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November 28, 2014

The Newsonomics of Three Cracks at the Mobile News Puzzle: Circa, NRCQ & News Republic

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First published at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab

 

Mobile first. Two devilishly simple words that, at this point, tell us so little.

By now, it’s common knowledge that most companies producing digital news are approaching — and at times surpassing — the mobile-majority mark. It’s no longer uncommon for smartphone plus tablet to surpass desktop plus laptop in morning, evenings, and weekends.

The audience is way ahead of the money: Only 17 percent of U.S. digital advertising revenue (“The newsonomics of newspapers’ slipping digital revenue”) is now mobile, though the percentage more than doubled in a single year. Too much of the mobile ad money now goes to Google and Facebook, 75 percent or more. So the question: How to create mobile savvy news products that can win good audiences and take in some of what is now the fastest growing ad category? (Mobile ads are growing at a four-year-compounded annual growth rate of 127 percent.)

Let’s take three newish mobile news products — each quite different from one another — to see a few versions of mobile-first thinking look like 2014. Yes, Circa — a hot topic among newsies — is one of them. The two others are News Republic, produced by Bordeaux-founded Mobiles Republic, with editions in seven countries, including the U.S. and U.K. Next Tuesday, Amsterdam-rooted NRCQ debuts its beta mobile business news product. What ideas, business models, and sheer hunches are each of the three bringing to this concept of “mobile first”?

Circa

Let’s start with Circa. Launched in fall 2012, the company has been a hot ticket for those on media tours of the Bay Area. CEO and cofounder Matt Galligan (“Permanently Midwestern at heart, Temporarily San Franciscan for the coffee”) says that the company has had to limit its tours so it can get its work done. It’s not just Americans competing for a peek under the Circa covers; Germans, Japanese, and Scandinavians have all knocked on the doors. Somewhat obsessed with BuzzFeed’s innovation, these outsiders are intensely curious about Circa’s.

What is that innovation? In a word, atomization.

You, dear mobile reader, may not have known you needed a news atomizer, but others do. I asked pioneering news techie Matt McAlister, now general manager of new digital businesses at Guardian News & Media and a Yahoo alum, why he called Circa “brilliant”: “They’ve worked out a model for engaging with information at the fact level,” he says. “The way they’ve applied it makes personalization an amplifier of what they’ve editorialized. The presentation and flow balance what matters and what you want to know nicely. That’s not easy in any environment, and doing it well on a mobile device with fact-level information is a real breakthrough.” (You can check out McAlister’s wider thoughts on atomizing the news, “Making Smaller Things Have Bigger Meanings.”)

The best way to understand Circa is try it. Wednesday’s stories extended from the South Korea ferry tragedy to Ukraine to the company behind Candy Crush tripling of revenues. Each is presented as a series of cards, which the user swipes through. Each features no more than a single paragraph, with some focused on an individual quote, a map, or an image with caption. “Bridges,” below some stories, provide more short Circa-written context. Circa’s editors use a wide variety of top-notch sources to write their paragraphs, and those sources are noted in citations at the very bottom of each story.

Though the content is atomized into paragraphs, David Cohn, founder of Spot.us and Circa’s chief content officer, says the site is, in its arrangement of cards, providing context to the biggest stories of our days and weeks. “People think we are just summarizing,” he says. In fact, each card tries to answer a single question, he says. While Vox uses its own version of a card system for its backgrounders, it aims to answer the “why,” Cohn says, while Circa goes for the “what happened.” The three editorial values of Circa: “concise, thorough, accurate.”

Terminology is tough — not because it’s jargon, but because Circa is thinking hard about the structure of news. Cohn leads a full-time staff of 11, with a couple stationed in Beijing and Cairo, to make its 24/7 posting schedule work. Serial tech entrepreneur Galligan founded the site out of news frustration: “Frankly, I wasn’t being fulfilled.”

“We pioneered this space and now it’s quite hot,” says Galligan, citing NYT Now, Yahoo News Digest, and Inside as three examples of those joining the mobile-majority fray. “We’re not going to roll over. We’re just getting started.”

Business model: Uncooked. It is in the audience-building phase, not yet selling advertising. (I suggested to Galligan that he consider charging significant fees for media visits as a good short-term source of revenue.)

