waves from a typhoon in china / Reuters

Reinventing Breaking News Around You

Because it seems like just about everything is #breaking these days

Breaking news used to be a term reserved for stories that were unequivocally a big deal. That’s because there were only a few huge news outlets, and everyone paid attention to them. Think about 9/11: on that day, the Associated Press wire issued two rare “flash” alerts, one when each tower fell.

Now it seems like just about everything is breaking news. It’s everywhere, amplified by social media and the proliferation of new digital media outlets that have sprung up in the past decade. “Breaking news used to be ‘news of transcendent importance.’ Now it’s a joke,” wrote Slate’s David Weigel. Or as Wikipedia put it, “The term ‘breaking news’ has become trite.”

It’s not just professional journalists who seem to be posting more breaking news in more places: a growing army of “accidental journalists” is discovering their own #breakingnews, both large and small, urgent and otherwise.

For a company that’s literally named Breaking News, we’re intimately familiar with the growing frustration and confusion over what constitutes breaking news. We have one of the most active instant feedback loops in journalism: the Twitter account @breakingnews and its 6 million followers. We receive immediate and vocal reactions to just about anything we post. One of the most common responses is:

When we examined our Twitter feedback over time, we discovered that this complaint is widely distributed. Sure, a small handful of stories get more criticism than others, but the vast majority of complaints about what constitutes “breaking news” are scattered along a wide range of stories and topics. Someone will invariably think that it’s not worth classifying the latest from Amanda Bynes’ legal troubles as “breaking news.” Others will excitedly retweet anything about her.

That’s because the root problem with breaking news is that it assumes everyone is the same. The same breaking news is blasted everywhere — all screaming for your attention — a one-way, broadcast model of journalism grafted onto a new era of social media and mobile phones. But with the exception of truly big stories, breaking news means something different to everyone. We are no longer “the audience.” Each one of us is unique.

So we’ve decided to do something about it, and we’ve rebuilt Breaking News from the ground up — around you.

Your own Breaking News service

The backbone of Breaking News is our team of trusted and caffeinated journalists. As we’ve done for three years now, we quickly discover breaking stories across thousands of original sources, sifting out unconfirmed reports and duplicate stories. During the LAX shooting, for example, we avoided incorrect reports while publishing lightning-fast updates.

With the new Breaking News — relaunching today as a new iOS app and on BreakingNews.com (with Android coming soon) — we’re not taking journalists out of the equation, but we’re adding you into it. While we’re discovering and vetting stories in real time, you control what you want to see. Since breaking news by definition thrives on the unexpected, we’ve taken an entirely novel approach to personalization.

When you open the app, you get all the news instantly — no setup necessary. If you see something you don’t think should be breaking news, you can quickly mute the topic. Don’t think anything about Miley Cyrus is a breaking story? Just tap the mute button:

I’ve muted Miley Cyrus in my Breaking News app

And you’ll no longer see any news about Miley. Muting also comes in handy for long-running, emotionally-taxing stories and TV spoilers (i.e. mute the Oscars to avoid hearing the results.) You can always bring back these stories if you wish, and if something truly big happens, we’ll alert you anyway.

We’ve also added custom alerts, which is the most addictive part of the new Breaking News app. Tap the alarm icon to get a push notification whenever there’s a breaking development about a topic, spanning people (i.e. Elon Musk) and cities (San Francisco) to large companies (Google) and ongoing stories. For example, I’ve alerted “football.”

Push alert on my phone after alerting “football.”

Each alert is a standalone update, not a promotion to drive you into the app. Just glance at it and you’re caught up. And unlike Google Alerts, we’ll send you a push alert the moment something significant happens, not a big list of stories that mentioned the topic over the last few hours.

You can now set up your own Breaking News service on the fly. After all, why should you keep checking an app or a website for an update on something that matters to you? Shouldn’t it just tell you the moment it happens and send you on your way?

