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.
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 t o 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.
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."
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.
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.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."
(This post originally appeared on Medium and was reprinted with the author's permission.)