The Wall Street Journal’s mobile and emerging technology editor, David Ho, likes to start industry conference talks by asking everybody to pass their cell phone to the person to the right. Then he stays silent until the fidgeting and murmurs reach a crescendo.
“It turns out that people would rather forget their keys at home than their smartphones,” Ho said.
People get anxious, he notes, because giving up their mobile connection, even for a minute or two, feels like unplugging part of themselves. Waking up means plugging in: A study by the International Data Corporation, a market research outfit, found that nearly 65 percent of smartphone owners reach for their mobile devices first thing in the morning.
It doesn’t stop there: The Pew Research Foundation reported that people check their smartphones an average of 100 times a day.
“How many times do I check my phone every day? I don’t know, I don’t count them … all the time?” said Jimena Murillo, a 24-year-old Mexican-born interior designer who lives in New York.
News organizations, from startups to legacy outlets, are competing with one another — and the rest of the digital world — to grab the time of Murillo and the other 1.75 billion smartphone users worldwide. It sometimes seems like there are as many approaches as apps as the news industry charges into an uncertain future. The bets the major players are waging on mobile news strategy vary — everything from an emphasis on personalization of news to customization for wearables to multi-sensorial experiences. But the stakes are the same: to cash in on a rapidly changing multibillion-dollar industry and maybe just save — and transform — journalism in the process.
It’s a race, above all, for people’s attention at a time when there’s more information flying from more sources than any point in history.
The App-Browser Split
There’s a divide, however, on approach. Some news companies live by the mantra that mobile is all about the app. Although much of the industry is spending big bucks on developing news apps, some major outlets — including The Financial Times, Quartz, Vox and FiveThirtyEight — are going app-less. The reasons vary: Budget constraints and issues with Apple’s App Store requirements are often cited. But some avoid the app route because research shows that most users still prefer searching on Internet browsers for information, even when using smartphones.
These are the most active users, but also the most disengaged, said Guardian U.S. head of product Cecilia Marie Dobbs. “People tend to go to multiple sources, and they tend to come through social, and most of that is on mobile,” she said.
Between 20 and 30 percent of tablet and smartphone users rely primarily on apps for news, according to Pew. Nearly one in 10 users choose Twitter, and 30 percent said they get the news through Facebook. About 60 percent rely primarily on Google and other browsers to search for news. These are news-promiscuous users who consult a wide variety of sources — opening multiple tabs, jumping from one outlet to another, trying to catch a glimpse of all the news at once.
“Sometimes I feel there are so many things going on at the same time that I can’t catch up,” said Matilda Swisa, 33, an Israeli-born Romanian musician, who checks her Chrome tab every morning, scanning through several websites.
If apps demand dedicated, concentrated time, browsers require brief attention divided into multiple options. App fans tend to go deeper and are more devoted to brands, while browser users change preferences all the time: For them, more is better.
“I like searching stuff in Google’s browser because I can get to know a little bit about things I am interested in,” said Louis Torres, 22, of Queens. “If I would like to know what’s going on with ISIS or Ebola, I Google these words. When I see the results of my search, I click on the pages that I trust the most, like, for instance, CNN. Then I get overwhelmed because there are so many updates, so many details.”
Frequent app users are a different breed. They’re more loyal than browser users. They read more than one news story per visit, they stay longer and they come back more often. That’s why consuming news via an app is considered an “immersive” experience, compared with the more scattershot browser use.
Wolfgang Blau, The Guardian’s director of digital strategy, likens the habits of mobile browser fans to those of desktop users.
“Desktop readers tend to have a much broader portfolio of journalistic sites,” said Blau. “They go to all these different sources, whereas in smartphones we are currently seeing — and this might change — that the portfolio of journalistic apps that they use comes down to one or two.”
Apps, which take time to set up, require a different level of commitment than mere browsing.
“Mobile websites tend to be very high traffic, but very low engagement,” said David Ho, “People come to it, through search or social networks, look at one thing and then they leave. Apps are different: They are low traffic and high engagement. You download an app if you are really invested in the brand. [In the app] you consume multiple stories and you go back to it at least once a week. The big challenge is how do you take people from high traffic to high engagement.”
Random interviews on the streets of the New York revealed that most people rely primarily on only one news app. They also downloaded multiple aggregators or social networks for news: Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, Yahoo News Digest, Cir.ca, as well as communication messaging apps like WhatsApp.
Some people are organized: They keep folders, labeling apps according to use. Some even group apps by color.
David Dundas, 33, who works for the mobile advertising startup Decisive, said he keeps an app library on his phone, separated into folders by category (news, social, banking, fun, etc.). “I love Cir.ca,” he said. “But I also like Flipboard, Twitter, the BBC, AlJazeera … there are so many!”
