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July 5, 2017, 11:06 a.m.
Business Models

In Circa, Sinclair sees a way to attract “independent-minded” millennials (and Sean Hannity)

What was once an imaginative mobile news app has become a big part of Sinclair’s national strategy — one that critics say pushes its conservative views on audiences.

What’s in a name?

When it comes to Circa, not much.

The old Circa, launched in 2012, was a mobile news app with some interesting ideas — primary among them that the traditional article should be broken up into bite-sized atomic units of news, which could be rearranged, amended, or transformed depending on the story and the reader. It featured an innovative alerts system build around individual story updates, got great App Store reviews, and was appealing to Silicon Valley. When news industry conversations of that time turned to the most interesting innovations, Circa was always on the list; their offices were a regular stop for news executives looking for new ideas.

But in the end, Circa couldn’t attract a broad enough audience and couldn’t raise enough funding; it shut down in 2015. Later that year, the company found a buyer: Sinclair Broadcast Group, the country’s largest owner of local TV stations.

Sinclair seemed to many an odd choice as a buyer. Its news brands were all local to individual markets, not national in scope. It wasn’t particularly known as a digital innovator. And, perhaps most notably, Sinclair has long been labeled a conservative company that pushes its ideology on its audience — a label it resists.

In 2004, its leadership reportedly ordered all of its local stations to air an anti–John Kerry documentary; Jon Leiberman, a D.C. bureau chief who resisted, was fired. The local stations — and if a controversial $3.9 billion deal with Tribune Media goes through, there will be more than 200 of them — are required to run right-leaning news segments. In April, it hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump spokesman, as its chief political analyst. (He has reportedly been questioned as part of the House Russia probe.) Some see Sinclair as a rising competitor to Fox News, which recently dropped its “Fair and Balanced” slogan. (David Smith, who was CEO of Sinclair until January, said in 2005: “There are two companies doing truly balanced news today: Sinclair and Fox.”) Just last week, campaign finance records showed that a Sinclair executive donated $1,000 to Greg Gianforte the day after the Montana Republican bodyslammed a Guardian reporter — not something you might expect from a media company executive.

In other words, not a typical Silicon Valley startup.

Considering how much attention was paid to the old, independent Circa, we wanted to check in with the Sinclair-owned Circa of 2017 — and not much remains but the name. There’s the ideological issue — more about that later. But to start with something basic, it’s not a smartphone app — it’s a regular old website, with stories presented in either straight text or video (though there are plans to launch a new app this summer). Sinclair sees the property as a blank slate, one from which it can build a video-centric news property that will be more appealing to millennials than local TV but will have a symbiotic relationship with Sinclair’s stations.

“When Sinclair reached out to me saying they were thinking of building this website with mobile-first, video-centric-first, original journalism, and no point of view — a place where independent-minded millennials could get real facts and talk and join conversations — I found that incredibly exciting, because I think that’s the frontier of the current news market,” John Solomon, Circa’s chief operating officer (he was promoted from chief creative officer in December), told me. According to Circa’s about page, it is “a fast growing mobile-first, video-centric news and entertainment portal that empowers the independent-minded new generation to learn by consuming exclusive, compelling content, make up their own minds, and then jump into the conversation and act on their own beliefs. It’s a one-stop depot to learn, think and do.”

Circa now has close to 70 employees, Solomon told me, most of whom work out of Arlington, Va. The site also has reporters in New York and humor and pop culture teams in Los Angeles. Facebook is a big traffic driver for Circa, and it has four Facebook pages: A main one with nearly 2 million likes (the page predates Sinclair’s acquisition and includes the previous version of Circa’s 2012 milestones); Circa Laughs, with close to 650,000 likes; Circa Pop Culture, with 300,000 likes; and Pizza with Everything: News about Pizza and Culture, with 50,000 likes. Some of Circa’s stories have bylines; a large number are simply “By Circa News.”

“We have a very engaged daily audience on Facebook, and it tips nicely into the website,” Solomon said. The site was on track to receive 6 million unique visitors and more than 34 million pageviews in May, he said.

