New app Timeline brings explainer journalism to mobile

It’s the era of explainer journalism and we have a new entrant to the list. Mobile app Timeline seeks to give you historical, on-the-go context about breaking news, current events, and random stuff. It’s like Wikipedia meets Circa meets Vox meets The History Channel, and it’s addictive.

Timeline launched a few weeks ago. In the way that Circa built a new, on-the-go format for a news story with its bite-sized cards feature, Timeline is creating a fresh form of explainer journalism, one that’s mobile first.

Here’s how it works. The home feed of Timeline shows you a list of potential stories to scroll through. The topics range from fairly evergreen, like “The surprisingly tumultuous history of socks,” to newsy, like “California’s vaccination problem,” to pop culture-y, like “Super Bowl ads reveal U.S. psyche.” They leave a curiosity gap, one that’s not too clickbaity, prompting readers to click for more.

Screenshots from the homescreen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day's stories

Screenshots from the home screen of the Timeline app, where readers can scroll through the day’s stories

On its individual story pages, Timeline presents a quick “in brief” summary of the news or the topic at hand. Then readers can choose to skim the content in the overview timeline format or click to read each section more in depth. Videos, imagery, and pull quotes lend a stylish, magazine-like air to the design and break up the chunks of text. Depending on the topic, the timeline can extend months, decades or even hundreds of years into history.

For now, Timeline has hired professional writers to write the posts, so the historical context is easier to understand and more enlightening than the jumbled, jargon-filled text of a Wikipedia post.

For example, the timeline on the history of Super Bowl ads considered the larger so-what of why these ads matter to America: “When viewed with a discerning eye, these commercials reveal the American zeitgeist at the time: What is valued, what is feared and what is accepted as common knowledge.”

Timeline taps into what makes Wikipedia addictive — this swirling vortex of information about random things you never thought about before — and makes it mobile-friendly. Instead of perusing Instagram while you wait in line, perhaps you’ll be tempted to tap on Timeline.

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Screenshots from an individual story page in Timeline. Left: The brief topic summary; Middle: The timeline view; Right: The in-depth view

Is Timeline taking on Circa or Wikipedia?

At first glance, the app’s nearest rival might seem to be mobile news app Circa, but that’s not really the case. Circa focuses on breaking news. People encountering the news for the first time can peruse previous updates on the issue, but the timeline isn’t historical in scope. “Ultimately, I don’t consider us a news organization, I consider us an information organization,” CEO Tamer Hassanein told me. “I would compare us more to Wikipedia than the New York Times or Quartz.”

The Timeline app frequently tackles evergreen or feature topics and doesn’t aim to cover breaking news unless its historical back story is compelling to one of the curators.

Of course, that limits the amount of information the app can offer. Hassanein hopes to eventually scale up to a user-generated content system, but that will come with a host of fact-checking and accountability dilemmas. The app is deliberately avoiding controversial topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict until it solidifies its editorial strategy.

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Does anyone want explainer journalism on the go?

Sites like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and the New York Times’ The Upshot were all created that under the premise that in the noisy digital journalism age, we needed more background on breaking news. But it’s proven difficult to explain context accurately while under the time crunch of the rapid fire Internet era. Since Timeline isn’t focused on breaking news, it might be able to avoid that problem.

Timeline’s real struggle may come in the form of app store noise. Despite the addictive nature of the app, its initial premise is a tough sell to the procrastination masses. Surf history instead of Kim Kardashian selfies during your down time? Not a sexy pitch.

Making values manifest at Big Spaceship

Big Spaceship is a NYC-based agency that is building on the third way of work, built on the new deep culture of work, where human autonomy, meaning, and purpose are the core values, and everything else falls into line behind that.

And — no surprise — they lead with a company manifesto, a handbook:

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I’ve been working on a report for a client (can’t say, yet) and I make the following recommendation:

A Constitution — Companies would be well-served to make the operating principles clear and explicit, especially regarding the relationship between the company and its constituents. It is totally inadequate to leave the core principles unspoken. In specific, the rights and obligations of all parties—management, full-time and part-time employees, freelancers, agencies, and partners—should be spelled out in a shared and public document. Consider this a company constitution.

That’s what Big Spaceship has done, and it’s the constitution for a very progressive, third way organization.

A way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done.This is might have been entitled Postcards From The Future, although this is today.  I plan to spend some time at the agency after the new year to learn more about the company, and I will share that here.

Oh, and they built HP’s social communications platform. See this case study: Connecting a social workforce.

The folks at Big Spaceship are an example of the third way of work, which is very much a response to the pressures and promises of our age. As I wrote in 2009,

We are moving into a new, post-industrial world, and new ways will have to be designed so that business can thrive.

This is like the economic pressures that drive us to build new infrastructure in the real world, or the societal pressures that lead us to make basic changes: like universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and child labor laws.

Whatever else social business comes to be, it has to be based on how people operate when they feel most free, most creative, most engaged, and most needed. We have to build a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done.

Whatever else, social business must be that.


What does a ‘No Fire’ policy change? Everything.

Imagine if a company had a ‘no fire’ policy. The impacts touch everything.

David Marquet interviewed Charlie Kim, the CEO of NextJump, a company focused on rewards and loyalty programs. Kim has instituted  a ‘no fire’ policy at NextJump, and he realized — after a six month consideration of the idea — that such an approach would change everything in his business:

David Marquet, How would a #NoFirePolicy affect your company?

Charlie Kim: Once you realize that you are entering into a lifelong relationship, hiring starts to look a lot more like adoption, or dating. Multiple interactions over some time are required before our team would get comfortable with a prospective hire. Every hiring manager started hiring more carefully, something I’d been advocating for but couldn’t make happen in every manager. Without further direction, they started treating hiring like adoption: once we take someone into our family, they’re here for life, when things don’t work, they’re responsible for training them, helping them.

Training also became much more comprehensive, touching subjects such as character, grit, and integrity in ways we had previously viewed as beyond the scope of company training.

I guess it goes beyond the normal requirements when you don’t have the option to simply dump someone: you look deeper into their make-up and less at their make-up. And the impacts are fairly conclusive: no turnover.

DM: Have you seen any impacts?

CK: Almost immediately turnover went from 40% to 0%. Recruiters and other CEOs have told me that NxJumpers aren’t even taking their calls. The percentage of employees who said they “love,” not like, not tolerate, but LOVE their jobs went from 20% to 90%.

I told you about the formal deliberate changes we made to our training programs. There were powerful, self-organizing impacts as well. Peer counseling groups formed in every part of the company. Groups of 3 to 4 people meeting regularly to help each other grow, talk through hardships.

Probably the biggest impact was the effectiveness of performance evaluations. Development discussions were usually wrought with skepticism from the employee standpoint — are you really trying to help me or just documenting material to potentially fire me? Since getting fired wasn’t an option, everyone became more open to talk about their real problems. Performance evaluations became what it was always intented for – development discussions, open, honest and often real and raw conversations on what people are struggling with. Since people could voice real concerns at work, they left those toxins there and didn’t take them home with them. Home life improved as well.

Changing the social contract so fundamentally — treating people like family and not discardable — is a completely radical move. I am sure that we we’ll see more of this idea as more companies begin to realize the value of standing for something more that increasing profits for the shareholders.