One big complaint about current news coverage is that there’s not enough context — an article or TV report might tell you what happened today, but it gives you no understanding about the history that led up to today’s news. Now a startup called Timeline is aiming to change that.
When you open the Timeline app, it might look at first like just another news aggregator. There’s a feed with the day’s big news — but the headlines have a slightly different spin on them. For example, one of Timeline’s front page stories as I write this is “The White House v. Journalists,” which notes that the Justice Department is ending its efforts to get New York Times reporter James Risen to testify and identify confidential sources.
But while Timeline summarizes and links to the Risen news, its focus is broader than that — as the headline indicates, the real story it presents is about the often tense relationship between US presidents and the press. So underneath a brief news summary, you get to the meat of what Timeline does — which is, yes, a timeline, starting with President Grover Cleveland complaining about journalists at his wedding way back in 1886, then jumping through things like the Monica Lewinsky scandal and how the press covered the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, then finally ending on Risen and, more generally, Obama’s not-particularly-open relationship with the press.
As I explored some of the other sections of the app (US, World, Technology, Business, and so on), I noticed that their reliance on the day’s news can vary. For example, the tech stories are about broad themes linked to last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (“Gadgets That Make You Look Rich”, “Where’s My Flying Car?”) rather than specific news, and indeed don’t link any outside news at all.
The app was developed by Axiom Zen, an incubator and consulting firm. Axiom Zen’s Head of Marketing and Growth Spencer Chen (a longtime frenemy, so I’m not being entirely objective here) told me that while Timeline has built a custom content management system for its stories, the timelines themselves are created by a 10-person editorial team. (Timeline’s editor in chief is journalist Jonathan Kalan.)
I asked Chen (via email) where Timeline saw a gap in all the existing news apps out there, and he said:
The news that we read today is only the tail-end of many important events in history that shaped the events of today. Timeline enables readers to discover all these key facets of a news story and offers readers much richer context and understanding of the news. And in some ways, the team’s vision is less about seeing a big gap in the news app category but more about seeing a bigger (and natural) evolution with the best ways news and information is to be consumed by everyday consumers.
It’s a cool idea and a good-looking app. My initial quibble is that Timeline doesn’t actually do a great job of presenting stories from elsewhere — you have to search for the links, then tap multiple times, then it opens a browser window that may or may not be particularly readable on your phone.
But hey, if you just want to see slick-looking news stories from multiple sources, there’s always Flipboard. The bigger question is whether consumers are actually interested in this format — talking about historical context can sound an awful lot like the news equivalent of eating your vegetables, the opposite of pet slideshows and clickbait headlines. I suppose it’s both good and bad that the Timelines are pretty long. I don’t know that I’d have the patience to read more a couple in their entirety, but at least they allow you to jump around, so you can focus on the parts of the history that interest you.
And maybe it’s more appealing to think about Timeline as a history-driven approach to “explainer journalism,” which seems to be on the rise.
Anyway, if you can go here to download the app for yourself. (The initial release is for iOS and mobile web.)