I had the opportunity to discuss Circa today with PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser, Skift founder Rafat Ali, and PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy on the Mediatwits podcast. It’s an honor to be able to discuss a project you are working on and passionate about with folks who I consider friends, colleagues or both.

i-9f2151684e2056922b672584445d2ab4-circa-menu.png

Circa is a new type of mobile news app that collects the “atomic units” of stories — facts, quotes and images — and puts them into running stories with alerts to updates. Lacy, who has many good things to say about Circa, also detailed one thing she thinks we get wrong. She doesn’t think the article needs updating because it has evolved over time and/or that Circa isn’t actually doing anything to update it.

I agree — the article has evolved. Blogging, for example, has evolved the tone. We insert pronouns now, etc. Different kinds of articles, written for different audiences have different elements, and journalists are trained in them. Lacy’s article cites the difference between long and short-form writing. But to say that articles have evolved is missing the point.

My response in the podcast wasn’t as articulate as I would have liked. (Hey, I’ve been multitasking a lot and sleeping a little this week.) So I wanted to take the time to explain just how Circa’s method of breaking down the news is a fundamental shift from articles.

An Analogy

One of these languages is different from the others:

  • Latin
  • Spanish
  • French
  • Italian
  • Python

Language has evolved over time. You can say things in one language you can’t in another. (German is particularly good for this.) But Python, as a language, is fundamentally different. It has a functionality that does not exist in the other three.

On Language: I would argue the four Romance Languages have a power that Python doesn’t. They are much more familiar to us. They are flexible for their purpose(s) and have evolved to be as such. They can touch the human soul when used to craft poems, literature, etc.

But Python can be used to create and manipulate databases. That is different. If a linguist told a developer we don’t need Python because languages have evolved over time — that would be missing the point.

On Articles: They too have evolved over time. They are rooted and familiar for us to consume information. And they can touch the soul when crafted well.

Circa doesn’t write articles. But we are breaking down the news into discrete points of data. That is different. Just think — as an editor I can tap our CTO on the back and ask him to do the following.

  1. Bring me a list of all the quotes we’ve ever used.
  2. Bring me a list of all the quotes in election stories we’ve ever used.
  3. Bring me a list of all the quotes in election stories we’ve ever used from David Axelrod.

I can also ask for a list of aliases that we have assigned to the entity in our database called “David Axelrod.” I could make similar requests for events (facts that we identify with a time/place), stats, facts and images.

That’s empowering. It has a level of functionality ala database manipulation that you don’t have with articles. Again, there are things you can do when you put words in an article, but there is much gained attempting what Circa is doing — breaking down the news.

A Blog Post from 2006

If you never read Adrian Holovaty’s post from 2006 “A Fundamental Way Newspaper Sites Need to Change“ — you should. Seriously.

He writes: “So much of what local journalists collect day-to-day is structured information: the type of information that can be sliced-and-diced, in an automated fashion, by computers. Yet the information gets distilled into a big blob of text — a newspaper story — that has no chance of being repurposed.”

This is the philosophy that powered Chicago Crime Maps and later Everyblock.

What Adrian noticed: Data (such as crime reports) was being manipulated and massaged into articles to inform humans in natural language about what was happening. But once inside an article, the raw data was lost. It would be part of a bigger “blob,” as I’ve heard him describe it.

He went straight to the raw data feeds and used it to create a crime map. One of the first.

I like to think that Circa is also playing with Adrian’s thesis. Can we take content, still make it read as a “story,” but allow the content to be “repurposed” because it can be read and manipulated at a data level.

So Is Circa Different?

Yes, Latin has splintered into several languages, and the “article” has taken on many forms as well. They both can do much, but they are also limited by the power of the human brain (although empowered by the human soul). Circa, we hope, is readable via human language (we aren’t sending people MYSQL databases) but has elements of computer power. It empowers editorial to manipulate, to repurpose and more that I hope we can explore. Of course, all that has the chance to fail. People might not like it — but it is different and it is exciting.

David Cohn has written for Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times among other publications. While working toward his master’s degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Cohn worked with Jay Rosen as editor of the groundbreaking Newassignment.net in 2006, which focused on citizen journalism and ways news organizations could explore the social web. Cohn also worked with Jeff Jarvis from Buzzmachine.com to organize the first Networked Journalism Summits, which brought together the best practices of collaborative journalism three years in a row (2007-2009). Most recently he is the founding editor of Circa. He was the founder and director of Spot.Us, a nonprofit that is pioneering “community funded reporting.” In academics he has been a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s journalism school and was a fellow at the University of Missouri’s Journalism school at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. He has been a contributing editor at NewsTrust.net, a founding editor of Broowaha and an advisor to many new media projects from OffTheBus.net and Beatblogging.org to The Public Press. He is a frequent speaker on topics related to new media and beyond.

Related