4 news apps that will change everything

I'm a huge fan of newspapers. I've been subscribing to the print edition of The New York Times since I was in college.

Newspapers always had an edge over alternative sources for news, which is that they're run by editors. That's why I also use the individual news apps from the Times, as well as The Wall Street Journal and others.

Software is great, but computers are decades away from being able to even approximate a human editor's ability to combine reason, experience, intuition, taste, judgment and other qualities in developing and presenting stories for human readers.

But I'm also a fan of socially or algorithmically curated sources of news. These have an advantage over newspapers because they can cherry pick the best stories from thousands of sources, including newspapers, magazines, blogs and social networks.

One recent example of a good socially curated news app is Kite, which is currently for iOS only. It's been called the "Instagram of News" because you follow people and get your news based on what they share. Plus you can share to other social networks, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Another interesting advancement is Facebook's Instant Articles, which (like all content on Facebook) uses a combination of socially and algorithmically curated news stories.

Facebook's Instant Articles enable select publications (only nine at present) to build their stories directly into Facebook's iOS app. An Android version is expected this summer.

Anything Facebook does with news is, well, big news because, according to a recent Pew Research study, some 61 percent of "millennials" get their political news from Facebook.

When you tap on a news story that uses Facebook Instant Articles, the fully formatted story -- pictures, videos and all -- load instantly in the app. The reason is that they are actually pre-loaded, and also because they're not a link that switches to a browser app. In other words, you don't have to wait for the content to load or the app to switch.

Best of all for publishers, the formatting tools enable each publication's signature look, including typefaces, logos, colors and other design elements. Another benefit for publishers is that they can sell ads that will be delivered through the app, and Facebook isn't demanding a cut.

While Kite and Facebook's Instant Articles are improvements over what existed before, they still aren't likely to transform how the wider public gets their news.

But four new news apps emerged this month that will change everything.

The reason is astoundingly simple and it boils down to the human touch, literally. These apps combine the eclectic harvesting of the best content from thousands of news sources with the curating power and skills of human editors.

Here are the four new apps that we learned about in the past three weeks:

BuzzFeed News

BuzzFeed last week launched an iOS news app called BuzzFeed News. (The Android version is expected in the fall.) The app offers major stories, with content brought in from news organizations, including BuzzFeed itself.

At the top of the main app page, you see three bullet points, telling you the three most important current stories, which you can share to social media as a graphic.

Below the top stories list are other stories presented in order of relevance, interest or importance, starting with a headline and summary. If you tap on the headline, you're taken to a selected news story online. Some go to BuzzFeed stories (they seem to favor their own), and others to articles on The New York Times, The Guardian and other major publications. Following the related stories section is a summary with a bullet-point list under a "What We Know" heading listing of established facts.

Below that, selected snippets of quotes, tweets, Vines and GIFs are presented in reverse-chronological order. BuzzFeed plans to add Instagram photos, YouTube videos and SoundCloud audio content later.

All this is put together by editors who are finding and summarizing the best stories while tracking and providing background and supporting material.

Twitter Project Lightning

Speaking of BuzzFeed, the site got a scoop last week on Twitter's secret "Project Lightning" -- a curated mobile app event "experience." The concept is to take whatever people are talking about (on Twitter, natch) and offer a richer, more qualitatively filtered way to participate in that conversation. ("Project Lightning" will appear as the central button in the mobile app on all platforms, according to the story, but we don't know when.)

Breaking news events are likely to be major categories in Project Lightning, but so will event television (the Oscars, the Super Bowl, etc.).

The idea sounds promising. Twitter is a great place for event conversations and also breaking news. But the straight-up Twitter stream is either way too much or way too little. During big breaking news events, you get flooded with nearly identical tweets while missing high-quality tweets posted by people you're not following.

Lightning will have a team gathering together the best quality tweets and shoving them into the app, so you get only the best content, which includes tweets and anything deliverable by tweets -- photos, videos and more.

In addition to engaging with the app, you can "follow" a curated event, so updates to that event show up in your regular Twitter stream, even on the browser version.

Twitter has always been a great source of news for the biggest stories. But "Project Lightning" may turn the mobile app into a great alternative news source because now they've added the power of human editing and curation.

Apple News

Apple announced a news app at its World Wide Developers Conference earlier this month. The app is already controversial because Apple will hand-pick content sources, at least initially, and because the app will just come with every iPhone and iPad.

In addition to choosing news sources, Apple editors will choose stories to be included. They'll also make it possible in the future for news organizations to build story formats exclusively for the app.

Details are still sketchy, and the app was not included in the developer build distributed at the show.

Linkedin's Pulse

Pulse launched as a hot news aggregation startup five years ago. It specialized in using algorithms to filter and select stories.

Pulse was acquired by Linkedin two years ago. The new Pulse app, which launched last week, is nothing like the original.

For starters, of course, the new Pulse is human curated, with many of the stories written by staff who work in Linkedin's newish editorial department and others pulled from major publishers.

The real magic of Pulse is that it smartly zeroes in on your business connections. For example, if a colleague is mentioned in an article, or wrote one, Pulse will notify you so you can read it. The app also uses your Linkedin contacts to know what industry you're in, so it can deliver professionally relevant news.

One of my favorite Pulse features is transparency. They not only choose stories for you, but tell you why they did. Stories are labeled with "Editor's pick" or "Trending in the insurance industry" and other headers. Best of all, they give you some control to tweak these selection criteria.

Why these apps are different

It's impossible to know which or if any of these apps will take over as the main way people get news. But what's clear is that combining global sourcing with human editing is the secret sauce that will transform the news consumption experience.

Until now, Silicon Valley has focused on using software to replace human editors.

Finally, the industry has realized that human editors are an irreplaceable aspect of news publishing.

By combining the old editorial process with the new world of global and eclectic news sourcing, news apps have cracked the code at last.


Mike Elgan

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