‘Whoa!’ and the metrics of surprise

We’ve never been a fan of a “like” button next to a breaking news story. Do you really “like” that earthquake? Social popularity — be it likes or retweets — is a poor metric for breaking news. For example, one of the most retweeted stories from @breakingnews last year was about the record-setting song “Gangnam Style,” which many argued was not breaking news.

Our theory is that when it comes to breaking stories, surprise is a better metric than popularity. Since Breaking News is fast, people are discovering stories for the first time. The more unexpected, the more surprising.

So as an experiment, we’ve added one more feature in the new Breaking News. To the right of each headline, you’ll find something that we’re calling the “whoa!” button. If a story surprises you, express that shock or awe by hitting “whoa!” Then, you can also see how many other people find the story surprising, and you can choose to share the story with your friends. Those numbers power the “whoa!” section at the bottom of the Breaking News feed, showcasing the most surprising stories over the last few hours.

An example of one of the more surprising stories

We’re looking forward to seeing how this new metric of surprise compares with existing metrics of social popularity. We’ll also be tracking which stories and topics are muted and alerted the most, all in real time. We’ll share what we learn in the weeks and months to come.

Out with the globe, in with the new

With the new Breaking News, we’ve rolled out a fresh look with larger images and a more engaging design that’s optimized for mobile. But one of the most obvious changes is our new logo.

Our new logo followed by the old Breaking News

Gone is the red globe — which has always looked like it was ripped from a “breaking news” banner on TV. We’ve introduced a new logo that exemplifies Breaking News’ transformation into a personal mobile service. We’ve replaced the “screaming red” with an orange-red color, and our logo design has taken inspiration from an image of a pin on a map — it’s news that’s targeted to you, wherever you are.

Of course, our social accounts will keep cranking out the broadcast-style updates, but the new Breaking News app and site provide a refreshing way to discover the stories that matter to you in the moment they happen. We are just getting started, and please don’t hesitate to tell us what you’d like to see.

Before you go, watch our launch video. It’ll “smarten you up.”

“I say whoa.”
Next Story — Lessons From My Mom on How To Give
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Merilee Bergman (1942–2015)

Lessons From My Mom on How To Give

The gift of time and attention in a distracted world

(Written on the day of my mom’s death, one year ago today.)

So much of my mom’s legacy is she taught me how to give.

She gave everything away.

When I packed her things today, all that really remained is a ring, watch and a well-worn bible. In her younger years she was a nurse. As she aged, she traveled and donated her time and money to the poor.

Giving is a sacrifice, but done joyfully. I wasn’t enjoying it at all taking her to emergency rooms, surgeries and cancer treatments.

Now, I miss those times. She had so many things going wrong, that’s when we spent our quality time together.

Alzheimer’s struck early, chewing away her short-term memory. At first, I was frustrated at her. Why wasn’t she trying harder to remember? Then as she faded closer to black, I tried everything to fight it.

As I learned, unlike cancer — which she beat twice — you can’t fight Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an accelerating decline that eats you alive. Alzheimer’s is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.

There were only two things she remembered until the end: how to breath and the sound of my voice.

I’ll never know for sure, but I think I’m the only thing she remembered.

She taught me how to give.

We live in selfish, distracted times. It’s not that we’re jerks; we’re just busy. Busy working. Busy with the kids. Busy checking our devices. We’re programmed to capitalize on each moment and fill every gap.

I don’t know how much time I wasted with her checking my phone.

Giving isn’t just cutting a $100 check to a favorite charity. It’s sacrificing our most valuable resource: our time, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances.

I’ve met some incredible people over the last few months: hardworking caregivers with incredible patience, loving smiles and the touch of angels. They barely knew my mom, but they were there for her. They’re not on Twitter. BuzzFeed doesn’t write about them. But collectively they’re changing the world more than any startup on the planet.

We can all begin to give in small intervals. Instead of angling in front of an old couple on the elevator, smile and step aside. Instead of edging out that car in the Starbucks drive-thru, let them go with a friendly wave. Instead of nervously checking our phones, give your friends and family your full attention.

