The 8 great innovations of Breaking News

Our best inventions and a bit of our history

Now that Breaking News belongs to the ages — our modest operation was shut down by NBC at the end of the year — I thought I’d share our largest innovations in a single list, linking the original blog posts and news stories about them. To date there is no real alternative, not just for Breaking News, but for nearly all of these innovations so far:

  1. Virtual real-time coverage

Breaking News was the first and only news organization to adopt a virtual model of coverage: instead of sending reporters to cover breaking stories in person, we “teleported” into stories by observing and comparing what eyewitnesses, officials and all reporters were posting on social media.

Like the reporters on scene, we used news judgment to identify new facts and provide context, sourcing every detail back to the originator. We looked for early consensus in reporting from trusted sources — everyone covering the story — and similarities among eyewitnesses. We watched video and looked at photos. We used our own experience covering thousands of breaking stories as a guide to avoid common sources of misinformation. We wrote “editor’s notes” providing guidance on early unconfirmed details, providing transparency into how we operate.

While many newsrooms inject social media curation into their own coverage, Breaking News was the first to rely on virtual coverage exclusively, institutionalizing this approach across a 24/7/365 editorial team and distributing our coverage across web, app and social channels. Our mission focused on impact: To make the world smarter and safer by connecting individuals with the information they urgently needed to know.

It turns out, virtual coverage is fast and incredibly accurate. Breaking News’ track record was well-known in the industry, breaking the biggest stories ahead of other English-language news organizations (i.e. the Paris attacks and the Brussels airport bombing) while avoiding bad information. We even timed it: notifications from the Breaking News app were 14 minutes ahead of the next-fastest news app, on average.

We were also known for the stories we didn’t publish. A seminal moment was the Boston bombing: despite four news organizations reporting an early arrest — which turned out to be bogus — editor Stephanie Clary did not report it. She became our top editor and helped write the book on making virtual coverage work around the clock.

Breaking News’ coverage was trusted at the highest levels. From the White House situation room to the Pentagon and the UN — not to mention nearly every major newsroom, from CNN and the NY Times to the AP — Breaking News was monitored on a daily basis. Corporations relied on us to ensure the safety of their employees. For some users, Breaking News helped them navigate through some of the worst tragedies in recent history.

And we did it with an editorial staff of just 9 full-time and 2 part-time employees.

2. Linking straight to the source

It’s one thing to distribute your own reporting, but quite another to point to other news organizations that got the story first and reported it best. Instead of writing stories, we linked the best ones. We were fiercely independent, not favoring any brand over another.

It started with Michael Van Poppel and @breakingnews on Twitter. When we took over the account in late 2009, we doubled down on his approach to link everything else. As we rolled out and the Breaking News app, we carried over the same philosophy. We were the first and only news source to exclusively and directly link everyone else.

Over the years, we linked thousands of news organizations around the world, sending millions of referrals every month. In 2011 we created the first Twitter news tipping community which grew to more than 500 participating news organizations. It popularized the #breaking hashtag (sorry about that) and convinced over 100 local newsrooms to start using Twitter.

The result was a diversity of coverage that no single newsroom could match. Together with our blunt, straightforward style of writing, we were praised by Breitbart and NPR fans alike for our unbiased, just-the-facts approach to the news. “The best app I have, honest to god, is the Breaking News app,” Senator John McCain told reporters one day. Several people (as did Time Magazine years ago), likened Breaking News to Walter Cronkite.

We even made a funny video about it.

Users visited us relentlessly — some as many as 100 times a day. Our loyalty numbers were off the map when compared to other news apps and sites. When we announced our closure, we received thousands of email and social messages. Some said it felt like they were losing a family member.

In a world where the news media is struggling for credibility and yearning for user loyalty, Breaking News accomplished the seemingly-impossible task of being trusted on both sides of the political aisle in one of the most contentious times in recent history.

3. Breaking news that matters to you personally

With the exception of the biggest stories, breaking news means something different to everyone. For decades journalists have debated what qualifies as breaking news — the “threshold” that triggers it — but in reality each one of us defines it differently based on our location, interests, backgrounds and relationships.

This was a fundamental realization for Ben Tesch, Tom Brew and me in our earliest whiteboard sessions in 2010. Why are small groups of journalists working for large news organizations blasting out the same breaking stories to hundreds of millions of very different people? (We made a funny video about this, too.) How could we tap into the long tail of breaking news and make it matter to each of us?

It was not an easy problem to solve in real time — breaking news by nature is unexpected and isn’t “trending” until later — and it required a combination of technology, community and an editorial staff, all working in tandem. With our updated app launch in 2013, Breaking News not only delivered the big stories, but enabled you to personalize your own breaking news with deeply granular notifications. By following any of over 100,000 topics and stories — and sharing your location — you were alerted the instant there was breaking news that mattered to you. You could also “mute” topics you didn’t want to see, like spoilers from the Olympics.

The end result was a balance between what you needed to know and what you wanted to know, all delivered in real time. It was all part of our mantra to focus on “time saved” for users rather than driving “time spent” for ourselves: give users just the information they urgently need, as quickly as possible, and point them to the original source.

4. Knowing what’s going on nearby

Suddenly you hear lots of sirens and see a big column of smoke. By nature of your proximity, you urgently want to know what’s happening. The closer it is to you, the more visceral it feels. You’ll find out what’s happening eventually — by fumbling around on social media, waiting for a local news report or talking with a neighbor — but there’s an information gap that often lasts 30 minutes or more.

At Breaking News, we were working hard to close that information gap to a few minutes — even seconds.

We started with “proximity alerts” in 2014, a new kind of notification that alerted people when 1) a big story breaks near their location and 2) we believe it will impact them in some way. We sent hundreds of proximity alerts every month for active shootings, major fires, escaped convicts, suspect standoffs, transportation disruptions, etc., all around the world.