The first iterations of Sinclair’s Circa retained a nod to the original Circa’s news delivery mechanism; as the about page used to put it: “We report and deliver news in ‘atoms’ that are formatted to be easy to digest and quick to browse with just one free finger — and people are loving it!”) but few of its stories particularly benefit from the original Circa’s card-based structure. But the atoms didn’t seem to offer much functionality beyond putting boxes around individual paragraphs; a redesign last week returned to traditional article presentation. (Compare before and after.)

“We are experimenting with longer form magazine style articles with depth of reporting and lots of video and interactives,” Solomon said.

The original Circa strived to be politically neutral and focused on verification: Each “atom” or point in one of its stories was accompanied by a citation, and an “Editor’s Notes” feature aimed to add more transparency to the reporting process. In the brand, Sinclair saw a news site associated with neither the left nor the right. (“[Sinclair] really didn’t care about the technology much,” someone familiar with the acquisition told me. “They were more interested in the trademark.” Solomon disputes this, saying the primary reason for the acquisition was Circa’s technology, specifically the “follow me” function — which “didn’t work the way we wanted with Sinclair’s CMS and earlier this year we went in a different direction, hiring the vendor Perfect Sense to develop a new personalization engine and follow me function that will debut in August with the app. Sinclair originally had plans to call the millennial site something else but we tested a few names in a consumer study, throwing in Circa, and Circa came out the most favorable. The anonymous source’s description is simply wrong.”)

Sinclair executives have stressed since the $800,000 acquisition that Circa is nonpartisan. “So much of what’s happened in the marketplace has been partisan-driven. The key is to be independent and user-generated, because when you look at the Vices and Voxes of the world, they tend to be far-left,” Rob Weisbord, COO of Sinclair Digital Group, told The Wall Street Journal in 2015, adding, “We expect it to be as significant as Vice and Vox and BuzzFeed.”

Sinclair’s Circa has made “independence” one of its talking points. “We don’t have any op-eds. We don’t have any opinion columns. We do straight news stories every day, and the vast majority of our content is scoop-y stuff that is new and interesting…and it’s all fact-based,” Solomon told me. Some recent headlines included “Trump is meeting with Putin for the first time, but don’t expect a love fest,” “Here’s the Russia influence controversy that John McCain doesn’t want you to know about,” “Here’s how this 11-year-old became the youngest yoga instructor in the country,” “Grassley blasts ‘media hysteria’ over Trump-Russia,” “Kellyanne Conway said the Russia probe is wasting ‘tens of millions of taxpayers’ money,'” “NASA throws shade to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop over healing stickers,” “Trump vows the GOP’s healthcare plan will have ‘heart,'” and “Check your birth control pills. A packaging error could cause unplanned pregnancy.”

But despite Sinclair’s framing, it’s hard not to notice one way the new Circa has joined the media scene — a tendency for its stories to be picked up by Fox News. Solomon, who previously held top roles at the right-leaning Washington Times, and Sara Carter, Circa’s national security correspondent, frequently co-byline politics stories — “Russia, unmasking probes expand to Obama aide Samantha Power“; “Declassified memos show FBI illegally shared spy data on Americans with private parties,” “White House logs indicate Susan Rice consumed unmasked intel on Trump associates,” “Obama’s rule changes opened door for NSA intercepts of Americans to reach political hands,” “The FBI investigated a Trump server in its Russia probe, but no charges are expected” — and appear on Sean Hannity’s show to discuss them. By my count, Carter appeared on Hannity 11 times in March, six times in April, five times in May, and 12 times in June. (Hannity in March: “Sara Carter has been breaking incredible news over at CircaNews.com. She’s going to weigh in on these deep state actors working to take down the Trump administration. Sara’s excellent reporting has uncovered no evidence, none, in spite of what NBC and CNN tell you every day, between President Trump and the Russians. She will join us exclusively next.”) Solomon appeared on the show with her four times in June and four in May. There’s been speculation that Sinclair is wooing Hannity as well as the ousted Bill O’Reilly in an effort to create a Fox News competitor; Sinclair has denied this.

HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver went after Sinclair’s ideological positioning on Sunday, with Circa getting a brief mention:

The next night, Circa cofounder Matt Galligan tweeted what a number of veterans of the original Circa have been saying in private for some time:

When I spoke with Solomon, I asked him if it’s difficult to be non-partisan in today’s media environment. “It seems to me that you’re interested in that subject. I thought we were gonna talk about innovation with the Nieman Lab, but let’s go right at it,” Solomon said. “We accommodate all sides in a story…we cover politics the way, when I was growing up in journalism, most of the media covered it, which is: You gave people the facts and you let people make up their minds. You assumed the consumer was an independent-minded consumer, and you didn’t need to help them make a conclusion. You simply covered the most interesting news and gave them facts and then they could have a conversation and make up their own mind, and that’s what we do.”

Solomon often plays the role of mainstream media watchdog, educating a younger generation on how to be a responsible news consumer. On May 12, he published “What a breathless media got wrong about Trump, Comey and Russia this week,” citing stories from The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, Politico, and Mother Jones. The stories “should cause the media to search whether its current standards are doing enough to ensure the public gets the whole truth,” he wrote. “You can review the facts and decide for yourself whether the media shamed itself.” Circa also has a “Quiz: Can you tell the difference between real and alternative facts?” that fact-checks many Trump statements. I found it embedded at the bottom of a post about sexual harassment allegations against Sean Hannity.

And in January, Sinclair issued a press release criticizing a Washington Post story that suggested then-candidate Trump had an agreement with Sinclair to provide favorable coverage. (Politico had earlier reported that Jared Kushner said at a meeting that “the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.”)

“The recent reporting by the Washington Post was too egregious for the Company to stand by quietly and not inform the public of the incomplete and misleading coverage published by a once respected newspaper,” Sinclair said in its release. The release included an op-ed by Solomon, “Washington Post, Politico and the perils of centimeter-deep journalism,” in which he wrote:

“I hear all these experts saying it’s really hard in this environment to be neutral,” Solomon told me. “I really don’t think that it is.”

Circa has a close working relationship with the rest of Sinclair. “We have the ability to access the 2,100 hours of local video footage that the great stations shoot, and then turn that into millennial content,” Solomon said. “A lot of our viral videos, videos that have 20 or 30 million views, have come from either material that aired on the station or, many times, stuff that was on the cutting-room floor of a Sinclair affiliate, and we turn it into a great piece of journalism for our target audience.” One recent example that originally aired on a Sinclair station was about a police chief who ‘earlier in her life had been a rape victim and hadn’t talked about it for years. She used that experience as a rape victim to better train officers to engage and assist rape victims during an investigation. We added some of our own journalism into it and turned it into a great piece.” Another story was about algal bloom in Florida lakes. “We had some really, really poignant video images of the manatees and other mammals struggling to survive in an algal bloom. That one went viral. We do 60, 70 pieces a day.” Sinclair’s template for affiliates’ websites links to Circa in the top navigation.

Circa also produces exclusive news segments for Sinclair’s broadcasts; one airs between 4 and 6 p.m. daily, and one at 10 p.m. I asked Solomon if Circa’s audience is “interested in local TV at all.” He answered a slightly different question: “They’re definitely interested in local news. You should not make an assumption. Local news is incredibly important to the next generation of consumers. However, the style is probably going to have to change.”

Circa plans to launch its new app, and a redesigned website by Labor Day. The app “will take the website and reconfigure it as though it were a DVR for video,” Solomon said: After users select videos they like, the app uses “AI learning about what you’re consuming on our site, or what’s going on in your Facebook world,” to create a personalized playlist. Circa is also thinking about creating original TV shows, aimed at millennials, that would air on Sinclair stations.

“There’s enormous empirical evidence that millennials like to watch things on a big screen, that they consume over-the-air television even if they don’t have cable, and that they’re highly interested in all forms of news,” Solomon said. “Sinclair and Circa are learning a lot about what the next generation will want.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sinclair’s headquarters are in Arlington, Va. They are in Hunt Valley, Maryland, outside Baltimore.

POSTED     July 5, 2017, 11:06 a.m.
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