The news app of the future has a lot to do with the past

PEPE DON'T PREACH - Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - March 14, 2015 - 12:00am

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana


When a child begins reading, one of the first things he’s taught is how to use context clues; that if he comes across a word he doesn’t understand, he can gather its meaning by looking at the other words around it. It’s a skill that forms the foundation of learning, and we use it for the rest of our lives in many different ways. We judge people, for instance, based on the company they keep, and we form scientific theories by observing the environment. Context defines everything.

It’s especially important, though, when it comes to the news. Current events are the product of history, and so, to make sense of things that are happening now, we must look at things that happened before. The problem is that news these days often lacks historical context. Reports tend to focus on who-did-what or who-said-what today; the events that led up to this point are, at best, relegated to a sidebar, and at worst and most often, left out entirely.

A new mobile app, however, may change all that. I discovered it on the Apple’s App Store a few weeks ago, and have been hooked on it ever since.

Launched just this January, Timeline is an application that “presents current affairs through historical perspectives,” according to its website. On its surface, Timeline looks like a news aggregator — it refreshes every day with top stories from around the world. Things go deeper, though, when you click on the headlines.


Readers are greeted with a summary of current events, and then the news is connected to broader issues and a timeline appears, telling the story of the issue from its inception. For example, the first article that caught my attention was about Charlie Hebdo. It started with a brief of the massacre, and then it connected that with the general issue of depicting the prophet Muhammad. The timeline then begins in the year 632, saying that the Qu’ran has no specific instructions about depicting the prophet in art, and then it tracks how this belief changed throughout the years.

The app doesn’t just cover “front page” issues. One of my favorite articles is about Taylor Swift removing her songs from the music streaming service Spotify. It tracks the history of how musicians make money, from the time sheet music was sold in the 1840s, to the birth of royalties in 1909, when the US Copyright Act was passed, and all the way through the shift from vinyl to CD to MP3s. It’s a fascinating read.

“Timeline was founded on that single principle: connect the dots. We believe that news today is the short tail of a long string of events. To understand the world as it is, we need to understand the world as it was,” reads a blog post on Timeline’s website. It’s a simple idea, sure, but I think that this concept should be a wake-up call for today’s journalists. So, I spoke to the editor in chief of Timeline, Jonathan Kalan, to learn more about what makes his team tick.

SUPREME: Historical perspective is important, but, and let me quote TechChrunch, “talking about historical context can sound an awful lot like the news equivalent of eating your vegetables.” What do you say?

JONATHAN KALAN: (Laughs.) It can be seen as eating your vegetables but vegetables are good for you! And I think that people want to eat more vegetables. Everybody, I think, wants to be more informed. Everybody is looking to be more intelligent. The question is, how easy is it to do that? For readers, it takes a lot of research and reading, so what we’re trying to do is make historical content more accessible and more engaging and exciting.

How do you make history exciting?

It’s surprise. People loved to be surprised and history is full of incredible surprises. (To bring this out), more than just listing the facts, we introduce an element of story in them. The way we structure our timelines is that we don’t just say, “Here’s a bunch of facts, go read it.” It’s “Here’s a story.” Our editorial team really works at crafting the narratives to help readers understand the connections between events.

History is always told from a certain perspective. How do you deal with bias?

We have an incredibly diverse team. We have journalists, architects, religious scholars, technologists, designers, data scientists, venture capitalists, and we have freelancers around the world. So this helps us keep our perspective balanced.

But there can always be bias in covering history, so for us, fact checking and sourcing is incredibly important. All of our stories go through a very heavy editing process. A writer writes the piece, then it goes to an editor, and then it goes through rigorous fact checking, and then copy-editing, then a final review. Multiple eyes see each timeline.

People these days are getting news in quick, short bites on social media. Timeline seems to be an antithesis to that; your stories are long-form — the kind you’d read over a cup of coffee. Are you taking a stance against the minute-by-minute news culture?

There’s a time and a place for everything. The short sound bites of news are important. They keep you informed. Twitter has done incredible things for journalism and the spread of information and there’s no denying that. But I also think that people are looking for deeper, more engaging content. You have time — 15 minutes on a commute or waiting in line — and dive into Timeline and learn something really valuable.

* * *

Timeline is available for free on iOS, and will be launched for Android devices in the future. Visit www.timeline.com to get the app.

* * *

Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with