What B2B Publishers Can Learn About Content from Circa

Screenshot of Circa AppIn Sarah Lacy’s recent review of Circa, a new iPhone news app, she identifies and critiques three innovations in the way it presents news information. Its content is atomized, aggregated, and personalized.

Though Lacy thinks Circa’s founders have overstated their case for these innovations, she says they have identified issues critical to the future of news media. I would add that these issues are particularly important for business-to-business journalism.

Circa reflects the thinking of its most prominent cofounder, Ben Huh (yes, that Ben Huh).  As Lacy notes, for Huh, the article is no longer the defining “atomic unit” of journalism. In Circa it is replaced by the much shorter “flash card,” a short statement making a single point about a news event. Each news story is made up of one or more of these flash cards.

Huh also argues that there is too much overlap and repetition in most news stories. While he obviously values analysis and original reporting, he says there’s too much of it. Circa dispenses with it entirely. Its news content, all sourced to the original, is entirely aggregated from elsewhere.

The third key goal for Circa’s treatment of news is to make it responsive both to its consumer and to its format. By remembering what flash-card units of news you’ve read before, Circa may omit them in future stories, since you already know the information. And just as importantly, Circa tries to match the form of content to its container. On an iPhone, the reasoning goes (though Lacy rightly questions it), a few screensful of content constitute the ideal form of presentation. In other formats and contexts, the approach might well include longer forms.

While she likes the approach, Lacy is critical of the excessive claims of saving journalism that the Circa founders make. Nor does she agree with their assertion that the article is outmoded. Nonetheless, she suggests that if their rhetoric is extreme, their strategies are not.

Though B2B publishers will not simply want to copy those strategies, they should pay them close attention. Here’s why.

First, B2B publications today still rely far too heavily on articles. Articles suit perfectly brands like The New Yorker, where subscribers seek out the pleasures of extended reading and reflection. That’s not what the readers of the trade press are looking for. But it’s still what too many B2B editors and journalists want to give them.

Similarly, trade publishers put too much emphasis on original analysis and reporting. This sounds like sacrilege, I know. But let’s face it. In practice, trade reportage often doesn’t match audience needs, often favors advertisers, and often, to be honest, just plain sucks.

Analysis and reporting are still important, but are best practiced selectively. In any case, even with the best writers, one publication cannot come close to meeting the information needs of its readers. So aggregation—sharing the best and most relevant content from other sources than your own—should therefore be part of any trade publication’s mission.

Finally, B2B publishers need to do a much better job of suiting content and format to the reader and the medium. Every publisher has to find the right mix not just for each type of reader, but for each individual reader.  In other words, content must be personalized. And content must also be sensitive to each form of media. In tablets, for instance, articles may still flourish, while in mobile, short-form aggregation may dominate.

There is no single right approach. The lesson to draw from Circa is not that aggregation is the future of journalism. The lesson, rather, should be that the tools and techniques we use as journalists will change constantly, depending on the medium and the audience. The future of journalism, that is, will be multiform.

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