A review of news summary services

I like to stay at least marginally informed about what’s going on in the world. I’m not one to read a newspaper cover-to-cover, but I do want to know the highlights.

For my purposes, “news” consists of information about recent or ongoing events that affect many people whether they wanted to be affected or not. This definition excludes, for instance, most “tech news”, “sports news”, and “entertainment news”. A new movie release, a football victory, or Apple releasing a new fetish object only affects people who care about those things. Everyone else can safely ignore those items, which is not the case when, for instance, a volcano erupts next to their town.

A while back I noticed myself slipping into the modern habit of getting my news from a combination of social media and The Daily Show. This is a terrible way to get news; it’s far too heavily biased towards outrage and spectacle.

I also used Google News a lot, but it wasn’t much better. Robots are still lousy curators, they can’t summarize for crap, and you never knew what dodgy, pop-up laden news site you’d wind up reading.

I could have gotten my news direct from a major newspaper or a service like AP or Reuters. But I can’t stand the standard template these sources use:

  1. Headline
  2. Recapitulate headline, using more words
  3. Recapitulate headline using even more words
  4. Some context, if you’re lucky, rendered in the most flavorless, faux-objective language possible.
  5. A random, worthless quote, because apparently we always have to have a quote even if it adds nothing to the story.
  6. A forced “balancing” perspective. If the news story is about how kittens are adorable, there will be a quote from the the sole human being on earth who thinks that kittens are of the devil.
  7. A total lack of analysis or orientation on what to keep an eye on as the story develops.
  8. No links to further reading, because god forbid we admit that an internet exists beyond this news service.

So I cast about, and discovered Circa, which met my needs nicely. They had an in-house editorial staff that put together well-edited summaries of current events, complete with source listings and links to further information.

Unfortunately, Circa had to go and shut down, another victim of VCnomics. So I’ve been on the hunt for good sources of news again.

I was tempted to just sign up for the online version of one of the big papers. But I was put off by the absurd pricing structures the papers still use. Apparently they’ve decided that no one is going to pay for online content except total suckers, so they have just two tiers: the free, ad-supported stuff most people read, and sky-high weekly rates that treat an online subscription as if they were still shipping you a physical paper.

The big papers also offer daily email news rundowns. I tried two of them. The Washington Post one is crap; it’s just an auto-generated list of headlines with the first few lines of the story and a link to read the whole thing. On the other hand, the daily briefing email from The New York Times is actually quite good. It’s handwritten in the form of an actual briefing, and you can get a sense of current events from reading it even if you don’t follow any of the links.

Speaking of email newsletters, based on friends’ recommendations I’ve also signed up for a few others. Vox publishes Vox Sentences, a daily email that combines news with analysis. It’s opinionated, conversational, and enjoyable to read. Most of the bulleted items are summaries of linked articles (both from Vox and beyond), but the summaries are well-enough written that you can get the gist even if you don’t click through.

Another daily email I’ve been really enjoying is NextDraft. It bills itself as “The day’s most fascinating news, from Dave Pell”. I don’t know who Dave Pell is,  other than the curator of this email service, but he seems to do a terrific job. Each issue features a paragraph or two on each news story, with links to further reading. The summaries are conversational, entertainingly opinionated, and thoroughly readable. The one shortcoming I’ve found is that there’s a noticeable Silicon Valley flavor to the news, but it’s not overpowering.

Also in this category is TheSkimm. This service made a poor first impression by using nearly unreadable typography in their online edition:

skimm-for-july-10th-3

 

I signed up anyway and read couple of issues, but quickly unsubscribed. The attitude and perspective of the summaries felt like they were written by and for a very particular demographic: young upper-middle-class professionals living and working in New York City. If that’s who you are, you’d probably like TheSkimm.

I also looked around for news apps to replace Circa. I played with Inside, but ultimately uninstalled it. It seems to lean heavily on (presumably uncompensated) user curation, which is problematic for a lot of reasons: It’s just not as good as professional editing. It’s not necessarily a sustainable model, as formerly energetic users lose interest and move on to other things. And I’m less and less comfortable with businesses building revenue on the backs of unpaid users. Also, Inside ultimately just links you through to slow, ad-ridden major media news sites like CNN.

I’ve been much more impressed with Yahoo’s Daily News Digest app. It’s set up as a twice-daily digest, which makes it possible to finish—a feature I really appreciated in Circa. It’s beautifully designed. It makes use of an in-house editorial team to sum up stories, and they do a great job. Primary sources are listed, just as they were in Circa, but the summaries are usually good enough that there’s no need to click through. And each story is annotated with further links to relevant Wikipedia articles, pertinent social media responses, and videos. All together it’s a first-class offering. The only negative I’ve found is that it’s (so far) inexplicably unavailable for Android tablets.

And that about wraps it up. At this point I feel like I’m pretty well covered for news, between the email digests and the Yahoo app. But if you have other recommendations, I wouldn’t mind trying them out.