Circa wants to be a mobile wire service for breaking news — one that learns what you know

Circa, the mobile news service that was co-founded and funded by Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh, launched the second generation of its platform on Thursday, including an Android version of the app — but the real meat of the launch is Circa’s focus on breaking news, and its plan to become a kind of one-stop mobile wire service for major news stories. Co-founder and CEO Matt Galligan said Circa will now start offering breaking news alerts, combined with the service’s existing ability to “follow” and get updates to a story.

Until now, Circa has been available only on the iPhone — with short shareable clips also available on the website — and it has focused mostly on creating packages of news related to major stories. So for example, Circa editors pull together comprehensive reports on events such as the shutdown of the federal government or the unrest in Syria, which are written based on existing news stories from other outlets (which Circa lists underneath each story). Readers are alerted through the app when there are new updates added.

Real-time breaking news updates to follow

Now, Circa will be pushing real-time breaking news alerts to readers who sign up for the new feature, even though in some cases there might be only a headline or a sentence available, and then users who follow the story will get further alerts as more news is added. Galligan said in an interview the service is going to be very judicious about when it sends out alerts, because he doesn’t want to overload attention-challenged users with notifications for every little blip:

“I’ve personally been pretty insulted when I get a breaking news alert for something trivial, so we’re going to be very careful about how many we send. And time will factor into it as well — it may be a borderline important event, but we know that it’s dinner time on the East Coast, so is that the best time to send it? These kinds of updates are currency — you’re always one step away from people turning them off.”

There are other services that also offer mobile-focused breaking news: a service called Breaking News, for example — which started as a Twitter account and was then acquired by NBC — also offers news alerts both on Twitter and the web, as well as through its mobile apps.

Circa’s “follow” function, however, is somewhat unique. And Galligan says the ability to know when someone has seen updates to a story provides the service with valuable information when it comes to customizing what it shows users. For example, he says, Circa knows when someone has seen a specific update, so if that update needs to be corrected then the app could theoretically push out a correction to only those readers who saw the original mistake.


Users could sign up for unconfirmed reports

This would solve the problem that many journalists have with Twitter as a news source — or the “citizen journalism” that comes from sites like Reddit — which is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that people who saw or re-shared a false report also see and share the correction.

The potential of that kind of customization goes even further, Galligan says: what if users could indicate to Circa that they were willing to see more unconfirmed or speculative news as part of the content within the app? Then the service could send out unverified reports only to those readers who had specifically requested to be added to those lists — and if corrections or updates needed to be sent, then they would only have to go out to a small subset of the userbase.

“Because we have this closed loop, what if we could push out unconfirmed news on an opt-in basis? So as a user, I could say I would like to be more bleeding edge and get more unconfirmed reports — it would be easy enough once it is confirmed to remove the label, or if it turns out not to be true, we can just push out the correction to those people who signed up for it.”

In addition to that kind of customization, Galligan said that an increasing use of Twitter and user-generated content is a likely route for Circa to take as it broadens the sources of news it uses for reporting, and also that the service is looking seriously at how it could integrate its journalism with wearables such as Google Glass. “We’re giving strong consideration to wearables, let’s put it that way,” he said. “After all, our news is already designed to fit those devices.”

Ad Age magazine recently asked Huh how Circa planned to make money. “I have no idea,” he said. “I’m sure [co-founder and CEO Matt Galligan] and his team will go figure that out at some point.” Could customization of the kind that Galligan describes be part of the answer? More than likely, I think. Circa has raised $2.4 million in seed funding from a group of investors including Quotidian Ventures, Lerer Ventures, Dave Morin, Matt Mullenweg and Gary Vaynerchuk.