Where is it headed? Circa has raised about $4 million in seed funding, led in part by Lerer Ventures (which I profiled in the recent media issue of Politico Magazine: “1. Destroy the Village. 2. Save the Village. Why Silicon Valley VCs suddenly love the media“). Galligan has been out raising a Series A round, one that could value the company as high as $40 million. He’d like to get media company investment, but wants to keep control of his independent company, understandably fearful that Big Media could smother Circa with its love bounty. As he bolsters Circa’s profile and leadership cred, he’s just hired as president John Maloney, formerly of Tumblr, a company that managed to cash out big time (and remain semi-independent). Internet culture connoisseur, investor/entrepreneur, and Cheezburger.com CEO Ben Huh is a Circa cofounder.

Galligan says he’s keeping options open on whether Circa will remain a consumer-oriented destination or white-label its atomization services to major media — or both. In fact, expect Circa to announce several media partnership deals before the end of the year. The main holdup is the completion of workflow technology that will enable partners to use the same tools that Circa editors themselves use right now. That likelihood opens up all kinds of possibilities. Right now, Circa can only play in a very small sandbox, offering up just what its 11 editors can produce. What could a news organization creating hundreds or thousands of stories a month do with Circa thinking and presentation? Plans are afoot.

Audience: How much of an audience is Circa now serving? The company won’t offer up any numbers yet, but the word is that the audience numbers don’t match up with the high industry interest. iTunes apps store downloaders love it, giving it a 5-star rating. Is it for news junkies who consume a lot of news daily, or for the more casual reader looking to catch up on the news? “It’s both right now,” says Galligan, who says he thinks the site is likelier to go wide. “We’re not going to target the news junkie.”

Voice: Very straightforward — as David Cohn puts it, a reimagined wire service.

NRCQ

Unlike our other two products, NRCQ tumbles out of a big, old newspaper company. NRC Media publishes the well-regarded evening Handelsblad and morning NRC Next. (It’s part of the 2014 the Dutch oven of news innovation, including the pay-per-view model of Blendle and crowdfunded Der Correspondent.)

NRCQ launches in beta Tuesday. It’s a mobile business news app with an attitude. Importantly, it’s about leverage: The NRC newsroom pays about 200 journalists and counts 25 global correspondents. Its business news staff numbers 20. Fifteen-year NRC editor Freek Staps chose the new NRCQ staff, hired about equally from inside and outside the newsroom, which numbers 10 editors. Their task: Take the best of the company’s business news content, mix and match with FT and Bloomberg stories and video, and provide a window on the news of the day to come.

“We’re your guide for the day,” says Staps. He says the app borrows heavily from the lessons of Quartz (“The newsonomics of Quartz, 19 months in”). Its content is structured around repeating features like “Three questions about,” “While you were sleeping,” and “This is what you need to know,” all highly visual and arranged in an endless scroll. Like Quartz, but unlike Circa or News Republic, it also offers a full web product.

“We aim for people who don’t read a newspaper,” says Stap, meaning professionals in their 30s and 40s, who will be asked to pay €15 a month after a sponsored free introductory period ends. It’s not just a niche test, along the Paywalls 2.0 line; if it works, NRC will apply the model back to its dailies, which are still free online.

Business model: Reader revenue and Quartz-like large-unit and native advertising.

Audience: A business-interested, non-newspaper reading audience that is bilingual. NRC-written stories are in Dutch. Bloomberg and FT are in English. The 5:30 a.m. newsletter is NRCQ’s opening daily reach for engagement.

Voice: Playful, along the developing serious/casual style that owes so much to the blogosphere and is now represented from Vox to FiveThirtyEight to Quartz to Business Insider and well beyond.

News Republic

News Republic is a smart, scalable, tech-driven model. No editors, no fuss — just lots of content-ingesting, product-creating apps. Now funded at the $12 million level, with Intel Capital leading its last round, Mobiles Republic launched its first edition in its native France in 2009. France still provides the leading number (about 20 percent) of its 2.6 million monthly uniques, with the U.S., U.K., China, Germany, Italy, and Spain now hosting in-country editions as well. All the news is available in any country; the highlighting of news in each nation varies. It’s smartphone-oriented, with tablet and web TV apps.

CEO Gilles Raymond, now based in San Francisco, heads a staff of 27 globally. He acknowledges that News Republic is a lot like Flipboard — highly visual, lots of sources — but different in that it is only using licensed content; it doesn’t link out. Who might he be competing against, in addition to Flipboard? He names Feedly, the post-Google Reader-resurgent RSS reader, whose model of selection and reader intent is far different. Interestingly, the tablet-oriented news/features readers that were Flipboard’s early competition are no longer independent. LinkedIn is figuring out how best to make use of its Pulse acquisition; Flipboard itself bought Zite from CNN, which decided that modestly cashing out and partnering with Flipboard was its best alternative.

