Startups rethink news for mobile

This is the second story in the series “Making the Mobile Leap,” which explores how the big players in digital media are taking on the mobile question. The series is sponsored by Celtra, the global leader for rich media mobile ad creation, serving and analytics.

Most media companies have responded to the rise of mobile with a mix of reluctance and inertia. Much like the shift from print to digital, the shift from PCs to mobile devices is happening too quickly for many publishers to react to.

But not all media outlets have been caught flat-footed. Quartz, the Atlantic Media-owned business news site, launched in 2012 with a focus on content that’s both easily shared and easily read on mobile devices. And readers have responded to it: 45 percent of Quartz’s visitors last month came from mobile phones and tablets, according to Omniture. That number was closer to 25 percent a year ago, said Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney.

“We’re 100 percent focused on digital,” Delaney told Digiday. “From the very first moment a story is conceived, it’s created with digital consumption in mind.” 

Breaking News

This mobile- and social-first thinking about content makes Quartz almost alone among media companies, many of whom have a mobile strategy no more advanced than making their content readable on smartphone screens.

“I don’t think the news industry is investing enough in mobile,” Cory Bergman, the general of personal news alert service Breaking News told Digiday by email.

The NBC News-owned Breaking News, which sees 90 percent of its traffic from mobile devices, is a part of a small-but-growing group of media startups that are reevaluating from the ground up what it means to produce news for mobile screens. Because they don’t have to deal with the pressures of running a legacy media operation, and because they’re invariably tech-first, companies like Breaking News are creating news products that are well-suited to mobile, not retrofitted to work on it.

At its core, Breaking News is focused on making it easier for users to keep up with the latest big news. But instead of just flooding users with every update, Breaking News only gives them the updates it thinks are important to them. “We believe that people want simpler, more efficient news experiences that anticipate their needs and save them time,” Bergman said.

Bergman wouldn’t share user numbers, but he did say that Breaking News saw 1 million app downloads as of last year.


Circa, another mobile-first product, take this in a different direction. The news app, a product of Ben Huh’s Cheezburger Network, takes its mobile-news approach all the way to level of the news article, which it’s ditched for a more atomized stream-like approach. Instead of giving users a one-off block of text, Circa presents stories in chunks, which readers flip through one at a time. The user experience is closer to using Instagram than browsing The New York Times. 

Circa general manager David Cohn said this shift unlocks powerful, more efficient ways to tell stories. Because Circa’s story chunks tell it exactly what parts of stories readers have seen, the app can tweak future related stories so that users aren’t seeing the same information twice. In other words, with Circa, the traditional idea of the inverted pyramid, where the most important news is posted to the top of a story, is almost completely irrelevant. Everything is the most important news. Readers can jump into an ongoing story that feels written just for them.

“This is not about taking news and putting it in a mobile form. We are literally rethinking the way news can be constructed,” Cohn said.

Then there are the aggregators.  Yahoo News Digest and Inside, for example, are both  focused on aggregating and summarizing content found elsewhere. Even those two approaches are slightly different, however: While Inside is powered by human summarizers, Yahoo is going the algorithm route, thanks to technology from its $30 million Summly acquisition.

Other startups are reevaluating mobile news by ditching text entirely. NowThis News,a  Lerer Ventures-funded startup launched in 2012, is adapting to mobile audiences by creating original 6, 15, and 30-second news clips.

While it seems like it would be tough to tell any kind of story in such a short span, NowThis News President Sean Mills said that, for on-the-go mobile audiences, 30 seconds is more than enough time.

“Video is the most powerful form of storytelling. There are things that video can do that can quickly elicit an emotional response quicker than it takes with text and photos,” he said. “You’re not trying to make the news shorter –you’re trying to make it more interesting, more impactful, in the time you have.”

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