Reuters' star social media editor Anthony De Rosa is leaving for a new role: editor-in-chief of fledgling news startup Circa. Circa is a news app (cofounded by Arsenio Santos, journalism crowdfunding platform Spot.us founder David Cohn, Ben Huh of I Can Has Cheezburger fame, and Matt Galligan) that aggregates and repackages news from around the web in a made-for-mobile format: Stories are broken down into "atoms" of information intended to help mobile readers easily consume news as it occurs throughout the day. Some of the app's most intriguing features are the ability to "follow" an ongoing story and the app's ability to un-bold the headlines of stories readers have already clicked on.
Several years ago, a startup De Rosa worked for was acquired by Thomson before it merged with Reuters. In addition to the hyperlocal blog network he cofounded, Neighborhoodr, De Rosa's success as a sort of human newswire on Tumblr and Twitter paved the way for his jump from Reuters' business to editorial side in 2011, when he was named the company's social media editor. Since then, he's become one of the most well-known social journalists online and an active voice in the ongoing conversation about the future of news. He took a little time yesterday to chat with me about his new job, his desire to disrupt the form of the traditional news article, and his editorial vision for Circa. Below is the transcript of our conversation, slightly edited for length and repetition.
So you’re leaving Reuters—why did you choose to go to Circa?
I’ve been talking to Circa even before they started the company—when it was in its infancy it was called something like “The Moby Dick Project,” and I met Ben Huh at NewsFoo, which is this gathering of journalists that happens every year. Ben was at one in Arizona, at the Cronkite School. Ben presented this idea that he had—he had very similar ideas that I had about things that we thought that we weren’t doing the way we should in a digital format for news. We were still kind of stuck in this old newspaper paradigm.
Some of the ideas that he had were that users should be able to remove things that they already know or they’ve already seen, and get rid of the clutter of a news site. Also: Tell me what I need to know in a story that happened recently—that’s the way people write blogs, but it’s not the way people write traditional articles. There’s 10 other, 15 other ideas that he had for The Moby Dick Project—after that he met Matt Galligan, who ended up becoming his cofounder, and that kind of distilled this down to a mobile product, and that’s basically how Circa began, when they decided that what we want to do is figure out a way to present news in a mobile format in a way that nobody’s doing it right now, so that it’s easier for people to consume news on a mobile phone.
I met with Matt a couple months after I met with Ben, and I started to see the early incarnations of Circa and thought it was really amazing. I thought what they were doing is really smart—at the time, I was still working at Reuters, I was still very happy with continuing what we were doing there, but I was always very enamored with what Circa was doing.
Finally, the last month or so, I just decided it was time to do something different, and I kind of was itching to get back into the startup world again, and work for a smaller company. You know, there’s all sorts of politics and issues with big companies—of course, there’s going to be issues with a startup as well, but I was just interested in getting back in that world. Matt is a really smart guy, he has a lot of successes in the startup world, he started two companies, he sold two companies. All the elements just seemed right with Circa—that they’re embarking on something new, that they’re trying to do something no one else has done before, and that they look at news presentation in the same way—that it’s broken—as I do, and they want to fix it. That’s something I always wanted to focus on and make something I do—it’s something I jump out of bed and think about.
Yeah, I know you’ve talked about it a lot on your Twitter feed and you’ve blogged about the state of the article. You know, we have a new site at Fast Company called Co.Labs. It’s sort of become our place to experiment with media. One thing we’ve begun to talk about is ways we can sort of usefully and productively disrupt the notion that the article is, to borrow a phrase from Circa, necessarily the atomic unit of our journalism. One of the things we’ve been doing is we’ve been experimenting with these stub posts. Basically, they’re almost like slow live blogs, where we’ll track a story over a long period of time. It seems like what we’re trying to do with these stub articles shares some kind of conceit with Circa. I wonder if you think, is there some greater evolution of the article going on right now, something maybe less disjointed than a Twitter account or something sort of between a live blog and an article? How do you think the article is evolving online or should be evolving online?
