AN APP I LIKE 

An App I Like – Yahoo News Digest

For Peter Houston, who is not a big fan of news feeds, Yahoo’s News Digest is like a breath of fresh air: it’s concise, colourful and kind of fun!

By Peter Houston

I remember when I got my Yahoo email account. It was the year my daughter was born, 1997 - the same year that Yahoo introduced their groundbreaking service. Over that time, I’ve taken on and lost or abandoned dozens of other web services - from Delicious to Posterous. Only my Yahoo email address has been a constant.

Not too long ago, I wasn’t so sure that my address @ yahoo.com was going to be around much longer; until very recently the business looked shaky to say the least.

Then Marissa Mayer took on the CEO job, ruffled some feathers, rattled a few cages and shook the business out of what was beginning to seem like terminal stodginess. Eyebrows were raised when she went on a bit of a spending spree, but in April, the new-media geriatric posted a significant rise in earnings, prompting Mayer to say the company had moved past its period of decline and into growth.

It’s not difficult to find pundits that still question Yahoo’s new found direction, or actually whether it has a direction at all. Even Mayer says they have a way to go. But if the company’s News Digest app, driven in part by one of those recent acquisitions – Summly – I think my oldest email account might be safe for a while yet.

The fact that I’ve even considered writing about a news app for this feature actually speaks volumes. In general, I hate the sheer Sisyphean futility of digital news feeds. The attraction for me in the Yahoo app is that it quite deliberately uncouples the user from the information fire hose and presents a manageable eight to twelve stories at a time.

At 8am and 6pm, my phone will buzz ‘Good Morning!’ or ‘Good Evening!’, ‘Your Digest is ready to read’. When I tap in, I am presented with the date and time and a full screen image illustrating the lead story. I can then swipe down through the colourfully numbered headlines offering me a range of options, including UK and World news; Business, Health and Science; and Sports or Entertainment.

In a nice gamification touch, the headline numbers colour themselves in once I’ve read the story; at the bottom of the home page, there is a progress circle which shows me that I’ve read ‘5 of 9’ stories in that digest. This is kind of fun, it encourages me to keep reading, and it also reinforces the notion of ‘finishability’ that I find so depressingly absent in other digital news feeds.

Once I’m inside one of the new items, I can swipe left or right to navigate through the other stories in the digest. Each story has a social-share button in the top right so if I want to tweet it out, send it to Facebook or email it out, it’s easy.

Individual stories also link out to a tight little bundle of supporting information, including video from Yahoo and Wikipedia entries to provide more in-depth ‘explainer’ style content. Additional news sources are also referenced, linking to alternative story coverage on sites from the BBC and Sky News to the newspapers. There is even a Twitter ‘carousel’ that lets me swipe through the tweets related to the subject of the news story.

Another feature I like is the ability to go back and read past issues if I do miss one; this is especially useful on a busy day when I don’t have time to read the morning edition until after the evening edition has been delivered.

As well as being incredibly easy to navigate, Yahoo’s News Digest is a pretty lightweight app in terms of bandwidth usage. I downloaded it over 3G and a fry-up lunch in Marylebone - it took seconds (the download, not the lunch). Updates are even lighter, happening more or less in the background as you open the home screen.

There are four editions available, US, Canada, International and UK. So far, the UK edition has done a remarkably good job of keeping me interested enough to check out almost every issue. According to Yahoo, usage figures are way better than expected; they claim 40 percent of everyone who downloaded it is still returning every day, with an average dwell time of two and a half minutes.

The one fear I have for Yahoo’s News Digest app is that, as with all curated content packages that rely to some degree on algorithmic automation, it eventually loses relevance for me as an individual. However, Yahoo product executives are already making noises about allowing people to customise their news feeds.

If Yahoo can nail the personalisation element and maintain the highly visual, highly readable foundation of their News Digest, I might just have it as long as I’ve had my Yahoo email account.

Yahoo News Digest can be downloaded from the App Store.