Yet another journalist has fled the world of traditional newswires to join a start-up. This time it's Anthony De Rosa -- social media editor at Reuters, prodigious tweeter, breaker of developments in the Boston Marathon bombings, small-time celeb in an era when journalists foreground both their bylines and their avatars.
Yesterday he announced plans to defect to the new San Francisco-based media company Circa, which produces an app that allows consumers to follow the day's news on their smartphones. Its closest analogue might be Summly, the summary news app that Yahoo acquired for $30 mil, except that Circa uses human editors.
De Rosa is no stranger to the tech world -- before landing his job at Reuters he worked for a TurboTax-like software company called Taxstream -- but many media observers saw the move as an omen. Perhaps it says something about Reuters' failure to expand its digital reach, Atlantic Wire writer Philip Bump suggested. Or maybe it showed Circa's seriousness about establishing itself as a news vessel -- De Rosa said, in interviews, that he would push members of the start-up's editorial board to do original reporting, rather than just cribbing from Twitter or other news aggregates.
But many people read the tea leaves and saw broad implications for the future of journalism. It was tantamount to the moment in late 2011 when a viral site called Buzzfeed decided to hire Politico reporter Ben Smith to be its editor-in-chief. Overnight, it went from being a well-known aggregator of cat videos to a respectable outlet -- or, according to some hecklers, "a cat video site combined with Politico." Within a year Buzzfeed was poaching talent from Reuters and churning out the latest crop of New Yorker writers. But its primary goal wasn't to be the world's best news source; it was to retain web supremacy. If listicles and memes got as much traffic as, say, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, then they were equally important.
The cynical read on Circa is that it's doing the work of traditional newspapers by giving consumers their stories of the day in easily digestible fact lists, similar to an extremely streamlined Twitter feed. That doesn't mean it's trying to supplant the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, says Berkeley-based founding editor David Cohn. The idea is that many consumers don't have time to sit down with a coffee and a dead-tree broadsheet in the morning, but they still want to stay on top of the news cycle. They want to follow news on their smartphones, using a more credible source than their friends' status updates.
"For people who want to read a full narrative article from Esquire on a phone, we won't fulfill that desire right now," Cohn said in an interview. "Our focus is just fact information. The same person who wants to read the New Yorker article also wants fact breakdown."
In comparison to its nearest competitors, Circa has more than a few selling points: it relies on human news-gatherers rather than algorithms; it allows consumers to choose which storylines they want to follow and pick up right where they left off; it emphasizes accuracy over speed. Those qualities also might help blaze new terrain in personalized advertising, Cohn said. Right now the company is coasting along on angel funds -- it has a large team of investors to back it -- but it's also building a viable revenue model to kick-in after the seed money runs out. The idea is to treat advertisements as "storylines" as well, and have consumers engage with them the same way. If you're a fan of Old Spice or Levis jeans, you could get up-to-the-minute news about their products while keeping abreast of the Boston marathon manhunt.
Following a product storyline is similar to "liking" it on Facebook, but it's a more exacting form of consumer engagement, Cohn pointed out. Advertisers won't just know your preferences; they'll be able to track exactly how much you know about their products (ie, whether you left off at point 5 or point 7 in the Levis storyline). If it really works, it could provide an ad model that's even more fine-tuned and granular than the ones in other social networks.
That's led many media experts to hail Circa as the future of journalism -- a notion that the De Rosa hire only helped crystallize. It's a better utility than old-school article formats; it meets readers' demand for on-the-spot news; it's actually poised to make money. It's also in a position to push out everything that came before, though Cohn insists that it won't transform consumer reading habits.
"What Circa is trying to do is say, 'You're busy, but you also want to know what's going on in the world. You want to know what's been deemed important by other people," he said, adding that the company is meeting a demand rather than creating one. Surely no app is powerful enough to obviate all the long-form journalism that came before it.
Still, there's a small crowd of purists who cry big crocodile tears every time a media start-up poaches from the old-school journalism world. "Big get 4 Circa..big loss 4 Reuters," Buzzfeed business editor Peter Lauria tweeted yesterday, with more than a hint of self-irony -- Lauria defected from Reuters just a few months earlier.