An inside look at Circa’s new website, app update and global team of reporters

byDena Levitz
Apr 28, 2015 in Mobile Journalism

Updated May 4, 2015

Three years ago, mobile app Circa came onto the news scene as an alternative way to keep up with what’s happening globally, sending users updates to breaking news stories they choose to follow. Since then, the media startup has changed not only how they present information, but also how it’s updated. Mobile isn’t just a channel but its lifeforce.

Most legacy media companies begin with print or a website and branch off into mobile. In the past few months Circa has done the opposite, along with releasing a newer version of its highly popular app. Senior Editor Daniel Bentley talked about these latest moves and how they fit into Circa’s editorial strategy.

Circa is based in San Francisco, but you have writers scattered all over the globe. Can you explain how many writers you have, where they are and how you're able to manage such a spread-out global team?

We have 14 writers —10 in the U.S. plus writers in Cambodia, Australia, China and Jordan. We manage the newsroom using a combination of Slack, Quip and Trello. Slack allows us to instantly communicate throughout the day. Trello lets us track which stories we’re working on. And Quip is our repository of documents such as style guide, editorial guidelines and ideas.

Often what's said to be different about Circa versus aggregators like Flipboard is the fact that you have actual humans compressing the news, reporting and verifying information. You also have publicly available editorial standards and ethics guidelines. What's the charge and expectation for writers? It seems like they're part journalist, part editor.

That’s exactly it. Our writers are filtering information from our incoming feeds: social, wires, reporting elsewhere, and then parsing it for Circa. They need to identify if the information fits within an existing Circa story, whether we need to create a new story, and whether the information is important enough to “republish” the story, or whether we send it as a push [notification] to story followers.

The other big differentiator is your custom-built content management system (CMS). What makes it so unique?

It’s built for Circa! Our CMS is pretty barebones but incredibly powerful. It allows us to quickly get a stub of a story up in the event of breaking news and to keep updating that story as more information develops. It’s also an incredibly powerful database with a unique data structure. Whereas in a traditional CMS the story is a single entity, the Circa CMS stores information at the paragraph or “atomic” level. This allows us to push out new information to story followers in small chunks.

Your founder, David Cohn, has often used the term "atomization" to refer to the idea that Circa breaks down news into small parts. Explain the value of doing that.

Atomizing stories allows us to do several cool things. It allows us to update stories incrementally over time, creating living stories that can last for years. It also powers our follow feature. When you follow a Circa story we know which “atoms” you’ve already read, so we don’t waste your time making you read them again. We only send you new information.

Can you give the highlights of the newest version of your app?

The newest version, 3.1, came out last Monday. We’ve added Apple Watch functionality and improved some visual aspects of the app. We think that Circa is beautifully positioned to take advantage of a smaller, more personal screen. The wrist will be a place where apps cannot abuse user trust (even more so than the phone). Circa only sends notifications for the most important news, or for stories that you’ve opted into.

What's been the biggest lesson you've learned about how people consume news on mobile?

Mobile news has gone from a growing medium when we launched in 2012, to the way most people consume news in 2015. Having the news on a device in your pocket or on your wrist allows people to stay informed quickly and conveniently. And for Circa users, they can tell us about the stories they care about by tapping the follow button. That way they’ll never miss an important nugget of news.

Circa, which began as entirely mobile-centric, recently added a website. What was the rationale there, and is it proving to be useful?

The website was really a product of the Daily Briefing function we added in Circa News version 3. With the Daily Briefing we select around 10 or so of the most important stories in an easy-to-consume digest. While this worked great on mobile we discovered that it made a beautiful, dynamic desktop homepage.

Lastly, you became senior editor after starting with Circa as a contributor. What drew you to Circa in the first place and made you want to stick with it and rise through the ranks?

I heard about Circa through a friend who had met with our founding editor David Cohn (now at AJ+) at ONA in San Francisco. I had just moved to New York from the UK and the job landed at the perfect time. I had always wanted to be at a news company that was pushing forward on technology, and the idea of joining a startup rather than the lower ranks at a larger organization definitely appealed to me. Our amazing product team in San Francisco is always listening to our feedback whether on the backend or for the app. Being able to have that input and to work in a trusting, super sharp team has kept me at the company.

It was announced on April 30 that Circa failed to secure a new round of funding, and is searching for a buyer. 

Image of Circa app via IJNet