Mobile-first news: A manifesto

Feb 25 2013

Think the Internet transformed journalism? Mobile devices are set to upend the industry all over again.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Peach’s ebook, News on the go: Field notes on storytelling for mobile devices.

When John Clark opens his eyes at 6 a.m. on weekday mornings, his first action is to check his smartphone to see what he missed while he slept.

If John falls back to sleep after checking the news, he will wake to the sound of a 6:30 alarm from his phone. When he leaves his house to go to work, he carries his phone with him and uses it to stay in touch with his wife throughout the day about their kids’ schedules for hockey games and dance practices. He takes notes on his phone during meetings, keeps track of the news and weather, and uses his phone to stay in touch with friends on social media.

Staying connected in these ways is so important to John that among the objects he carries with him daily, his phone is the most important. If he forgets his wallet, he can bum money from co-workers. If he leaves his office key at home, he can borrow another. But nothing can replace his phone and the connection to family, friends and the world it provides.

John is the executive director of the Reese News Lab, a digital media project housed at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So it’s only natural that he would love a device that helps him maintain constant contact with the news and with friends and family.

But John is hardly alone. Millions of Americans are growing increasingly attached to these mobile devices that are called “phones” but that can do so much more: give directions, take photographs, provide entertainment, link users with friends – and offer news. People are adopting mobile devices so rapidly that they are already transforming the ways in which media is consumed.

Consider these statistics. Eighty-eight percent of Americans now own a cell phone, according to a survey conducted in April 2012 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. More than half of those cell owners use their phones to access the Internet, up from 31 percent in April 2009. And 17 percent of those surveyed said they now mostly go online using a phone instead of a laptop or a desktop computer.

The number of Americans who own the new generation of mobile devices is growing quickly. Twenty-two percent own a tablet, a remarkable number considering that the iPad was released relatively recently, in January 2010.

By February 2012, 46 percent of American adults owned a smartphone, up from 35 percent nine months earlier. And smartphone owners report, like John, that they love their devices. In a May 2011 Pew survey, owners used words such as these to describe their phones: good, convenient, great, satisfied, excellent, awesome, necessary, useful, love. Clearly, mobile devices and their successors are becoming a lasting force in the media.

A new medium and new challenges

The last time that news organizations faced a rapid transformation in the media environment, they were – to put it mildly – slow to adapt.

During the past two decades, as more and more people began obtaining news and information from the Internet, media companies struggled to respond. Innovations such as craigslist, the online service that allows people to post classified advertisements for free, rose to prominence as newspaper classified ad sales collapsed. Meanwhile, many advertisers declined to pay as much for online ads as they did for print or broadcast ads, making it difficult for news organizations to make up for lost revenue.

News producers also faced difficult editorial decisions about which information to put online and how to do it, choices that are still debated today. As longtime journalist and editor Steve Buttry has observed, editors worried about scooping themselves and at first withheld their best stories from their websites until the next day’s print edition. In doing so, they – for a time – overlooked the opportunities of breaking news online. Some newspapers simply placed digital copies of their print product on their websites, failing to take advantage of the interactive possibilities of the Web.

“We missed opportunities and held back as digital technology revolutionized communication, leaving us behind,” Buttry wrote in a 2009 blog post. He added that as the media environment changes again, journalists should not lag behind.

“We can’t waste that much time in mastering the mobile market,” he wrote. “We need to start thinking mobile first. Now. The world is moving swiftly to smart phones and we can’t afford to be as far behind this time.”

A mobile-first mindset

Today, many medium and large-sized news organizations offer a version of their website for mobile users. Some organizations, such as The New York Times, have invested considerable resources in mobile apps for smartphone and tablet users.

But with the notable exceptions of the now-defunct iPad-only newspaper The Daily and the commute-oriented publication Evening Edition, most news producers are not yet fully experimenting with the storytelling possibilities available on mobile devices.

Those possibilities are considerable. Mobile devices can do much more than simply display news and information: Smartphone users can make calls, send texts, listen to music, take photos, play games and read books.

Meanwhile, mobile devices offer opportunities to tell stories in ways that are simply not possible in other media. Unlike a television or a desktop computer, a smartphone is a storytelling platform small enough to carry in a pocket. Commuters have been reading newspapers on subways and buses for decades, but only smartphones and tablets can offer us up-to-the-minute news and content. Only mobile devices enable us to interact on the go, consuming information about the places we visit.

Even our interactions with mobile devices are subtly different than on a desktop. Mobile users swipe, touch and tap, tactile motions that are more intimate than clicking and scrolling a screen sitting two feet away from the body.

Despite the promise of mobile storytelling, many mobile news sites simply reproduce the content available on the Web. This practice echoes the early mistakes that news companies made by publishing online content that exactly copied the print edition. Even today, many organizations focus their attention first on a print or broadcast product and second on a website. A mobile site is an afterthought, a simplified version of a website rather than a storytelling medium in its own right.

Telling stories the mobile way

It’s not difficult to see why news organizations aren’t devoting many resources to mobile devices. They are still attempting, with mixed success, to adapt to the new economic realities of the news business. News organizations are laying off journalists, cutting pages, shutting down or desperately trying to avoid doing so. In the meantime, those that survive must still produce a news product on a regular basis.

At the Reese News Lab, we have the considerable privilege of telling stories without many of those constraints. The lab was established in 2010 with a gift from the estate of Reese Felts, an alum of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Students from a variety of backgrounds, including journalism, public relations, computer science and political science, work together in the lab. Here, they experiment with digital media, test new tools and ideas, and share the results with the media industry and researchers. The lab is not tied to a rigid publishing cycle or to stockholders, which gives us the freedom to experiment with digital media in a low-risk environment.

During the summer of 2012, we launched a mobile-first news site called WhichWayNC.com, which covers political issues in North Carolina. To produce the site, a team of 10 students reversed the process by which media organizations typically share the news. Rather than producing content for a website and then shrinking it to fit a mobile browser, the students made writing, designing, shooting and developing for mobile devices their first priority.

Mindful of the challenges that the media industry is facing, the team of students took detailed notes on how they developed and created content for the site. They reflected on their successes and failures. Then, they began sketching a guide for other news professionals and students on how to create content for mobile audiences. The results appear before you on this – very likely mobile – screen.

On the following pages, you will read the WhichWayNC.com team’s thoughts on the challenges of developing a mobile-oriented news site, choosing a target audience, writing, shooting, designing and developing content for mobile, and creating a work environment in which innovation and experimentation thrives.

Because new mobile technology emerges all the time, this book is necessarily a work in progress. Still, we hope that news organizations, journalism educators and others will learn from our explorations, using our thoughts as a guide in the quest to remain relevant to the next generation of news consumers.


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