Circa News (iPhone App Review)

Main news screen of CircaThese days I get my news mostly from Twitter and special-interest blogs. That doesn’t give me a very comprehensive picture, but it’s difficult to break the habits of our bite-sized info-culture. So I was very interested when I heard of Circa News, an iPhone app that promises to provide convenient news digests for the Twitter era.

It’s a very well-designed app, pulling the reader right in with large photos (beautiful in the retina display), and the story condensed into factoids one can flip through. Additional pictures and info boxes prevent the information feeling like a wall of boring text.

The first page of a story. Notice the “1 of 5” telling you the page count, and the top of the next page just barely visible to flick to. It does feel nice.

The news doesn’t satisfy me, though. It really doesn’t offer that much more depth than the Twitter culture I was hoping to go beyond. Circa’s editors summarize other news sites, sometimes with better success than others. Many articles lend themselves to a one-minute overview nicely, but others left me with no context to understand them. It turns out that there is a way to make the he-said/she-said style of political reporting even worse, and that’s to trim out all the facts for brevity. Circa provides links to the original articles, but that just eats up more time than it would to load the original in the first place. On balance, I did learn a lot, but I was also putting in a lot of time to give the program a chance. I didn’t see savings over going straight to a standard news site.

Circa’s editors do have a difficult task. I’m sure it’s harder than it looks to decide which stories make the cut, whether a certain factoid deserves its own story or should be part of an existing one, and when to link stories. But it feels rushed. It is just good enough to work, but you will still find the occasional typo, repeated item, or even false statement.

A couple of mistakes. The news feed shows one story twice. More seriously, the other article makes a claim (that the Pope’s tweets are infallible) directly contradicted by the first source article.

The other big selling point of Circa is that you can subscribe to a story that interests you. Updates will be added to the original story, so people who don’t care about it won’t have to see it again. While a good idea in theory, this again creates difficult choices for the editors. What deserves a new story and what should be added to an old one? In the end, it turns out not to matter: Most stories never get updates, and the ones that do usually (always?) end up back in the main newsfeed (sometimes with a new name) for everyone to see.

I’m also not sure what Circa’s business model is. It requires a paid staff to keep it going, but the app is free and has no ads. Either that’s about to change, or they have plans to gather your personal information. (You do need to sign up to subscribe to stories. Nothing seems too intrusive, though.) I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather pay for a good service than get it for free and wonder when it will be ruined by lack of money.

Circa’s main advantage is the friendly UI and simple iPhone feeling, which will certainly make it easier for some people to keep up on news. For me, it didn’t pass a couple simple tests: It didn’t feel more time efficient than reading “regular” news, or more in-depth than following people with the right interests on Twitter. I’m glad to see people experimenting with ways to distribute the news, but that’s partly because I’m still looking for a solution myself.

Grade: C

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