New BuzzFeed on the block: Circa to relaunch under Sinclair with original reporting, user-generated content

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The old Circa.

The old Circa.

Circa, once a mobile-centric news website aimed at breaking down complex stories into easy-to-digest news articles free from bias or political tone, will be relaunched by Sinclair News Group as an independent news product aimed at millennial consumers, the company announced in a press release today.

In addition, Sinclair announced it has hired John Solomon to lead Circa’s relaunch as the product’s chief creative officer. Solomon was praised by Sinclair as being an “an award-winning journalist with an extensive history in news reporting, editorial and management positions” who started his career at the age of 20 and quickly rose to become one of the Associated Press’ youngest staff editors.

Circa was widely followed in the journalism industry for being one of the first news websites to experiment with a mobile-first approach. The company, started by Matt Gilligan and Ben Huh, hired around 20 staffers to distill complex domestic, international and political news stories into easy-to-read, quick-to-consume news digests published via a mobile app.

The company suspended operations earlier this year when it could not raise a new round of investment funding. It laid off its editorial staff, and there were talks — confirmed by The Desk — that the company might be acquired by Texas-based digital news startup Daily Dot Media.

At least one source said then that Daily Dot Media had acquired Circa’s technology and remaining staff after a few weeks of discussion. However, Sinclair said in its release on Monday that the television station group acquired Circa’s technology in August for a mere $800,000.

The new Circa will look like a shell of its former self: Where the old app (and short-lived desktop website) focused on aggregating and repurposing complex news stories, the new Circa will focus on original reporting and user-generated content. As described on Monday, Sinclair’s approach to Circa looks to take on BuzzFeed, the trans-national multi-million dollar millennial-driven news website that — after first launching in 2006 as a pop-culture news portal — has seen some success in the re-publishing (or, in some cases, outward theft) of Internet content mixed in with exclusive reporting and community contributions.

BuzzFeed attracts around five billion “content views” every month — an extremely high number in the digital media world. Circa, on the other hand, failed to find an audience beyond its core of power users, most of whom were fellow journalists — Sinclair said, at its peak, the old Circa had just 300,000 unique mobile users.

Investors found Circa’s lack of editorial direction and monetization strategy to be a weakness, and they were unwilling to throw money at something that was considered to be a long-term news experiment. But many saw its technology and platform to be a strength, something Sinclair acknowledged on Monday.

“We decided to purchase the Circa brand and reader-friendly, patented technology, rather than take years to build ourselves,” Sinclair executive Rob Weisbord said in the release. “The Circa app will be re-designed, re-imagined and re-launched as one of the most innovative news gathering, reporting and audience-building digital platforms.”

Circa will be led by an “independent-minded” staff that has yet to be hired. Its editorial operations will be largely separate from Sinclair’s TV businesses, though the company did say Circa would go beyond written content to include short- and long-form video content for the first time — meaning Circa’s staffers will no doubt harness the power of Sinclair’s vast television portfolio for news.

Sinclair said Circa will have bi-coastal operations in Seattle (where Sinclair owns television station KOMO-TV) and Washington, D.C. (where the group owns WJLA-TV and cable channel NewsChannel 8). The company expects Circa to relaunch in Spring 2016.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Circa would be relaunching as an “independent, left-leaning news product.” The editorial position of the new incarnation of Circa was not explicitly stated in the press release.)