But a different way to look at this would be to view The Daily’s failure as being due to certain problems in a specific case, not one that’s general to mobile news. According to Pew data, 66 percent of adult users of smartphones or tablets get news on their devices. Pew also found that reading news is the second most popular activity on smartphones and tablets, behind only reading/checking email. Tablet ownership is one of the biggest areas of growth, with the percentage of adults who own a tablet doubling in the last six months of 2011 alone. And mobile adoption, especially tablet use, is still in its early stages.
So one of the challenges, and opportunities, we face in journalism in 2013 and beyond is discovering ways to deliver news to our readers in a made-for-mobile way. It’s not just enough to create a web app. It’s not just enough to put our content online and have that available through smartphones. It’s about creating a mobile reader experience.
using phones vs. tablets
One of the ways we’ve conceptualized our thinking revolves around a realization we had: We use our phones and our tablets differently.
Here’s how we see the difference (and feel free to suggest others): Phones are about speed. A good news app for the phone allows you to open it up and quickly scan the headlines. It passes what Dan Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University, calls a “thumb-friendly” design — you’re able to get the most amount of information with the least amount of work. I call it the “In Line at Wegmans” test. (You can insert the name of your local grocery store here.) You’re in line at the store, and you have only a few seconds to look at the headlines before moving forward. A good mobile news app should let you do that. It should deliver bite-sized chunks that you’re going to consume very quickly.
The format of this can be different, and depends on each user’s individual preference. Some users like a list they can easily scroll through. (Circa is very good for this.) Some like a more visual layout (think Summly or even Flipboard). Some like a very clean design with just the headline. Others are more interested in more detail. (News360 provides that.)
One of the primary features of made-for-mobile news is the ability to personalize or customize your news feed. Whether it’s done through an algorithm that personalizes news for you (Zite, for example, does this well, mixing readers’ selections with picked stories), or whether via apps that let you pick your own topics and feeds (apps like Taptu that turn the customization process into “DJing your news”), a core part of mobile news is the ability for each reader to create their own publication. Social-media integration is essential, too. Allowing readers to connect their Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Google Reader and other accounts not only allows for sharing of news but creates more customized channels for readers to use.
Another key feature of mobile news, especially on the phone, is the ability to get quick updates on news. Circa, the news brainchild from Ben Huh (the I Can Haz Cheezburger guy), does this well by allowing you to follow stories.
When you open Circa, you can go to a list of your “followed stories” and each of your stories is automatically updated with the latest news. It shows how many times the story has been updated since your last login, giving you an idea of how much has happened.
Tablets: the ‘lean back’ medium
Tablets are different from phones. It’s not a unique thing to say, but tablets are more of a “lean-back” media form. In terms of reading news, we tend to read tablets at the end of the day, sitting on the couch. We get comfortable and lean back to read them. With a tablet, it’s less about quick chunks of news we can easily access and more about a full experience. In this regard, using a tablet is a lot more like traditional print media than the phone or even the laptop.
In the tablet space, Flipboard remains our favorite and one of the leaders. More than any other app, we feel like Flipboard has set the standard for the tablet news experience. That’s not to take anything away from its phone app. But Flipboard feels at home on the tablet, when a reader is more likely looking to flip through different channels rather than get a quick update on what’s going on. There are also some apps that do a good job in understanding the differences between phones and tablets. News360, in its tablet app, adds more social-media integration, allowing a reader to see the real-time Twitter conversation about a story’s topic. That kind of feature would be clutter on a phone (and potentially clog up the speed of updates), but for the tablet experience, it’s perfect.
responsive design matters
We talk a lot about apps, but responsive design is just as important moving forward. Put very basically, a responsive design means your site has different presentations on a computer screen, tablet and phone. It’s the same URL, but the design responds to the device’s display. Mashable did a responsive redesign late in 2012. A good responsive design (and Mashable’s is quite good) allows a news organization to track social sharing and permit people to link to their stories (which can’t be done with an app).
Since Pew found that a vast majority of mobile users get news from their browser (60-61 percent) instead of apps (23-28 percent), this will be an important area to watch. Also, as Matt Waite wrote for the Nieman Journalism Labs, it won’t be long before the Internet moves off our computers and tablets and onto our tables, refrigerators, and even right before our eyes.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how news consumption on tablets evolves. Smaller tablets (like the iPad Mini, the Samsung Galaxy and others) combine elements of both the larger tablets and the phone. It also seems like a great deal of the innovation is happening in the iOS sphere. As Android devices continue to grow in popularity and mature in usability, it’ll be interesting to see if developers start taking advantage of the openness of that platform. But the key for all developers and journalists is to watch how people use these devices. Creating news that’s made for mobile can’t primarily be about the media organization’s needs. It must be reader focused.
Brian Moritz is a Ph.D. student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and co-editor of the Journovation Journal. A former award-winning sports reporter in Binghamton, N.Y. and Olean, N.Y., his research focuses on the evolution of journalists’ routines. His writing has appeared on the Huffington Post and in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has a masters’ degree from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure.