Snapchat entering the breaking news business could be a good thing

Imagine that a mass shooting is happening. What should you do? Well, if you’re in danger, you should probably find safety. And if you’re safe, there’s a good chance that you should wait until the next day to learn more about what the shooting because of how much misinformation is involved with a major story such as this. But, if you must follow breaking news, you might want to check Snapchat first.
Snapchat might seem like an improbable source of breaking news updates. The service is known primarily for letting people superimpose goofy stickers over their selfies and taking some of the risk out of sharing nude photographs with others (because those photos sort of disappear forever). As the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people and injured another 21 on December 2 unfolded, though, the service became a source of up-to-the-minute briefings on what was happening in neighborhoods around the targeted area.
Offering these updates required Snapchat to find publicly-posted snaps, curate them into one story, and, in some cases, use text to clarify what was happening. This gave Snapchat users an idea of what people in the area were sharing — and provided much needed background information that informed users without making it seem like Snapchat knew the entire story. It was just a simple service gathering news and making it available to the people who might benefit from seeing it.
Combine this with the ephemeral nature of Snapchat’s content and it seems like the service might be a good source for breaking news. It can react quickly, use content from many users, and pass along brief updates on the situation as they happen. When the situation has resolved, all that content disappears, making it less likely to contribute to the flood of misinformation that can haunt the web, while law enforcement and the journalists covering it struggle to find the truth.
It’s easy for misinformation to spread on the web. Hitting “like” or “retweet” on a false report doesn’t require much effort — certainly less than it does to spend a few seconds looking for accurate information or sharing new info as it becomes available. That misinformation often remains until someone goes through and deletes it, which is another opportunity for someone to get the wrong idea about something, share that idea, and keep the perpetual ignorance machine going.
Snapchat’s self-deleting updates don’t afford this opportunity. There’s no perpetuity. It’s a bit like talking on the phone with someone: Unless they’ve taken extra steps to record whatever was said, the information is passed along once before it disappears into the aether. The photo-and-video-based nature of the service also lends itself to eyewitness accounts, which limits the claims people can make. (Not that video or photo evidence on social media is infallible.)
I reached out to Snapchat to get their perspective on their news-aggregation. I was given a statement attributed to the company’s head of communications: “We published this story because we felt that the content, which comes from the LA Local Story, was newsworthy and held national significance” — and later told that my followup questions wouldn’t be answered. “We have nothing more to share at this time, sorry,” a spokesperson said in a rather short email. “Thanks!”
Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Snapchat did something similar in the future.  It’s in a unique position to offer people lightweight updates about a developing situation from the eyes of the people most affected by it. Combined with a little editorial judgment and some other features, like the one that allows Snapchat users to view similar content from other public stories, that seems like a nice setup for anyone who wants to know what’s happening in a breaking news story.
Will there be downsides? Of course. Some of Snapchat’s verbiage doesn’t mesh with what it’s showing during stories like this. (“Swipe up to Explore similar Snaps!” read a line of text shown over a photo of kids lining up to leave a locked-down school.) And there’s always the chance that the company will pass along videos or images that somehow mislead their viewers. I wouldn’t expect the company to have all the answers about important story developments, either.
But if someone is unwilling to wait for law enforcement to investigate the situation, for journalists to get to the bottom of the story, and for the frenzied masses to stop sharing whatever information comes to them, they could do worse than to check Snapchat. And even if they end up getting bad information they can at least take solace in knowing that their blunder won’t be available for anyone to see hours, days, weeks, months, or years after the truth is revealed.