Well, first, I definitely did notice that you guys were doing that, and I was really happy that you’re thinking that way and trying to figure out a better way to present the different things that you were covering. I think there is an evolution, but it seems like it’s taking so long to happen—we’ve been presenting news in a digital format for almost 20 years now, and we’re still really kind of stuck and tied to this inverted pyramid model, which I think is really kind of broken. People have tried and experimented—most of the work I did at Reuters was through live blogging, and I kind of felt trapped in the traditional article format, never really felt it was the proper way to present a story that was in progress. Being able to have more developer resources at my fingertips and working on a smaller, nimbler team—being able to think about how we can do these things and present things in a way that makes more sense—is something that’s really attractive to me. That’s the opportunity I’m going to have with Circa, being able to focus on mobile, where I think more people are spending more of their time than anywhere else.
I think in just the traditional companies that are out there, you look at like the established places like the New York Times and Reuters and so on and so forth—it’s harder because, you know, you have a lot of other factors at play. You have the newspaper, with the New York Times, when they’re producing their articles they have to think about how this is going to be presented in a print format, and are you going to ask your writer to produce two versions, a print version and a digital version, because it really is going to be completely written in a different format? If you think about the way it’s written in digital, and you really want to make it digitally native, you have to break it down to different atoms, and you’d have to have it sequentially written differently. It’s a different narrative format. So—that’s another issue, I wonder if companies that are still printing a newspaper or magazine can figure out a workflow for this.
And Reuters had another difficulty with this, because they’re feeding their news to clients… they have to think about all the clients that they have.
It presents a very complex problem for a lot of people who are still doing print and people who have a lot of different masters.
Right. Just to go back one step to something you said earlier about the problem of being trapped within this idea that every article has to take the shape of this inverted pyramid: I use Circa, and one thing I’ve noticed is that in those little atomized sections, it’s not always the newest stuff on top of a Circa story, sometimes it really is still sort of the same kind of opening you would see in a traditional article. Do you think that, just in terms of how we are trained to consume information, is it more difficult to break away from that pattern than we might assume?
Well, I don’t think the app is perfect yet. I think there’s a lot of things we’re going to have to figure out and think about how we can present this best for people who know a bit about the story already and people who are coming into the story fresh. I think we’re going to have to try to decide what’s the proper presentation that we can use that will allow the reader to make a decision as to whether or not this is the first time they’re reading this article or first time reading something about this topic—and if they already know a bit about it, maybe we don’t show them that background information or that stuff that happened earlier in the story. I think that the app, in some ways, has to become smarter about that, because as you pointed out, we’re still giving them the preamble or the thing that happened way earlier in the story that people who are already reading it 10-15 hours ago already know about. So those are things that will need to evolve. It’s still very much a work in progress and those things will definitely get dealt with over time.
I also would like to see—I know the app is really focused on telling you what you need to know about some of these stories, but when we eventually build up our editorial resources and look to present this on other formats, like tablets, I do want us to think about longer reads and more of a narrative. So it wouldn’t be entirely the “get me up to speed very quickly,” you’d also have an option when you’re sitting on your couch and reading something on your tablet, you’d be able to get into something that’s a little bit more meaty, but still really beautiful, atomized formatting so you can take in bits and pieces of a story at a time—and have different elements of a story, whether it be video or photos. It’d be really interesting and fun to think about how that would look on a tablet format.
It’ll be interesting to see how Circa attacks that—one thing Co.Labs is doing is, they have these stub posts, and they basically branch off features from different parts of these stub posts. But at Fast Company, what we’ve ended up doing is approaching our stub posts almost as growing articles, so by the end you have several sections that have different subheds, and all those stubs have turned into a big article. It’ll be interesting to see how that can be tackled for Circa if you’re planning on taking this multi-platform approach between a phone and a tablet.
Yes, it’s very different. You’re not going to build the same way you build the phone app as you build the tablet app. Much more space, you know people are going to spend much more time reading on the tablet than they do on the phone, so you can go a little bit deeper, you can spend a little more time on narrative. I think you can do stuff like—I don’t know if you saw the thing that The Guardian did about this massive brush fire that happened in Australia. They did such a beautiful multimedia presentation for this. I thought, “this would be perfect for something on the tablet.” And they atomized the story, so you have to step through it. I can see something like that potentially being similar to what we would do on a tablet because we can really take advantage of audio and video—and I know Matt and everyone at Circa is really, one of the things they put high importance on is design and how things look and making it a really beautiful experience, and this thing that The Guardian did I think is just amazing, it’s something that I think when we’re thinking about the tablet format, it’s something that I would really consider as kind of a goal to reach.