Business model: It’s advertising (Square is a current one) — and device manufacturer payments. Raymond says his 900 news-providing partners receive a 50-50 revenue share of all revenues driven. Building that direct-to-consumer business, though, is hard. Mobile Republic has found an additional source of revenue and traffic: HTC. Raymond says the company powers the first-screen news on HTC handsets in 42 countries. (Those aren’t included in News Republic’s audience figures above.)

Audience: Its users are a broad group. Raymond says about 60 percent customize; the others take what the site’s algorithms supply. 20 to 30 percent of the views are on Top News, with the medium and long feature tales telling.

Voice: There’s not much of one, as is true of algorithmic-driven sites.

What do we make of these three, the others out there, and the many more to come off media company whiteboards? NRCQ is the most straightforward: You’re Dutch. You want business news that makes sense of the world. You want it on your phone. It will work — the only question is one of scale in a nation of 16 million. Can it pay for those 10 new staffers and then become solidly profitable?

Circa and News Republic are longer shots. Each has hunches about readers want general news of the day, but no one’s got a formula that is certain, with the single, big brand smartphone products of The New York Times, the FT, and The Wall Street Journal making the most all-access sense, and cents, right now.

Circa, like much of what’s forming on mobile news web, is made of wet clay, pliable and still uncertain clay, even if the desktop news web continues to dry to no great satisfaction. Circa is a next-gen Newser, which, too, looked at earlier news opportunities and created its own write-from-scratch summaries of the news, with a Hollywood Squares look and a much sassier tone than Circa. Newser survives, though hasn’t seen wide adoption and is much more a creature of the web than the phone.

If you put it into context, Circa becomes an even more curious play as the wave of full-voiced, analytic, explainer sites — The Upshot, Vox, FiveThirtyEight — sweep our attention. Is there a place for a just-the-facts-ma’am site? Should there be? How much value does it add?

Its ideas may be winning, but its overall experience is to this point underwhelming. You marvel at the sheer order, and differing look, of the app, but as you read it, you may wonder how much there is there — if you read lots of news. In some ways, it reminds me of a news Wikipedia, though put together by known journalists, of course, rather than the masses. It injects facts (or are they more like better-dressed factoids?) into the news arena. It’s a great reference to the news, but I’m unclear who will use it regularly as a go-to, find-out-what’s-happening app.

As a Silicon Valley startup, Circa wants to keep its options open on audience and business model. It will have to decide both sooner than later. On audience, it’s hard to see how its small amount of content and lack of voice will attract multitudes of news readers. Maybe voice isn’t even the right word: It’s certainly a resource, with citations well shown, a credible site — but it seems to lack an authority.

Equally, if the app is for news grazers, is the facts-are-good-for-you format likely to win lots of more casual readers? Circa may be in a mushy middle for the moment, still to figure out how to market its high-concept beliefs about news. Even industry watchers who like Circa’s thinking wonder how it can ever scale. They believe it must go white label, licensing its technology to big publishers, or sell itself to someone.

News Republic, on the other hand (like Switzerland-based NewsCron, “your newspapers in one app,” which specializes in European and Latin American publishers) offers a comprehensive set of major news sources, all arrayed in those 13 categories. It’s straightforward — lots of stuff from top publishers in one place — but by its nature lacks a spirit.

Ah, aggregated news: We love the idea of aggregated/curated products. At a Spark unconference gathering in Cambridge a couple of years ago, several of us (CNN’s Meredith Artley and Heidi Moore, now at The Guardian were co-conspirators on a lovely lawn outside Walter Lippmann House) briefly imagined we had it figured out. Take a story like Ukraine. It’s the kind of story that Circa has done a deep dive into, creating dozens of cards, with bridges here and there. The Circa cards, though, are fact cards. What we talked about in Cambridge was a simpler, yet deeper idea: What if you could point to the best three to five stories (changing over time) about the Ukraine crisis — whatever their sources? We wanted some mix of (wo)man and machine to find those five stories, providing an intelligent news reader a good perspective on the issues. We wanted some sense of editorial judgment, of a smart, trustworthy editorial authority.

We’re all aware of the obstacles: imagination, revenue models, and operational issues. But getting the best of news reporting to us on our phones would seem to be a simple concept. Someone will figure it out.

Clearly, getting the context right — whenever that happens, and whoever paves the way — will require some combination of algorithm and human judgment. It will probably align along a 90/10, robot/human equation. That 10 percent, though, will make all the difference. Call it aggregation, curation, good judgment, or whatever you want: I like high-end editing, to resuscitate a term that has been showing more recent signs of appreciation.

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