I’m still learning, too.

It grows from there. Visit that person you know you need to see. Look for opportunities to volunteer, not just because your friends are doing it — or you get credit — but because it’s the right thing to do. Invest your time finding the most effective ways to give your money to help people who really need it. And spend more quality time with your family.

Giving isn’t designed to be convenient or cool. It shouldn’t make a great Tweet, Facebook post or Instagram photo. In the end — which comes faster than we think — those things don’t really matter. What matters is how we’ve given, selflessly and joyfully.

(Please consider giving to the fight against Alzheimer’s. My recommendation.)

Next Story — Let’s Make the Future of Media Again
Currently Reading - Let’s Make the Future of Media Again

The band Chvrches plays at F8

Let’s Make the Future of Media Again

Instead of just watching everyone else make it

I’ve been to a dozen NABs. You know, TV’s biggest annual conference in Las Vegas. I loved to walk the endless halls and lose myself in new technology.

But I’m not going to NAB this week. I went to Facebook’s F8 instead.

I could go to NAB to find a $30,000 TV camera with a few more features. Or a $150,000 live truck with better gas mileage.

Or I could go to F8 and witness the world’s largest, most innovative media company show us the future of mobile, video and VR. A media company that’s a technology company, too. Like the old days of TV.

Ok, I’m not a Facebook fanboy; I’m a realist. Look at what’s happening. Look at what’s in front of you. Look where the audience is shifting in droves.

Facebook VP of product Chris Cox at F8

“Our early adopters are super excited they don’t need these anymore,” Facebook’s Chris Cox says, pointing to an image of a live truck. He was introducing Live API, a way for any internet-connected camera to stream straight to Facebook.

Yes, live trucks are still needed, but think about the bigger picture for a minute. As much it may hurt to realize…

He’s right. Everyone’s phone is a live truck, a mobile studio that’s jacked into the largest content discovery platform on the planet.

Just three months after launching Facebook Live to all users, Mark Zuckerberg decided to go big, realizing in a February meeting that the company should make Live a top priority. A BuzzFeed story on Live tells us what happens next, quoting Facebook Media’s product lead Fidjij Simo:

The original Live team was composed of only a dozen or so people. But the vision laid out for the product at that February meeting would require more than 100 engineers to build. “The meeting was on a Thursday, and on Monday, [Facebook Media engineering lead Maher] Saba and I were standing in front of 150 engineers,” said Simo.

From 12 engineers to 150 in less than a week. That’s the new pace of the media business.

The sooner we as an industry admit that Facebook and Google and Apple and Snapchat are running the tables on media innovation — mobile and video innovation — the sooner we’ll do something about it. The sooner we’ll take exponentially bigger, patient bets to solve real problems. The sooner we’ll embrace failure instead of saying we do, only to lay off the very teams who fail trying to invent our future. The sooner we’ll invest to recruit the best developers, designers and product leads, empowering them to break the “rules” and accomplish things we never imagined.

Facebook has just a few mobile designers. Here are two of them, Cat Audi and George Kedenburg III at F8

Yes, let’s work with the platforms, but it’s time to realize that tech and product are core to us, too. That R&D isn’t a 5% cost but a 15% investment in our livelihood. That the all-stars at our companies are wave-makers who don’t care about the next quarter but care deeply about five years from now.

Let’s not blame everyone else, but take a hard look at ourselves.

Until then, we’ll just be sitting around waiting for the next cool thing to piggyback on, the next launch partnership, the next distribution deal. It will be with technology we didn’t build, data we can’t see, experiences we don’t control, money we’re leaving behind.

It’s the future we’re not making.

Media friends, don’t let uncertainty slow you down. Now is the time to accelerate our efforts, tackle harder problems, take bigger bets, make bigger waves. Now’s the time to band together.

Let’s make the future of media again. You with me?


