In 1704, John Campbell, Boston’s postmaster, turned his handwritten newsletter into a printed half-sheet, called it the Boston News-Letter, and founded the first continuously published newspaper in the Colonies. He soon found a circulation of around 250 eager subscribers. “Royal proclamations and international news appeared first, followed by news from other colonies, and finally local news,” writes the journalist Tom Standage in Writing on the Wall: Social Media—the First 2,000 Years. “Campbell gathered information by talking to sailors, travelers, local officials, and visitors to his post office, and via handwritten newsletters from other postmasters. But most of the stories in the Boston News-Letter were simply copied from the London papers.” Campbell had been writing a kind of blog, which he made into a business that curated the news.
For much of history, news was disseminated like this. The industrial age of news, when consumers were loyal to a newspaper that did most of its own reporting, was relatively short-lived. Since the creation of the World Wide Web, people have again become used to reading news aggregated from a variety of sources, and in recent years, since smartphones have become common, the most popular medium for browsing the news has been the app or mobile website. Publishers don’t like apps much, but they work well for curators, and during the last few months the field of mobile news curation has enjoyed a blossoming of investment and creativity.
To date, the taxonomy of news apps has been three-part: there are apps associated with individual publishers, such as the Economist, the Financial Times, and the Huffington Post;apps that use machine-based methods to curate and condense news from a variety of sources, like Pulse, Zite, and Summly (the last, created by a teenage entrepreneur named Nick D’Aloisio, employs a little artificial intelligence to summarize articles; it was purchased by Yahoo for about $30 million); and apps that users themselves set up, such as Feedly and NetNewsWire, among many others. Two new apps, Inside and Paper, take another approach: they also curate from a variety of sources, but the news they show readers has been selected from trusted publications by humans. Both apps have been designed in conformity to the Jobsian aesthetic of radical simplicity. Yet this common strategy produces very different results.
Inside (there is also a website, Inside.com), the child of the Web entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, tries to show its users all the news. “I would like to be everyone’s starting point for news,” says Calacanis (who earlier in his career published the Silicon Alley Reporter and cofounded the blog network Weblogs and the search engine Mahalo). “We are already covering about one-third of the medium and fat tail of content every day. [He means that Inside will never cover the “long tail” of niche-interest news stories, which individually appeal to very few readers.] If we triple our coverage and hit 2,500 to 3,500 updates a day, we will cover every major and minor story in every major and medium publication in the USA.”
The interface of Inside recalls multiple, stacked decks of cards: a river of news displays story after story, and underneath each swipeable story are more stories within associated topic areas. What Calacanis calls “the atomic unit of news” is the update: a photo, a headline, and about 250 characters of text, containing about five or six facts. The app’s functionality is limited to a prominent link back to the original source and the ability to like, dislike, comment upon, or share a story. Liking a story means the user will be shown similar stories in “My Feed.”
The news updates, which draw from more than 100 publications, are written by a team of freelancers, who report to an actual editor. Calacanis claims his purpose is “to destroy all the worthless reblogging and get folks focused on the original reporting.” He says, “When we looked at a site like Business Insider, we saw that one of their five stories is awesome original reporting and the other four are link-baiting, social-rehashing jobs. When we see awesome pieces, we find the original source and link to it.” This emphasis on original reporting is not unironic, given that Inside produces no new journalism itself. But as Calacanis has admitted, investors (his own include names like Sequoia Capital, Elon Musk, and Fred Wilson) “generally don’t like content.”
Paper was developed by Facebook’s Creative Labs, an indulged group within the social-networking giant whom Mark Zuckerberg liberated to develop weird or interesting apps and projects. Zuckerberg hopes that the best ideas at Creative Labs will be applicable to Facebook’s mobile or desktop products and allow a risk-averse public company to remain true to its unofficial motto, “Move fast and break things.” But Michael Reckhow, Paper’s product manager, denies that the app is an experiment. He also says it’s not solely a news app: “We didn’t intend to fix news apps. We created a better way to share.”