Another thing that has occurred to me a lot when I’m looking at Circa, and I think this is a particularly relevant question for you because the habit of outlinking has been such an important issue for you the past few years, is that outlinking behaves so differently in Circa—so it doesn’t happen inside the text, but it’s actually a style that pre-dates the web, it’s footnoted and it’s annotations basically, or footnoted citations. Thinking about design and the experience of reading, is that an improvement over our current attribution system on the web, is that something you agree with?
Well—I think you have to think about how it’s formatted for a mobile device, and I wonder—I see some benefits potentially of having the links directly in the text and that’s something I may consider bringing up when we’re looking at future versions...I don’t see any reason that you’d want to put the links outside of the text unless there was a stylistic reason or they thought for the readers' sake it was creating a better experience. I don’t they’re trying to hide their work at all. I think one of the main things that Circa believes is that you should show as much work as possible and you want to give people all the resources available that went into finding out the information that article presents.... I can see that evolving, it’s something that I think is going to be part of the conversations and deliberations that we have now that I’ll be working for them as the editor-in-chief, and it’s something that I’ll definitely consider more if people feel like having the links in the body of the article would be a better experience than the way that they have it now.
Well, along those lines, another thing I think is interesting is that there’s a lack of bylines, because a traditional rewrite person, or just a rewrite person like, in the contemporary landscape on a web news desk, or a blogger who aggregates news in their posts, they all give themselves bylines, even if the information is secondhand—and Circa has no bylines. I’m interested in that, too—is that more or less transparent, or is that actually an effort toward not taking credit for other people’s work?
The way that Matt described it to me is that it’s sort of more of a team effort, there’s a lot of people who have their hands in all these articles, nobody really owns any of the articles that are presented in the app, so it would get kind of lengthy when it gets to bylines because it’s not really an individual that’s behind each article that’s being presented there. I understand how folks may want to be able to say, “so and so at Circa had written this,” but the way that they’re building these articles, it’s not necessarily in the traditional way—the reason behind it is mostly because there’s not going to be enough there from a single person for it truly be a single byline.
Even at Reuters, if you look at some of our articles, you’ll notice that there’s no byline at the top, and there’ll be maybe “edited by” or it’ll have a number of people at the bottom. That’s indicative of the fact that a lot of that story was written or had been reported elsewhere beforehand—you’ll see that this was in the Wall Street Journal or this was in the New York Times. Byline only comes into play when it’s something that’s been originally reported, someone went out and found this news themselves—when we’re gathering information from other sources, you want to put the sources ahead of the byline, because a lot of this is coming from other places, and we’re distilling it for you. A byline would indicate that we’re doing original reporting here, which is not the case.
I find this so interesting because Circa doesn’t write its own articles in that traditional sense, right? It’s aggregating content from the web and repackaging it, and it almost seems like now, in this era when every news organization is rushing to get a version of the same story as everyone else up on the Internet at the same time, it seems like Circa is in some ways attempting to disrupt the whole notion of a rewrite.
Right. I wrote about that recently—the fact that it drives me insane that we’re spending all this time matching stories when we should just be giving a brief overview and then just linking out very quickly. It’s just spending way too much time on just getting our own version out, which I think is ridiculous, so yeah, I’m really happy to not have to continue to be part of that game and I think that what Circa is trying to do is just credit the sources that found this information in the first place, let people know that they’ve done it, and then brief them and send them out if they want to read more about it.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s no internal social features, like commenting, in Circa, which I think is really interesting because you are super active in your own comment threads around the web. I’m curious what you think of that as well.
