Mobile phones

Circa is reformatting the news for the iPhone age

February 19, 2013: 11:43 AM ET

San Francisco-based startup Circa slices and dices top news stories to make them more accessible on mobile phones.

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Circa CEO and co-founder Matt Galligan.

FORTUNE -- Pint-sized mobile device have created a problem for news readers: a 500-word item about Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) $23 billion acquisition of Heinz may be easy-to-read on a desktop but require many awkward swipes and taps to get through on a smaller screen. "All content today is produced with the intention of being read in print, on the Web or on a tablet," explains Matt Galligan, CEO of the startup Circa. Few bits of content, he argues, are created to be consumed via smartphone.

Enter Circa, a startup founded  in 2011 by Galligan, Arsenio Santos, and Ben Huh, CEO of meme-purveyor Cheezburger Network. (The company's full name -- Circa 1605 -- refers to the year the first newspaper was printed.) Other news-reading apps like Flipboard and Pulse approach retrofitting the news for mobile devices by taking existing stories and tinkering with their layout. Circa's tack is more laborious: The startup employs an editorial team spread across the U.S., U.K., and China that trawl the day's news from different sources, select what they think are the most important, then rewrite those articles into photo-friendly "slides" with two or three sentences each.

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Strung together, Circa's slides form a story that's easy on the eyes and quick to consume while keeping the salient details intact. "Matt understands the value of beautiful design," says David Cohen, a Circa investor and CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based investment firm TechStars. It shows in the Circa reading experience, which puts to shame the majority of traditional media outlets' mobile readers. On any given day, Circa's editorial team will pump out over 25 stories in areas like politics, world news, and technology. Users spend 10 minutes, on average, skimming them each day. Galligan believes Circa's format works because people tend to use their phones most during short bursts of idle time throughout the day.

The app's creators argue that it has the potential to improve the ways readers consume news in the future. They say some news items suffer from a tried-and-true formula of quick writing that puts fresh news about an event up top but repurposes older information afterwards. "The rest of the article is just a regurgitation of the previous 24-hours worth of stories that I've already [seen] 9 times before," Huh complained in a personal blog post back in 2011. Even worse, thanks to the permanent nature of print -- and even much Web journalism -- stories aren't often updated.

In contrast, Circa stories are refreshed as news develops. Readers can "bookmark" a story to follow it, so they'll be notified when it is updated. For instance, Pope Benedict XVI's resignation will likely be just the first in a chain of news reports. There will be speculation about who his successor will be and odds placed on different candidates. Then, of course, the Vatican will make its decision official. Instead of a series of separate stories, Circa may handle all of that as one overarching piece that is updated over time. "The real challenge on our end is we have to recognize when a story will evolve," explains David Cohn, Circa's founding news editor.

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New features are in the works. One will recommend new stories based on the stories users already read. Another is a powerful search feature able to parse through stories for specific details, down to quotes from one specific individual in different stories. Galligan says to expect search to come later this year.

Some journalists may perceive what Galligan is doing as trying to turn journalism on its head. That's not his -- or Circa's -- goal. But he's right about one thing: Reading the news on a 4-inch screen could be a much better experience all-around.

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