November 18, 2013

Behind the buzz-buzz of a smartphone alert could come anything: News of the death of Osama bin Laden, or a “we have to talk” text, or an email with that job offer, finally.

Or it could be news of a Miley Cyrus twerk, or a “remember to buy milk” text, or an email with an offer to come to Best Buy to purchase a Surface tablet.

Push notifications — full of promise but too often a drag — make for the most intriguing feature of the new Breaking News app for iOS. Although it emphasizes customization, the free app still seems aimed to add to the overwhelming number of chimes emitted from my phone each day.

But there could be a way to make it work for those like me who feel overwhelmed by our phones. And the hope, according to Breaking News general manager Cory Bergman, is that users will adapt the app for any number of use cases.

Here’s how the new feature works: choose from among thousands of topics to fill a total of five alert slots. When breaking news relating to those topics happens — and deemed worthy of inclusion in Breaking News’ stream of 200 to 300 updates in the app per day — you’ll get a notification on your device.

The Breaking News app isn’t out to trick you into assenting to dozens of push notifications per day. This friendly warning appears if you’re about to alert a topic with a high volume of daily updates.

My first few days with the app were rough. I quickly learned that although I have some interest in health care reform, I wasn’t prepared for the deluge of daily alerts on that topic. The app kindly notifies you when you’re about to sign up for a topic with a high volume of updates, and Obamacare averages 40 per day. That might be overkill even for the president, if he had an iPhone (the Android version will be out soon, Bergman said.

By contrast, Breaking News posts an update on the Chicago Bears just once every 58 days. That hardly seems like enough to be useful, especially since most hardcore fans will have other trusted sources alerting them to injuries or scores. Short of the Bears winning the Super Bowl — ha! — I’m unlikely to get any game results from the Breaking News app.

I asked Bergman via phone what makes the perfect alert topic. His response: It’s up to you, but some of the topics that have performed well in the two weeks since the new app was released include specific cities and countries. That makes sense not only for the city and country you live in, but for the city and country you’re from, too.

My hometown is small enough that I certainly would appreciate being alerted right away if anything important enough happens there that’s worthy of Breaking News’ attention. So Columbus, Ind., gets added to my list. By that same logic, so does my alma mater, Northwestern University.

For my particular use case, I’m watching Twitter too often throughout the day to need any breaking news pushed to my phone. And for those too busy on the job to check their phones with regularity, it seems unnecessary to sign up for too many alerts — although, Bergman noted, it can be handy to see a quick rundown of news you missed right on your lock screen when you do finally get a chance to look.

In the app’s previous iteration, Bergman said, his team saw how useful push notifications were in getting users to engage. There’s clearly a demand for editor-selected alerts, which average between three and eight per day and can be turned off, but Bergman said Breaking News is aware of an upper threshold at which alerts become annoying and spammy.

“We’re not that concerned about driving people into the app,” he said, adding that alerts are designed to be consumed on their own. “Clearly that helps us from a revenue perspective over time, but we really want this to be as valuable a tool from the user’s perspective as we can make it.”

Three of the alert topics Bergman said in a blog post that he uses — Seattle, media and football — account for an average of 14 alerts per day. That’s more noise and interruption than I’d want to add to my day, but that’s the beauty of the Breaking News app’s customization.

“We’ve got you covered on the big stories out there,” Bergman said. “And the rest is up to you.”

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
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