Smartphone owners consume news in different ways at different times. “I like reading long articles during the weekend, but I just check the headlines on weekdays,” said Strhingja Jovanovic, a 16-year-old high school student from Serbia, who was visiting New York with his family.
Time matters: Studies show most people check their phones for news early in the morning and in the evening, according to eMarketer. This suggests that when it comes to news, mobile doesn’t mean “on the go” but mainly “at home.”
Padding the News
“Tablets, for instance, are thought to be a mobile device, but most people don’t travel with their tablets,” Ho said. “Most people keep them at home. Instead of a mobile device, they are a piece of home consumer electronics.”
He noted iPad traffic spikes in the morning, around breakfast time, and drops in the middle of the day, which indicates that people are not bringing them to work. Usage peaks between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., suggesting that people are using iPads instead of watching TV — or using them while watching TV.
“Lean back” tablets — as Steve Jobs illustrated in his first famous iPad ad — are particularly popular among men over 55, eMarketer found.
“I check my tablet two or three times a week but when I do it, I enjoy long reads, especially about philosophy,” said Daniel Donovan, 65, a retired U.S.-born business development executive. “My favorite news app is Flipboard because I can follow sources and create collections.”
eMarketer found that 55 percent of tablet users said reading news was their favorite activity, while 41 percent of smartphone users chose “getting breaking news alert(s)” as their favorite mobile perk. Atsuo Fujimura, senior vice president of the Japanese news app SmartNews, sees the difference between smartphones and tablets as “shifting from active search to passive news consumption.”
“On mobile you expect news or information to be pushed to you, rather than you actively searching for it,” Fujimura said.
Customizing the News
Many media companies are using push alerts to enhance customization of news — reaching out to users not as a mass audience, but as individuals, said Jeff Jarvis, a CUNY Graduate School of Journalism professor and author of “Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News.”
In Germany, the software company Pylba is testing a system to track users’ news consumption habits, with hopes of selling targeted ads. “We can observe people using different news over a period of time, and then we can automatically create great profiles, because we see which articles are of more interest,” said Pylba’s founder, Franz Buchenberger.
But some raise flags over potential privacy issues. Others are concerned that tailored news feeds carry the risk of putting users into a journalistic bubble. David Ho said over-customization of feeds makes users miss out on the “serendipity of the news.”
“Maybe you read the newspaper and you always go to the sports section but, as you look at the headlines, something jumps out,” he said. “There are random moments when you are exposed to a news story that you didn’t know that you wanted to read.”
A Pew study from 2013 revealed that although people don’t recognize Facebook as a news-gathering tool, most say that the social network helps them come across stories on subjects not already on their radar.
Feeding news based on users’ social data and geo-localization — which means bringing information down to the block-by-block level, as Jarvis puts it — represents the ultimate attempt at content personalization. The more media companies know about users, the better they will serve them, some believe.
“Mobile means ‘me,’ what’s around me right now. Mobile means context, and thus relevance,” Jarvis said.
He added that news outlets should learn lessons from Google in making the most out of location-based services: “If I tell Google I am going somewhere, using maps, Google knows what time of day it is, it can recommend a restaurant, places to go, etc…This is Google taking advantage of context. You can’t do that if you do content that is the same for everyone.”
For Jarvis, mobile operates by gathering hints about people. “[Google is] into what I call signals: about you, who you are, what you want to know, where you are going, what you need, and so on. The phone is a phenomenal signal generator.”
No Size Fits All
But the shape of the signal depends on the device. Cory Haik, executive producer and senior editor for digital news for The Washington Post, said the paper has adopted a platform-specific storytelling approach — what she calls “adaptive journalism.”
“This is not, by virtue, a ‘one size fits all.’ The idea is that the key is to think of how we can tell a story in a specific device,” she said.
The company launched an Android smartwatch wearable app, part of its user-focused vision. “The easiest way is to think about whether people are going to watch at midday, or at their own time. And if you think about social, you need to think about the mobile web, and the advantage of the small screen format,” Haik said. “So, the idea is that you are really working on device-specific storytelling, and we are doing a lot of experimentation around that now.”
Some legacy news outlets like The Post believe that the way to find out about emerging trends is trying new things. “We always need to be in beta mode,” Haik said, explaining that news outlets should adopt a startup mentality, launching and iterating, and testing products in the marketplace.
Others, though, believe that great content works great across platforms. Alex Hardiman, executive director of mobile at The New York Times, noted that the morning briefing for the NYTNow app also proved a hit in the desktop version.
“There are deeply entrenched and growing cross-platform behavior among our readers and our subscribers, and that actually seems to be the new normal,” Hardiman said during the 2014 Online News Association (ONA) conference in Chicago. “So we had to pivot and ask ourselves. ‘What does the world look like where cross-platform is the new normal, with mobile taking the lead?’”
