A week or so ago I argued that mobile news applications aren’t evolving fast enough to compete with e-readers. Yesterday, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram reported on a news app called Circa that might revolutionize mobile news reading. Ben Huh, best known for running Cheezburger Network, co-founded Circa to create and propagate news fitted to the material constraints of mobile reading platforms. Circa thinks about news in terms of “atomic units,” meaning the most basic constituent parts of a traditional news article. Users select how many facts, quotes, and media elements to display; and users can follow stories, meaning that the app pings them whenever new “units” are added.
Circa reveals two possibilities for future formal innovations in mobile news delivery:
1. Decoupling Narrative From News: Traditionally, journalism is a hermeneutic project: it interprets events as situated in complex relationship to an organizing structure, and then rewrites those events as a cohesive narrative. “News,” as it is conventionally determined, plots an atomized cloud of fact into story. And the “news” itself only constitutes the narration of that story. The limited material space of mobile news platforms makes the delivery of “news as narrative” difficult. Instead, Circa imagines news minus narrative, which isn’t really news or journalism at all. Instead, it’s a network of facts, strung together according to an implicit logic. To decouple narrative from news is to divest the journalist of his interpretational power. The journalist becomes a fact-finder, a computerized information retrieval system, not a storyteller. Does the consumer then assume the position of storyteller, or is the nuance of news lost in the (dis)organization of fact? Whatever it is that Circa distributes, it is emptied of its immediate rhetorical power, of its capacity to stimulate political activity. In effect, news and the “news-paper” no longer function as manifestations of the public sphere, spaces where competing discourses can play out to conclusion. There can be no con- or dis- sensus in the news-world of Circa.
2. Multiperspectival News: One-channel news is a dead phenomenon. If the news of the future will be without coherent narration, it will be composed from multiple perspectives. News will be compiled from a diverse collective of more conventional sources—which, of course, suggests that mobile news systems of the future will rest on a base of traditional journalism. Nevertheless, the farming out of raw news production to conventional news machines will support a more heterogeneous flow of information to the consumer.
Circa is exciting because it pushes the formal assumptions of news beyond their contemporary limits. For mobile news to achieve maximum profitability, it will need to reinvent news itself—otherwise, the disjunction of content and material form will constrain user adoption and engagement with the “product,” the news content.