(Ok, here comes the full disclosure: I work at the coolest startup at a media company, Breaking News, and NBC has been fantastic. We’re solving a big hairy problem while *also* making great things on Facebook’s platform. And we’re having a blast. But I worry about our industry…)

This was first published in the Mobile Media Memo newsletter. Sign up free.

Next Story — Reinventing News for the Watch
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Reinventing News for the Apple Watch

Inside Breaking News’ debut on your wrist

The Apple Watch is not just a smaller screen with shorter content. The best Watch apps are connected to the world around you. You can discover when it’s about to rain, find the nearest public transit, call an Uber and open the door to your hotel room.

After a few days of wearing the Watch, NY Times’ Farhad Manjoo said it’s “like a natural extension of my body — a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain.” That sensation is amplified when the Watch is contextually aware of things around you.

That awareness can also apply to news. Remember the last time you heard lots of sirens, saw a large column of smoke or felt the ground shake. Depending on the event, you either experienced a mild curiosity or a burning need to know what’s happening nearby.

Over the past year we worked hard at Breaking News to be the first app to meet that need, both on your phone and now on your wrist.

Like a Breaking News Sensor

Humans are wired to want to know what’s causing commotion near us. The closer we are to a big story that just happened, the more urgently we want to know about it. In many cases, you may not even know something is happening in the first place.

Our new Apple Watch app is much like a sensor for breaking news. If a major story breaks nearby — like a mass shooting, building collapse, train derailment, etc. — you’ll receive a “proximity alert” on your Watch moments later. If it’s a smaller story, you can quickly tap into the app to see what’s happening with a glance.

Earlier this week, we sent a proximity alert to Goldsboro, NC after a shooting on a community college campus.

Technically, your Watch can’t detect news around you, but it certainly acts and feels like a sensor on your wrist. We’re now publishing several hundred updates a day in real time — mostly Tweets from our tipping partners around the world — that are only visible if you’re near the story in question, even when you’re traveling.

The faster you find out what’s happening, the more likely you can avoid disruption, minimize anxiety and alert other people who need to know.

An Innovative Way to Tip

The world is a big place, and sometimes Breaking News doesn’t know what just happened near you. So we created an experimental feature that makes it easy to tip us with a story from the Watch — without telling us the story.

A view of test pings coming into the Breaking News publishing platform.

Just a single tap of our tip button pings our editors with the town closest to your location. (It’s entirely anonymous even to us.) Then we check social media and news sources in the area. If we find any news, we’ll publish it to users who are nearby.

Rising Above Notification Overkill

In the first version of Apple Watch, every notification you receive in the phone version of an app will also appear on your Watch.

“We are about to experience a hyperdrive acceleration of notifications, propelling us to a crisis situation,” explains Steven Levy. “[But] done right, notifications are a wonderful Feed of Feeds, weeding out the stuff you really need to see from all the usual chaff in the stream.”

The Breaking News Watch app is decidedly simple. And incredibly fast.

Fortunately, people who use the Breaking News app already have unprecedented control of their notifications. Out of the gate, Breaking News sends fewer, faster alerts than other news apps, and everything we publish is tailored for quick glances. You can follow any of 45,000 topics and stories (i.e. Tesla, cybersecurity or Manhattan) and receive an alert the moment news breaks in one of your interests.

Whenever Apple offers more granular control of Watch notifications, we’ll provide even more flexibility between devices.

Just Version One

Like Manjoo at the NY Times, we’re taking the long view. The Watch has a steep learning curve and needs lots of improvements, but the potential is enormous. This is just version one, and we’re all learning at the same time.

One thing’s for sure: the best Watch apps will go beyond abbreviated versions of existing iPhone and iPad apps. They’ll be contextual experiences that connect with the world around you in simple, powerful ways.

(See also: At the Speed of Right)

Next Story — At the Speed of Right
Currently Reading - At the Speed of Right

At the Speed of Right

We set a rather audacious goal at Breaking News to solve a hard problem, and it’s best explained with an example.

