Credit: By julianlimjl at Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Anyone plugged into the digital media matrix couldn't go online last year without tripping over a reference to 'explainer journalism'. Vox, FiveThirtyEight and the NYT Upshot all launched within touching distance of each other at the start of 2014, but to almost immediate criticism.

A year later, all three are in rude health and a movement to better analyse world events can only be positive. But negative voices have persisted. Perhaps listening in on the lessons learned, the Timeline news app launched yesterday, shooting straight into Apple's 'best new apps' list and bringing explainer journalism to mobile with a clear vision and purpose.

"We're telling current affairs through historical perspectives, through a historical lens," founder Tamer Hassanein told from Timeline's red brick, San Francisco workspace.

While praising Vox and its peers, Hassanein doesn't draw the link explicitly as Timeline has a different approach. Limiting the publishing schedule to the few big stories of the day, the editorial team present timelines of historical events to put headlines into context.

The app displays events as cards – a popular and growing trend in news apps – with bold images and snappy writing, but lets you switch to a straight-up timeline view with just dates and headlines.

timeline in app
Screenshots from the Timeline app showing (l-r) the home page, top article card and timeline view

As news broke of the US Secret Service Director Joseph P. Clancy's announcement that four senior officials will be stepping down, Timeline got to work tracing significant events in the service's history since 1865.

And with horrific reports of thousands dead at the hands of Boko Haram in Nigeria, a figure reduced to 150 by government officials, Timeline detailed the murderous group's history since foundation in 2002.

It's like a glacier or an iceberg, you see the top but there's so much underneath the surface that you're not seeingTamer Hassanein, Timeline
But as well as giving background and context, Hassanein said the aim of Timeline is to "elevate the discussion... to bridge the gap between hearing about something and doing the research".

"Lets say in the case of Michael Brown, of Eric Garner. So much of the coverage there is people rioting, or did the guy have his hands up or not, but that's not the story.

"The story is that there are a disproportionate number of young black men that are killed by white police offers, lets say. So why is that occurring? What are the things that have led up to that?

"You really need to go, in some cases, before Jim Crow laws and how the counties were formed and how voting has occurred and who are the leaders. There's a lot more behind it and that's the actual story."

The card format might not allow the Timeline editorial team to go too deep into any of the individual events, but the point, said Hassanein, is to "show the 'interesting-ness' of the world" where other journalistic outlets might not.

"It's like a glacier or an iceberg," he said, "you see the top but there's so much underneath the surface that you're not seeing. That's one thing, the chronological context. The other is geographic context. So you'll notice that the cards almost invariably have a location associated with them."

There will always be people who want sensational stuff and that's fineTamer Hassanein, Timeline
Timeline joins the growing ranks of slow news organisations in all but name, aiming to give a more nuanced and thoughtful take on current affairs than the ubiquitous social media feeds and 24-hour TV news.

Real-time coverage can only be so deep, and Hassanein believes a fast pace is inherent to the business model of outlets that push it.

"How do you make money? You get eyeballs," he said. "So people, media companies or otherwise, want people to see things and to click on them and doing that usually requires having fresh content rolling through all the time."

So how does Timeline plan to make money? The app is free to download and has a conspicuous lack of advertising, so what will keep the project afloat long term?

"The obvious things would be native advertising, sponsored content," he said, "and the not so obvious stuff is part of a larger vision that we're building toward."

Hassanein hinted at making the product side of the app – the carded timeline – "the standard for one aspect of understanding the story" for both Timeline Media "and folks we may eventually work with".

Other timeline tools exist – the Knight Foundation's Timeline.js and 3D interactive Tiki-Toki chief among them. But for now the format serves as a neat, definitive structure on which to hang articles that surmounts some of the issues associated with other explainer journalism sites in their infancy.

"We're moving in the right direction," he said, dodging the topic of future plans. "There will always be people who want sensational stuff and that's fine. I don't think there are going to be big Timeline adopters any time soon, and that's totally fine.

"I'd rather we have a smaller number of really dedicated people reading our content and really engaging with it regularly, than have a zillion people download our app once and tune out. So right now we are appealing to a more discerning reader.

"We're hoping that over time everyone kind of sees the value in having more perspective and not just looking at the facts of the story, but why are these facts important, and how did they come to be this way."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).