Reckhow may dislike the word “experiment,” but it’s hard not to see Paper as an attempt to imagine what Facebook’s iPhone app might be if it weren’t so Facebooky—if it had been developed by people with good taste in graphic design, solicitude for the user’s experience, interest in real news, and an airy indifference to advertising revenue (see “Paper Will Make You Want to Read News on Facebook”). Paper eliminates Facebook’s long news feed. Instead, the user is confronted by a series of tiles representing topics—little magazines—among which one may browse by swiping leftward: one’s friends’ posts on Facebook, “Headlines,” “Tech,” “Creators,” “Ideas,” “Planet,” “Flavor,” “Enterprise,” and so on. Underneath each topic is a horizontal scroll of stories, selected by curators and algorithms from quality publications as well as individuals on Facebook, whose final content and order is the choice of the curators. (Reckhow explains, “There’s power in the combination of curators and algorithms.”) Tapping on a story expands an update, which is not unlike Inside’s atomic unit, so that it fills the entire iPhone screen. Tapping again makes the story itself unfold like a piece of paper.
Paper’s chief designer, Mike Matas, who previously helped design the Nest thermostat and cofounded the digital publishing company Push Pop Press, spent a lot of time thinking about how stories would look. Publishers’ fonts are reproduced respectfully. The brands of publishers are emphasized (for instance, updates from National Geographic retain the traditional yellow border of that magazine’s cover) at the expense of Facebook’s own branding. “We wanted to honor the content in the most authentic way possible,” says Matas. Another way he honored the content was by stripping away all the navigation bars and icons—the “chrome,” in the jargon of UX designers—that we’ve come to expect in mobile applications, and which persist in Inside. One explores the stories using natural gestures: swiping downward closes a story; swiping down again returns you to the horizontal scroll of a magazine. As with Inside, functionality is limited: the reader can like, comment, or share. Unlike Inside, however, Paper allows users to create their own stories and post them to Facebook.
Both apps are works in progress, representative of Silicon Valley’s reigning dogma of “agile development,” in which companies are enjoined to “deploy or die.” Here, companies launch “minimal viable products,” and features are added quickly in response to data-driven testing. As a result, both apps feel unfinished. So far, one can’t search for stories inside Inside. Right now, Paper doesn’t permit customization of the news feeds. But both apps are beautiful, Paper especially so. Inside is a much better news app, providing a fuller sense of the news; but Paper provides a more enjoyable, better-edited curation of some of the day’s news and improves Facebook’s essential functionality of sharing updates among friends.
Of course, one big reason both apps are so austerely beautiful is that they have no ads. Reckhow says, “We think of ourselves as a startup. We’re focused on whether people use the app every day. We’ll think about advertising later.” Calacanis expands on the idea: “The model in startup land is simply to get 1 to 10 percent compounded growth each week. Money is free for startups that grow at 1 percent or better. At some point, when we hit scale, which today is defined as 20 to 100 million monthly users, I see two ways to make money: subscriptions or native advertising.”
I liked the apps. I found myself using Paper in preference to Facebook’s real iPhone app in order to follow my friends, and I consult Inside once or twice a day. They’re quite popular with other people, too. Since its release in January, Inside has fluctuated between sixth and 859th in the U.S. News category of iOS store apps (based on the number of times it’s been downloaded), according to App Annie, a market research firm. Paper debuted in the iOS store last February at number 1 in the U.S. Social Networking category and second overall.
Both apps make browsing the news so frictionless, compulsive, and pleasurable that I began to wonder why we are attracted to the news in the first place. What is the utility of general news—I mean, news not read for competitive advantage in trade or in one’s career? For an economist, the answer is straightforward. Says Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of the Center for Digital Business at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, “General news is simply an end in itself, like music, food, or play. By definition, anything that gives us ‘happiness’ has utility.” Economists can even measure utility by comparing what the late Paul Samuelson called the “revealed preferences” of consumers: whether they would prefer to listen to a Velvet Underground song or read a story by David Rotman.
Like other straightforward answers from economists, this is true, yet unhelpful. The pop philosopher Alain de Botton suggests that the purpose of the news is to distract us: “We read the weird tales in newspapers to crowd out the even weirder stuff inside us.”But a sociological answer is probably the most honest. The news is a kind of higher gossip. It satisfies our curiosity and interest and disseminates ideas and opinions. Those are not small things. Because mobile news-curation apps like Inside and Paper make reading the news easier than ever before, they are little machines for good.