It’s all about mobile … but that’s much easier said than done for journalism

Journalism faces many challenges (that’s a cheery way to start a post isn’t it?) Many are beyond the control of journalists, but one of the biggest, however, isn’t.

The challenge I’m talking about is making sure that the content (as opposed to *just* stories) we’re producing is done in a way which really suits the reader the way they are reading it.

In other words, making sure everything works for mobile. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And in many ways, it is, but it’s also fiendishly difficult to make happen at times, largely because of the way journalism is produced.

It’s a challenge which has been spotted, and addressed, by the New York Times in the last few days:

twitter nyt

For all the developments in mobile technology – and I really means smartphone technology – it’s still very hard do end-to-end journalism on a mobile phone. You can shoot video on a smartphone, take pictures, record an interview or livestream from an event, yet it remains far easier to pull it all together or manage the news process when sat in front of a desktop or laptop computer.

And that creates an unfortunate disconnect between what the journalist sees when pulling it altogether, and what the reader is most likely to see online. A bit like producing your newspaper to fill a broadsheet page, only to find it rattling off the presses in tabloid (or compact as some people seem more comfortable calling it).

Will the NYT’s week-long experiment make a difference? Maybe, maybe not – but you’d like to think a company the size of the NYT going to the length of driving all staff to use its mobile site, sends a very clear message about the importance of mobile. Making it stick long-term in the face of office desktop convenience will remain a challenge.

Martin Belam blogged about steps the Mirror took to ensure those running and writing directly into the website and his post pointed at one by Mark Coatney which suggested the move would fail in its aim because people at the NYT won’t be experiencing the mobile site in the way the regular user would (and it introduced me to the phrase forced dogfooding too).

Coatney’s argument makes sense, but it’s no different to the fact that journalists rarely view journalism the same way as the reader – which in turn can create a disconnect between reader and journalist over what makes a good story, something audience analytics can help bridge. So putting prominent reminders into newsrooms about the importance of mobile can only be a good thing.

Ensuring it sticks beyond just the one week is important, however. Keeping mobile front of mind – as Martin points out – needs to be a daily thing. I was impressed by the Mobile Monday idea being implemented at USA Today, encouraging everyone to think about mobile in more depth at least one day a week:

mobilemondayThey also have Social Tuesday at USA Today, again, another great idea for getting people to think more about the way readers are likely to see content for the first time.

Big TV screens have often been lauded as a key tool for introducing change in newsrooms, only to end up playing Peppa Pig (or Pingu, when I worked on a newsdesk at one daily newspaper) over the heads of news editors. Not so the Chronicle and Journal in Newcastle, where the team ensures mobile gets central billing on their TV wall:


The screen shows what people see on mobile – the responsive site – and what people see on ipad, which at the moment is the desktop site.

Keeping mobile front of mind as newsrooms continue to operate largely on desktop/laptop computers will remain a challenge, but it’s not the only reason for the challenge. One of the more exciting aspects of digital journalism is the ability to say ‘Can we do this?’ and then come up with a way of making it work. The plethora of freely available third party tools to jazz up stories and content remains high – but precious few work well on mobile.

They key, I believe, is the rule: “If it doesn’t work well on mobile, it’s not worth doing.” That’s not the same as dismissing the importance of desktop, which those who are always in a hurry to kill something off are keen to do. Desktop usage continues to grow, it’s just not growing as fast.

Patty Michalski, managing editor for digital, social and mobile at USAToday, showed this slide at the ONACamp event in Indianapolis on Friday:

usa today

The blue line, I think, shows desktop usage. No surprise it is at its height during the working day. So desktop remains important, but like those conversations which pitted print against digital in the 2000s on the grounds that ‘print still makes all the money’ it’s important to make sure newsrooms keep up with the way people are increasingly consuming content.

Mobile usage is much more transformative for journalism than just a change of device. It brings what we do into many new parts of people’s lives, and pits what we do against many other digital service providers. It brings the debate about the importance of engagement to a head – as people spend more time on apps, the challenge is to be important enough to people to warrant the time spent downloading your app.

It’s easy to talk about being mobile first – but much harder to do it. Thinking like a reader is a good place to start. To that end, the NYT may just have found a successful way to make journalists experience content through the eyes of a reader. For everyone else, sticking to the rule that if it doesn’t work on mobile, it’s not worth doing should work just as well.

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