A front page led by the day’s biggest news. A selection of stories, chosen by editors, arranged more or less by importance. And inside, a bundle of sections highlighting various subjects: arts and entertainment, business, technology, and health. That describes a newspaper, the beloved but fading institution that has spent the past decade hollowing itself out. But it also describes Circa, the news app that announced today it’s shutting down. And in those similarities lay the seeds of its failure.
Circa was founded in 2011 as an effort to improve the experience of reading news on mobile devices. "A lot of what we’re doing is entirely new and I don’t say that lightly," founder Matt Galligan told TechCrunch at the time. Circa arrived early at the idea that the mobile web is a slow and unsatisfying place to read the news. The app that emerged involved a staff of human editors identifying stories, breaking them into a series of easily digestible sentences, and then adding to or rearranging them as the story developed. A certain high-mindedness crept into its rhetoric. "We’re trying to make it so that people educate themselves for 5 minutes as opposed to play Angry Birds," Galligan said.
Arriving early at the idea that the mobile web is slow and unsatisfying
Its most original and useful feature was a "follow" button that let you subscribe to individual news stories, then receive push notifications as events unfolded. (I used Circa for this purpose after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 last year.) Circa would also broadcast notifications for big breaking news to all of its users, often beating everyone but Twitter to the story. (Sometimes this got them in trouble with sports fans.)
Investors including Tumblr's David Karp put more than $5 million into Circa, and because it raised money like a tech startup, it had to talk like one. And so it boasted about its "object-oriented" approach to news, which involved breaking stories into "atomic units" and pushing every new unit to users who followed the story. Associated Press-style articles delivered to you one paragraph at a time over a period of hours or months — that was Circa’s model.
Breaking news into 'atomic units'
The company never disclosed how many people used its app, but it wasn’t many: it had around 100,000 downloads on Android; according to analytics service AppAnnie, it hasn’t been among the top 1,000 most downloaded iOS apps this year.
So why didn’t it work?
- Circa did very little original journalism. Circa fought hard against the idea it was an aggregator — note the hundreds of words spilled here on the difference between "atomizing" and "summarizing." Ultimately, while it occasionally incorporated original reporting into its reports, Circa employed a staff of people to read other people’s stuff and strip out the important parts. "What we’re really doing is adding structure to information," said David Cohn, Circa’s chief content officer, who left in October. That may have sounded good in a pitch deck, but in practice it didn't amount to much.
- Circa was cold and rational at a time when journalism was becoming more entertaining and emotional. A just-the-facts-ma’am approach to the news can be valuable in describing major breaking-news events. But those events are rare in nature, and the news organizations that are growing the fastest — BuzzFeed, Vice — excel at making their audience feel something every day. Circa took pride in being flavorless, and it showed in the product.
Cold and rational at a time when journalism is emotional
- Circa was a generalist in a news market that favors expertise. One reason general-interest newspapers have suffered is because for most major subjects, there are a variety of online publications covering it more thoroughly and with greater authority. (When the Supreme Court next hands down a big decision, will you visit your local newspaper's website to read the AP story, or will you visit SCOTUSBlog?) Like newspapers, Circa shunned analysis — forcing its users to seek it elsewhere when they found a story intriguing. And so an app designed to save people time actually created more work for them.
- Circa made for lousy sharing. Its vaunted "news atoms" were bone-dry and made for dull sharing on social media. Circa wins points for avoiding crazy-making "you won't believe what happens next"-style headlines, but only to a point. Its approach prevented the company from effectively using the primary growth channel of its generation.
On top of all that, Circa never turned itself into a business. In announcing Circa’s end on Medium, Galligan said the app didn’t have enough users to generate meaningful revenue from advertising or subscriptions.
A flavorless bundle of bullet points
Galligan invited me to coffee last year, and I expressed some of these concerns. He listened politely, but made it clear he intended to develop his vision of atomic news. (He declined to comment when I messaged him today.) And perhaps there’s something to it after all — as other commentators noted today, The New York Times’ NYT Now app seems at least partially inspired by Circa’s bullet-pointed style, and the briefing on top of BuzzFeed News’ new app takes a similar approach.
But a flavorless bundle of bullet points hasn’t worked for newspapers in a long time. And it didn’t work for Circa, either.
Correction, 10:33 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said Circa did not include original reporting in its stories.