Details emerge about Facebook’s news app, Notify

There’s no better way for a company to capture someone’s attention than sending a notification to that person’s smartphone. We’ve turned into Pavlov’s dogs, only instead of salivating when a scientists rings a bell, we fire little shots of dopamine upon feeling the familiar vibration of a handset coming from our pockets. Facebook knows this, and will reportedly take full advantage via a new news application called Notify that may debut soon.
For those keeping track, Notify would be Facebook’s second mobile news app after Paper — third if you count the main Facebook app.
So, how is this one different? Notify will apparently allow select publishers to send notifications to people who subscribe to a publication’s “Station” for breaking news alerts, according to a recent report from The Awl. This meshes with an earlier report from Business Insider, which states that Facebook is working on a “stand-alone mobile news application” meant to rival Twitter. A Facebook spokesperson declined to discuss Notify, telling Gigaom the standard “We don’t comment on rumors and speculation.”
So far, there haven’t been any reports about Notify having a connection to Facebook’s Instant Articles, which allow publishers to host content directly on Facebook rather than their own (usually slower) website. If news of the app is true, I wouldn’t be surprised if that changed before Notify’s debut.
Notify’s functionality could be enough to entice publishers struggling to get people to pay attention to their articles. News organizations are becoming more reliant on using push notifications to drive engagement to breaking news or exclusive coverage. Why? Well, as New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan stated in a response to reader complaints about push notifications, those little nudges can “quadruple mobile readership on Times digital platforms within about 15 minutes.”
In other words, Notify could help publishers reach more people, and presumably even drive higher traffic to their websites. It could also increase the value of being first and/or fast to breaking news. In return, Facebook would get even more control over the media — even among publishers it hasn’t convinced to sign up for Instant Articles — while making its users more important in the process. Facebook likely enjoys its position as the funnel between readers and reporters, and Notify could be yet another way to make sure that doesn’t change.
Then again, Notify could also fizzle out soon after its release. As previously mentioned, Facebook experimented with another news delivery platform, Paper, earlier this year. The app itself features a refreshing design, and clearly segregates real news from personal updates. But Paper also hasn’t been updated since March, and isn’t as popular as other Facebook apps, according to data gathered by the App Annie intelligence tool. (A Facebook spokesperson declined to discuss Paper’s fate with me.)
The rumored news app may debut later this month, according to The Awl’s report. We’ll have until then to enjoy the bliss of relatively quiet smartphones.

Ahead of Apple News launch, Flipboard adds voting to its news feed

Digital magazine app Flipboard is getting an update that will allow users to fine-tune the news feed that appears when you open up the service, the company announced today.
The Flipboard improvements come months before Apple is scheduled to debut its own digital news app for its line of mobile devices. Today’s update will focus on surfacing more articles users want to see via the home screen feed. You’ll now have the option of voting up or down on articles, topics, or sources that appear in the feed — much like what Facebook has been doing with its own news feed for years. You’ll also be able to mute sources you never want to see. However unlike Facebook, the technology behind the voting was taken from Zite, which Flipboard purchased from CNN last year.

A screenshot of Flipboard's new feature that lets you vote on articles in the home feed that you like or dislike to improve what it populates.

A screenshot of Flipboard’s new feature that lets you vote on articles in the home feed that you like or dislike to improve what it populates.

The company told me that while many users are utilizing the ability to create and follow custom magazines — or topics, which are kind of like automatically aggregated magazines — nearly everyone visits the home feed. With that in mind, bringing the Zite-like voting to content that appears in the feed seems like a good idea. (The bulk of Zite’s technology was integrated last fall and put more of an emphasis on making custom magazines more useful as well as improving news discovery throughout the site.)
In my own use of Flipboard, I would say their assessment is pretty accurate. I usually start with the Home news feed and read until I’ve run out of interesting material before shifting over to topics or magazines.
The new update also brings the beginning of the end for the stand-alone Zite app, which still has a dedicated following despite getting acquired by its competitor. The company said it will soon start notifying Zite users and inviting them to convert over to Flipboard in the coming months.
The new Flipboard update should hit the Apple App Store early today.

Ben Huh re-imagines news for the mobile generation

Circa, the stealthy mobile news startup from Cheezburger’s Ben Huh and SimpleGeo’s Matt Galligan, is trying to build a news application that is native to smartphone and tablet users. In a video interview, Huh explains what’s wrong with news today and how it needs to change.