Comment would be difficult because it’s such a small format on the phone, but I do feel like Circa hasn’t really attacked how they’re going to use social to get a network effect just yet, and that’s part of what I’ll be doing, is trying to come up with a social strategy for making it more well known, more part of the conversation when a story breaks—that’s something I’ve discussed with the team and I feel like is currently something they could be doing better, making Circa more of a place people are going to go when they hear about a big story breaking. I think social creates that beacon where people are reading that information, to be sent off to learn more about it. I think I’ll be able to help them with that. I have a lot of ideas about how they can do it. It’s something that they haven’t really focused on initially—they were really trying to build a really great app and that was really their focus, but now as I’m joining the team you’ll see Circa out in the wild a lot more, whether you’re spending time on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else. It just wasn’t one of their priorities starting out, and it definitely will be as I’m joining the team.
So what will be the difference between what you’re doing and what David Cohn is doing?
David is going to be in between development and editorial, sort of the liaison between the two. I’ll be focused primarily on editorial...But we’ll be working very closely together—his role is director of news and mine will be editor-in-chief.
Another observation based on the way you work. On your Twitter account or your Tumblr or wherever, you’ve always been pretty—even though you come essentially from this giant, evolved news wire—you’ve been pretty open with your perspectives and infused a lot of your personality in your work. Circa seems, so far, it’s pretty just-the-facts, it’s not infused with a lot of perspective...do you think that’s something that should remain the same at Circa, are you bringing those skills over from working at a wire, or is that something you see evolving over time?
I think in the mobile, in the phone space particularly, I don’t think people have time for opinion and commentary—they just want, “tell me what I need to know, tell me all the facts, tell me what’s going on.” I think on the phone it will probably continue to be that way. I think when we get to the tablet, there may be potential for commentary, for opinion, for bringing in some people who have a specific point of view—if you have time and want to lean back on the couch and read what someone’s take is on something, that might come into play. But I think on the phone, it’s going to be strictly the facts, strictly get to the point, tell me what I need to know, informing people very quickly about different topics. I think format kind of necessitates that you’re kind of pithy and giving people just the information that’s important.
Is there anything else for Circa that’s part of your vision for how it will evolve?
I think the opportunity to do even more in terms of making the app visually pleasing and getting video into play—right now there’s no video, that’ll be coming in the future. I think the iPad presents some really interesting potential—not just the iPad, but all tablets—so it’ll be really fun and interesting to see how we can do all sorts of things with the tablet...There’s just a lot of things that are really exciting for me that are coming down the pipe with Circa, I think over time people time are going to really understand what the potential is for focusing on news in this format and really thinking about what’s available to you when you break away from the traditional newspaper/magazine/print idea that hasn’t really evolved very much. That’s really the most exciting thing here for me, we’re really focused on “what can we do with these digital devices that’s so native to these devices, that nobody’s really spending all their time thinking about when it comes to news.” I’m really excited to spend all my time thinking about that.
One of the interesting things about Circa is that it relies so much on human beings, and not on robots—I’m curious, I know you’re more on the editorial side, but beyond ads or getting acquired, how can an app like this make money?
Yeah, I know it makes investors really scared when they hear that there are a lot of humans they need to power their companies, like, “Okay, so what’s the algorithm, how do we automate this?” We’ll probably figure out some efficiencies here and there, where we can figure out ways that we don’t need to do certain things, but if you’re in the business of media or editorial, you’re always going to want to have someone as a human layer—otherwise, it just doesn’t work, I mean I don’t feel like you could ever really present a media product that’s completely automated—those companies are out there and most of them are really crappy. They don’t really feel natural and they’re not customized in the way that you want them to, they sort of get part of the way there and there’s a lot of junk that I really don’t care about. The human layer is still very much important.
The way that you make these companies profitable is where you can be efficient and where you can utilize technology so that humans can focus on the important matters and not spend their time doing things that are very repetitive or can be done by machines. It’s kind of a balancing act between the two, but every company has to have some human capital.
Disclosure: I first met De Rosa a few years ago, at Shake Shack in Times Square for lunch one afternoon—he was an API product manager at Reuters at the time. We talked about how my old employer might be able to use the new CMS tool Reuters was launching, and exchanged ideas about social analytics. Since then, we've continued to occasionally share ideas; we've served on panels together and he's included my work in some of his social media posts.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that De Rosa was Reuters' first social media editor. He was not.