Thoughts on Facebook Paper, Yahoo! News Digest, and Internet news

Virtually all of my news comes from the Internet, and virtually all of my time on the Internet is now spent reading news in one form or another. A lot of people are this way, and in the past few years, there’s been a great market push for new apps focused on culling Internet sources and creating customized news feeds for the user.

Flipboard might be one of the most popular and enduring apps to come out of this movement. It does a visually appealing job of mashing news content together. Google Currents was pretty good, but it’s presently being phased out in favor of Google Play Newsstand, a more diverse but less direct app for news consumption.

RSS, an old favorite for power users looking to get direct updates from blogs, has slowly been dying out. Google shut down its venerable Google Reader platform after it realized it couldn’t be monetized. Not only was the web platform well-executed, but it plugged in seamlessly into many excellent reader apps, like Reeder for iOS and OS X. Now that Reader’s gone, Feedly seems to have taken the helm, allowing easy import of Reader data into its new platform. Apps like Reeder had to be updated to work with new RSS backends, and while Reeder for iOS 7 is one of the best apps around, Reeder for OS X has yet to see the same update.

So I guess it’s no surprise that Facebook wanted to get in on the action. A few weeks ago now, Facebook released Paper, a standalone app with a focus on news consumption and design. It got a lot of positive press at its release, but I wonder what sort of user retention the app is seeing. The app, though at #1 on the App Store for some time, is no longer even in the Top 100. For comparison, Facebook’s main app is #7, Snapchat sits at #10, and Twitter follows at #29. Paper currently sits at #105, between Weather Underground and Word Puttz.

Paper is pretty, but maybe not practical.

Paper is pretty, but maybe not practical.

I’ll echo what many others said: Paper is beautiful. At times, anyways. Its design has a basis in gestures, smooth transitions, thin typefaces, and content consumption. For the time being, Facebook Paper is ad-free, something to celebrate given that my mobile Facebook News Feed now seems to be 40% sponsored posts.

But the veneer of modern, flat design language (and a generally extreme departure from the format of Facebook’s main app) can’t cover up the unsubstantial functionality of the app. It isn’t sure what it wants to be. It could have been a pure news sourcing app, but Facebook decided to inject friend activity into the feed. It’s only understandable. Paper makes the content of Facebook a bit more appealing, but seeing each post as a large card scrolling horizontally at the bottom of the screen isn’t the most efficient way of getting around.

 

Four mentions of Fast Company, one title, two different cut-off introductions... where does the eye go?

Three mentions of Fast Company, one title, two different cut-off introductions… where does the eye go?

The news functionality, while pleasant enough, is underwhelming. Facebook has various sections a user can add to his or her Paper, some with names like “Enterprise” and “Tech” and others with more flair like “Score” (sports) and “Flavor” (culinary news and recipes). But upon selecting any one of these sections, news is presented in a somewhat awkward manner that screams “pulled from Facebook”.

Pictures and articles coexist in one long feed of recent news stories deemed significant. News stories are first presented like you’d see on your News Feed: Typically a little blurb about a story, followed by a boxed link with the actual article headline. This becomes distracting, as it seems like there are always two headlines to read, visually separated on the screen. Tapping the headline just opens up a fullscreen mobile browser to the article online. This isn’t all that different from how RSS readers do it, but RSS has the advantage of displaying at least part of the article in plain text before sending the user to a mobile site. In addition, some of the sites Facebook highlights don’t have mobile page layouts, often making it difficult to enjoy the news story without fuss.

So, Paper is a nice looking app with good intentions, and I think it deserved a lot of the praise it got, if only for demonstrating that Facebook’s designers could create something completely different and modern with a focus on content over advertising. Ultimately though, I wonder how many are returning to the app regularly to consume news. It seems like the designers only took the idea partway. The interface is new, but the stream of news posts isn’t anything new or remarkable.

Yahoo! News Digest follows similar design cues, but it puts the headlines front and center.

Yahoo! News Digest follows similar design cues, but it puts the headlines front and center.

Contrast Paper with another app, Yahoo! News Digest. It received some fanfare with it launched shortly after the new year, but since then, it’s also gotten very little press, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in the App Store’s Top 200. However, after downloading it back in January, this is an app I have used twice daily without fail.

Yahoo purchased Summly, a nifty news-condensing technology created by a teenager, a few months earlier, and this is the first app to make use of it. Each day at 8am and 6pm EST, the app serves up anywhere from six to ten top news stories, kept usually to two short paragraphs, with links to further reading posted at the bottom. News Digest is driven by a very similar, though more angular and extreme, flat user interface. It’s unforgivingly skimpy on content. There’s hardly an interface to speak of — while there are a few menus, you can use the app day by day and only ever see the news stories. For now, News Digest is also completely ad-free, and if Yahoo can keep it that way, I can see this app, or others like it, really taking off. News Digest succeeds because instead of doing everything sort of well, it does one thing almost perfectly. It is uncluttered, uncomplicated, and incredibly easy to use. It serves its purpose and rapidly gets out of your way.

Yahoo's Summly technology condenses stories to a few key sentences.

Yahoo’s Summly technology condenses stories to a few key sentences.

Ultimately, both apps are very slick and very forward-thinking. While I find it easy to criticize Paper’s news-reading flow, it’s clear that it was designed to turn Facebook’s content on its head and display stuff in a new way. Paper has Groups and Messages functionality embedded in it too, allowing it to be used as a complete replacement for the current app, and that’s pretty cool. On the other hand, News Digest exists in a bit of a vacuum. There are no accounts to speak of, nor does the app seem to exist in an ecosystem of other Yahoo! services and products. Rather, it’s quite free of branding, and email/Facebook/sharing options are relegated to a small button at the bottom of articles. I prefer getting news from News Digest, but I would be interested to see a “never-ending” implementation of it, more akin to Flipboard, Paper and other aggregators.

I’m still waiting for a service that makes me buck RSS feeds as my primary source of news, but seeing apps like these crop up is a good sign. There’s a demand for logical, all-content news services, and in time, I think we’ll be seeing some great things.

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