An Eye on Video
Video works across the mobile spectrum. One of the most-mentioned uses of mobile, according to eMarketer, is watching national TV news outlets, like CNN, Fox and MSNBC. In the 2014 Pew Research State of the Media, 38 percent of Americans (almost 100 million people) said they watched video online. Some players from the startup scene believe there’s a lot of potential for audiovisual news stories on mobile, echoing — but not necessarily duplicating — the experience of watching TV.
WatchUp, for example, is an app that delivers a daily newscast using 200 video channels for people who want to watch TV news. Choosing from broad topics (business, world, ideas, etc.), users can tell the app which type of news they are interested in. Then, they set a specific time of the day when they would like to watch the news — for example, 6 p.m., while coming home from work.
“Many people love television, it’s deeply rooted,” said Adriano Farano, WatchUp founder and CEO. “Different generations can relate to the newscast concept: having the daily appointment, which is something even more in-depth compared to what you can do with Twitter, Facebook, etc., to understand the world around you.”
David Clinch, CEO of Storyful, an agency that provides verified viral content to news outlets, also believes that video is the future of mobile news delivery. But he noted it’s still hard to monetize. “Saying that more than 50 percent of users come from mobile (is) not the same as saying that 50 percent of your revenue comes from mobile,” he said.
To drive revenue out of mobile, news outlets need to figure out the right advertising model for devices — if there is one — or find an alternative business model. But there’s a data gap, making it hard to make crucial decisions on revenue generation. “Metrics for mobile exist, but they are not as sophisticated as tools to measure the web. It’s like the web (in its early days), but all over again,” Clinch said.
Mobile is to the web what the web was to print. For Clinch, the future will be an interconnection of many platforms and legacy media outlets.
“I agree with the ‘Mobile first’ strategy, but people also like TV, so If you press a button in your cell phone, don’t forget it should pop up in your TV,” he said. “Apple TV, Google TV allows you to synch with your mobile phone. People don’t want to be restricted to their phones. They would like to push information out to a larger screen, to any screen.”
In this scenario, mobile is not an isolated phenomenon, but part of the Internet of things, ultimately connecting wearable devices to consumer electronics. “Mobile devices need to become your remote control, to determine when and where you would like to watch or read something,” Clinch said.
Some users see smartphones as a large window to the world. “I need to know what is going on out there, especially with most of my family abroad, in Peru, but also in Italy and Spain, and me living here,” said Violeta Arcucci, 39, who lives in Queens. Most people interviewed said they use their smartphones most of the time for news updates and to communicate with friends and loved ones.
That’s why many players, like David Cohn, creator of the ground-breaking news app Cir.ca, believe the future of mobile depends essentially on how well news can be integrated into people’s routines. “[We need to focus on]simplicity and an emphasis on products that people use in their daily lives,” he said.
But what people use in their daily lives is changing by the day.
“Now, we are doing great on smartphones and tablets, but we also built a product for Google Glass,” WatchUp’s Adriano Farano said. “Tomorrow, you might find us on TV. Mobile is, to me, is probably the most comfortable portable device. So much so that sometimes I feel like it’s an extension of myself … a sort of cyborg. These devices can augment our perception of the reality.”
So can augmented reality, computer-generated elements that are added to real world images, said The Wall Street Journal’s Ho. The challenge in delivering mobile news is to overcome the boundaries of the physical world, allowing people to interact in ways that were unimaginable before.
“Storytelling in the news needs a dimensional depth that it doesn’t currently have because most of our stories, however we present them, are two-dimensional because they are confined to screens or pieces of paper,” Ho said. “Now, technology allows us to interact with the physical world in a lot of ways: with our fingers, with our voice, with more senses than just our eyes and our ears.”
As new technologies like 360-degree photographs and accelerometers become less complicated, the more people use them. Still, new products can take awhile to take hold. Reuters reported in November 2014 that some technology companies said they stopped building apps for Google Glass because of a lack of customers or device limitations.
But many are betting on wearable technology as the future of mobile — and of news delivery.
Flexibility, adaptability and having the freedom to connect from anywhere, anytime are some of the strongest aspects of news on mobile. Users need to feel that new devices are moving with them as they move forward.
This race against the clock is a race for money, but also to anticipate upcoming needs in offering the news diet of tomorrow. Fed by wearables or tailor-made stories or emerging visual narratives, the hunger for constant information gets bigger and bigger as lacking a smartphone in the hand begins to feel like giving up a piece of ourselves.
“Most people, if they don’t have their phones in their hands, would feel as if they were naked or missing a part of themselves,” Ho said. “Mobile is understanding the mobile intimacy of technology — how it is so intimately connected to our lives.”