Let’s say you just traveled to a foreign country and checked into your hotel. Moments later, a loud explosion shakes the building. You look out the window and see a column of smoke of few blocks away. Was it an accident? Or an attack of some kind?

File photo of a helicopter crash in London, January 16, 2013. AP Photo / Victor Jimenez

You have an intense need to know what happened. The longer you have to wait without good information, the higher your anxiety level — and the potential risk surrounding you.

This is information lag: the delay between something important happening and you learning about it. The more important it is to you, the more urgently you need to know.

Our goal is to collapse that delay as close to zero as possible, enabling you to make smarter, safer decisions in real time, wherever you are.

Approaching Perfect Knowledge

The more connected the world becomes, the more we can chip away at information lag. The fastest sources of information are social media and a growing army of sensors and live video streams.

“We’re heading towards a world of perfect knowledge,” explains Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE. “Soon you’ll be able to know anything you want, anytime, anywhere.”

Breaking News’ Stephanie Clary monitors the world.

Implicit in the idea of perfect knowledge is reliability. If the information is wrong or misleading, it creates more harm than the delay itself. Our challenge is to operate at the speed of right, achieving both in parallel.

This may be counter-intuitive for some journalists who believe speed and right are mutually exclusive. While we have a ways to go, we’ve made great progress with innovations like proximity alerts, nearby news, editor’s notes and our unique approach to live video. And we have several more to come.

The Value of Knowing Faster

The faster you find out about a breaking story that’s uniquely important to you, the more utility you derive from it. If you’re a stock trader, that’s an obvious statement. But it also applies to news on a wider scale.

I remember when we were testing proximity alerts in the Breaking News app last year, and I received a notification about a shooting on Seattle Pacific University’s campus, about three miles away from my location.

That brick building on the right is the daycare. Photo by KCPQ’s David Rose.

It took a moment to register, but I realized that my two kids were attending daycare right across the street from campus. I instinctively called my wife, and she called the daycare.

She was the first parent to call. The officer manager calmly told her the building was in lockdown and police officers were stationed outside. Everything was under control.

It didn’t take long for the daycare’s phone to jam with dozens of anxious parents dialing over and over. The gunman shot three people on campus before he was caught, and TV stations were now in wall-to-wall coverage. Stretchers were lined up outside the daycare.

But we knew our kids were safe.

Finding You When it Matters Most

In the new mobile world, push — relevant content that comes to you — is gaining traction over pull. I was oblivious about the shooting until I received a proximity alert in the form of a push notification, reducing the information lag on a story that was extremely important to me.

By receiving that alert, I had a higher expectation that the story was real. It’s not the same as scanning a social media post. Push elevates urgency, especially when it’s targeted to you. That’s why we have an editorial team working around the clock, vetting stories in real time.

Sending the same thing to everyone is easy, but pushing exactly what people want and need — even if they didn’t specifically tell you — is a challenge when you’re operating at the speed of right. But the end result is powerful and potentially life-saving. It’s not just-another-news-app with a nice design, but an indispensable information lifeline.

Come Help Us at Breaking News

From editorial to technology, we architected our entire company around being the fastest, most reliable source of breaking news on the planet. Our obsession with information utility — reducing information lag so people can make smarter, safer decisions — is a different approach than other news startups. We focus on time saved, not time spent.

Breaking News’ Jillian Stampher snaps a photo of the view from our Seattle HQ.

That’s why we continue to grow a highly influential and deeply loyal audience. We’re also expanding our team. Breaking News is looking for smart product and editorial talent who love to move fast, challenge convention and share our unique obsession. If you’re interested in learning more, please drop me a note over Twitter or email me at cory [dot] bergman [at] breakingnews.com.

(Breaking News is a standalone startup owned by NBCUniversal with offices in Seattle, New York and London. We make our own editorial and product decisions with the backing of a big media company. There’s no other startup like us, and we hope to hear from you.)

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