the right idea: giving their readers a sense of completion when they finish paging through one. "People have this information overload," he says. "They’re checking too many sources. They’re a bit tired of having to go through streams and streams of information, never having a sense of completion."
Green means go: you're done
Yahoo News Digest aims to bring back the satisfaction that comes with finishing something. The app presents stories in brief, digestible chunks of text, punctuated by photos, maps, tweets, and other visual elements. Swiping to the right will take you through the day’s stories, and when you’re done a whimsical animation transforms the mostly black-and-white background into a lime-green shade. The green means go: you’re done. (News junkies can read more stories if they like, by scrolling past the green "Done" box at the bottom of the digest feed to find additional stories curated by Yahoo’s algorithms. But most people probably won’t go beyond the digest — and D’Aloisio is counting on it.
News Digest differs sharply from apps like Flipboard, Circa, and Prismatic, which sift through a seemingly infinite number of links and try to help you find ones you would not have seen otherwise. But developers tend to overstate the value of their algorithms — how hard is it, really, to find an interesting link on the internet that your reader hasn’t yet seen? Over time, newsreading apps can come to feel exhausting, or even depressing — vast caches of content you will never get around to reading, and couldn’t finish even if you tried.
And Yahoo has embraced those endless streams as much as anyone else. The company redesigned its heavily trafficked home page last year to include an endless feed, and its flagship news app (called simply "Yahoo") received a similar update. (That app will continue to be developed independently; it’s aimed at a different market, Yahoo says.) If Madrigal is right, and streams are on their way out, News Digest’s design could have implications that resonate throughout Yahoo’s product lineup.
Which isn’t to say the app doesn’t have room for improvement. News Digest places a visual emphasis on "atoms," which is what Yahoo calls story elements like photos, Wikipedia entries, and relevant tweets. Each atom gets an icon, and all the atoms appear underneath every story in which they feature. It’s designed to give you an at-a-glance look at how visually rich a given story will be, but in practice it doesn’t much matter: the idea is that you’re going to swipe through every story anyway. The atom icons feel beside the point.
"There's something about this app that is really calming to me."
For now, the app is iPhone-only, though Yahoo will consider bringing it to Android — and to tablets —depending on the response. At launch, the app will be available only in the United States. Yahoo News Digest is currently free of advertising, but the company has outlined ways to monetize it in the future.
In the meantime, Yahoo News Digest is the boldest and most visually impressive app the company has released since Yahoo Weather last year. If it succeeds, it could lead other developers away from streams and to experiences with definitive endings. "There’s something about this app that is really calming to me," D’Aloisio says. "A feed that scrolls forever can be engrossing. But there’s a lot to be said for an app that helps you get on with your life.