As many people told us, when you received a proximity alert, it was magical. It was also a tremendous public safety service, and several people credited it with helping save lives. In my case, I received a proximity alert about an active shooting across the street from my kids’ school. (To date, this product doesn’t exist at any other news organization or technology platform.)

Soon after proximity alerts, we launched a “nearby” feed, showing breaking news that’s happening near your location. From earthquakes (which appeared seconds after USGS published data about them) to local news tweets and our own updates, it was the closest anyone has come to closing the nearby information gap. Then we launched…

5. News tips by proximity

It started with a last-minute experiment in the Apple Watch, and a few months later, it ended up winning the top technology innovation award in journalism in 2016.

We called it “nearby tipping.” Similar to Waze, if you saw news breaking nearby, you’d tap a button — like fire, police activity, power outage, flooding, etc. — and your anonymous tip would appear both to people near your location as well as to our editors. For users, it helped close the information gap. For editors, it made Breaking News even faster, giving us a starting point on a map to search for a breaking story.

Like on July 14th, 2016, when we saw two “lots of sirens” tips shared in rapid succession from Nice, France. On the map, the tips were posted from opposite ends of the Promenade des Anglais. That was enough of a signal for our editorial team to search social media around the Promenade, make sense of what was happening and break the Nice terror attack story worldwide — even ahead of French news organizations.

We created an ingenious reputation system for people who sent us tips, and we integrated it into our signal detection tool, Launchpad, combining tips with social signals. We were working on several new features at the time of our shutdown. Until then, we had received tips from over 100 countries in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Ukraine.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about tipping was a single person, anywhere in the globe, could reach our editorial team in seconds with just a couple taps. In Sri Lanka, for example, a “flooding” tip enabled us to post a photo and draw global attention to a disaster in the making, before any significant coverage around the world.

6. Fully structured data

Thanks to Ben Tesch and his team of 9 developers and designers, Breaking News was architected from the ground up around data. In other newsrooms, data is secondary, but at Breaking News, ensuring that an update is properly structured— tagged with topics, locations and other classifying data — was just as important as the information in the update itself.

Before any update was published, editors ensured that it was properly structured following our own extensive style guide on tagging. Our editorial meetings were often dedicated to discussing the intricacies of topic taxonomies and hierarchies — most of which we created ourselves — and how our team can consistently structure stories around the clock.

In fact, I believe we were the first news organization to send a correction for a metadata error.

That’s because data powered Breaking News. The site and apps were built entirely on top of our API, just like Twitter. (We were the first news organization to accomplish this feat). All of our push notifications sprang from how we classified each update. Our early work on bots and voice was leaps and bounds ahead of other news organizations because we could answer questions like, “What just happened in Seattle?” or “What’s the latest news about driverless cars?” with succinct answers.

It wasn’t sexy. But it was largely the reason that no competing service — including Google Alerts — was able to do what Breaking News did.

7. System to convert noise to signal

This is the most difficult innovation for many people in news and technology to understand. That’s because we weren’t really a news company. Or a technology company. We were hybrid of both.

We created a self-improving system that converted noise to signal. It was a set of automated and manual processes blending technology, community and editors together.

The platform, Velocity, ingested what it thought was news — through our own signal detection tool and community tips — and made a first pass at structuring the data. Then our editors took over, filling in the gaps and making news judgment decisions that no magic algorithm can perform. It was all designed to minimize friction and publish as quickly as possible.

Velocity by itself does little, disappointing engineers who believe that relying on human editors is a failure. Editorially, we didn’t win any awards for our coverage because short-form virtual coverage is deemed inferior to sweeping, on-the-ground reporting. But when we brought it all together, we were able to cover breaking news faster and more accurately than any single news organization in the world — often with just one person on duty at a time. Making it all work together as an interdependent system, and relentlessly improving on it, was the secret sauce.

8. Startup inside a newsroom

In Breaking News’ early days at Msnbc Interactive, the joint venture between Microsoft and NBC News, it became quickly apparent that our virtual coverage approach to the news was fundamentally different — even at odds with a traditional newsroom. Our boss, Charlie Tillinghast, handed us the book “The Lean Startup,” kicked us out of the office and let us operate independently as an internal startup.

From editorial to product, we made our own decisions — even building our first platform on Google AppEngine (while working at a Microsoft joint venture, which we thought was hilarious.) We declared ourselves “mobile first”, changing all our product priorities and metrics to focus on mobile when the industry was still fixated on the desktop. We moved fast, broke a few things and enjoyed every minute of it.

It was the first instance, in our knowledge, of a truly independent startup operating inside of another news organization. For those who work in the business, you know how extraordinary it is to operate this way inside a large media company — especially when both are covering breaking news.

When NBC News took over MSNBC Interactive, we embedded our editorial staff in NBC newsrooms, but we continued to operate independently. To their credit, NBC never interfered with our coverage, even as we linked traditionally competitive sources during big stories, like election night.

There are many advantages and — as we learned — disadvantages to operating as an internal startup. I won’t begin to tackle them here. But I wish more newsrooms invested in their most entrepreneurial staff to tackle big problems outside the organizations’ “core” businesses and comfort zones. I wish more foundations would fund news startups led by experienced entrepreneurs. I wish more VCs would invest in the news rather than just complain about it.

Now more than ever, we need dreamers and wave-makers in the news industry. We need to make even bigger bets that blend the best technology, community and editors together to solve “impossible” problems. We hope that Breaking News, in some way, helps pave the way for bigger and better inventions that make the world smarter and safer for all of us.

(The Breaking News staff is looking for work and our next big challenge. Here’s how you can contact us.)