New rules for mobile journalism
This has got to be fixed, because digital natives like BuzzFeed, Circa, Mic, Upworthy, Vice, Vocative and Vox are competing for – and in many cases winning over – the youthful readers coveted by publishers and advertisers.
As discussed previously here, nearly half of the digital page views at many newspapers are occurring on mobile devices. But editors and publishers have been slow to recognize that mobile publishing is as different from print-to-web publishing as television is from cave drawings.
Constrained screen real estate – like the new 1.5-inch Apple Watch – isn’t the only factor influencing the development of content for mobile devices. An even bigger issue is the limited amount of time that publishers can engage with readers.
Although consumers spend an average of 2½ hours a day poking at their smartphones, research shows that the time typically is divided into 150 sessions per day. This makes for an average session time of less than half a minute to snag someone’s attention amid a dynamically expanding list of activities that includes, but is not limited to, checking messages, making phone calls, consulting calendars, surfing the web, managing stock portfolios, monitoring the weather, playing games, updating Facebook, swapping selfies, shopping for shoes, buying movie tickets, choosing music and, as time permits, catching up on the news.
In other words, mobile publishing is the antithesis of traditional journalism, which favors deliberation and depth over the speed and sass characterizing the top mobile sites. So, yes, mobile publishing poses a vexing array of contradictions for journalists to debate and resolve. In the interests of encouraging newspapers to build competitive mobile sites, here’s a listicle to guide the way:
:: Reporting Digital deadlines are relentless, requiring journalists to publish as fast as possible – even when all the facts are not in. While some web natives are notoriously slipshod about confirming information, the continuing credibility of newspapers means they can’t publish first and ask questions later. The new “Watching” feature on the New York Times website helps solve the fast vs. fact dilemma by letting the reader watch the news unfold in real time with continuously updated staff, eyewitness and third-party reporting. Live feeds (including video, where possible), work equally well for both breaking stories and such scheduled events as the State of the Union address.
:: Presentation The limited real estate on mobile devices means stories need to be conveyed as concisely as possible, preferably with images, charts, maps and other visual cues enabling instant comprehension with a minimum of words. BuzzFeed offers a smorgasbord of carefully curated teasers on every page. Circa breaks the news into tersely written, bite-sized text blocks that eschew lengthy background. Vice.Com produced a chilling video that showed more about the Islamic State than all the billions of words that have been written about it.
:: Analysis Even though the terse presentation required by mobile media leads to atomized info-bits, readers also appreciate presentations that connect the myriad dots in a story. To explain complex events like the turmoil in the Middle East, Vocativ offers graphic flashcards. Vox does the same thing with richly annotated maps.
:: Voice The snarky mien cultivated by many of the digital leaders poses perhaps the biggest challenge to traditional journalists trained in “just the facts, ma’am” writing. While proper journalism requires scrupulous research, careful fact checking and balanced presentation, the neutral tone typically associated with traditional news writing suffers in comparison with the lively language widely employed on the web. The solution is to add as much sizzle as possible to the steak. In a classic example of how to do this, Forbes.Com wrote a piece about a terrific New York Times story titled “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” but topped it with this far-grabbier headline: “How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.”
:: Sharing Digital news is a participatory sport, especially when consumed on mobile devices. Users want to upload videos, participate in polls, offer comments, author reviews, and more. Smart digital publishers not only make it easy to contribute to their sites but also make it a snap to share links via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, email and other platforms. The relaunched Los Angeles Times website drops ready-made tweets in the body of its stories, so visitors can point, click and tweet. Bleacher Report not only promotes comments but also publishes metrics for each story, so readers (and contributors) know how popular they are.
None of the above is meant to suggest that newspapers dumb down their reporting. On the contrary, serious journalists need to get serious about making smarter decisions about the stories they cover – and the way they tell them – because the move to mobile is too important to miss.
© 2014 Editor & Publisher