How News Organizations Can Create a Mobile-First Strategy

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I used to watch the crowds in airport lounges when I traveled, studying how people read newspapers. Even with circulation declining, you could see people reading newspapers intently. Especially after 9/11, people would have plenty of time to read while waiting for flights, and newsstands stocked a variety of papers to choose from.

Look around an airport lounge now. You’ll see more people looking at their phones than holding newspapers.

When I see people in the airport lounge, I know time is only accelerating with each tap of their thumbs.

My concern over this acceleration pushed me last month to call for news companies to pursue a mobile-first strategy. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen asked me to “describe what a ‘mobile first’ newsroom would do differently.” That’s what I’m trying to do here, start the difficult but important job of answering the question: How do we need to work differently (not just in the newsroom, Jay) to command the attention of those people reading and tapping small screens?

A successful mobile-first strategy will require effective work by reporters, photojournalists, designers, technologists, sales and marketing people, and management.

The mobile-first strategy needs to embrace new relationships with the community, as described in my blueprint for the Complete Community Connection. That principle is fundamental to mobile-first success.

As with Web operations, a crucial question will be whether mobile opportunities should be the responsibility of a separate operation focused exclusively on mobile or whether the full operation needs to share mobile responsibilities. I believe if news companies want to succeed in pursuing mobile opportunities, we need to make this success the top priority and responsibility throughout the company.

Certainly some of the companies disrupting the news business will be focused exclusively on mobile (or mobile and Web) opportunities, and some news companies might succeed with small mobile-only operations. I recognize the cultural obstacles will be huge, but I believe the greatest opportunity for success lies in converting an entire existing news operation to a mobile-first strategy, so that is what I will address here.

I should also humbly acknowledge here that the best I can do is point a direction and share some ideas. More answers will come from the people pursuing mobile opportunities and learning from their successes and mistakes. This is my proposal to move all of us in that direction.

Reporting, Writing & Photojournalism

Journalists will need to change how they gather, process and distribute information.

Every journalist must quickly get serious and fluent with metadata, data about data (think of the story behind the story). This will feel scary and unreasonable at first. Even the term is a bit scary. But reporters and photographers have always gathered more information than we shared with readers.

We often have to tell editors about a story or photo, to help editors understand the context and connections, so they can understand where and how to play a story. That’s sort of what metadata does; it tells the computer, or the phone, about the story (or photo, video or piece of information), so the mobile device knows what to give the user when and where. Think of metadata as context.

Location. Where has always been a journalism fundamental, the fourth of the five W’s. Well, in the mobile-first world, it might become the first W.

Tagging. Where isn’t the only W we need to provide in the metadata. We need to tag content efficiently with the other relevant W’s: Who is pictured in this photo or video? What is happening? When did it happen? Sometimes why or how or howmuch will need to be in the tags as well, and some of those questions will need to be answered many times, for each person in a story, video or database or for each date in a narrative story.

Investigative. Newspaper journalists tend to equate investigative journalism with long text stories, so at first blush it might seem that a mobile-first strategy would downplay or eliminate investigative reporting. But effective watchdog reporting deepens a news organization’s bond with a community and it must be part of the mobile-first strategy.

Some ways that I think mobile-first strategy might shape investigative reporting:

  • Crowdsourcing
  • E-mails, texts and tweets
  • Video, audio and databases need to be part of the presentation of investigative projects. These can be presented effectively on mobile devices and should be designed primarily for the small screen.
  • Amazon has a Kindle iPhone app people use for reading books on their phones. I do expect long-form writing to continue to be part of mobile-first journalism.

Read more about a mobile-first strategy for reporting, writing and photojournalism, including data, archives, social media and training

Design

In a mobile-first operation, design may be both a journalism function and a technology function, or it might be a separate area of the operation, combining both skills. However you organize, you need to make mobile service the priority of those involved in design.

A mobile-first operation recognizes that the best design for the larger screen of a laptop or desktop computer isn’t the best design for an iPod or cell phone. You need to both minimize staff time spent in Web design, to free resources for mobile design, and keep mobile Web consumption in mind when you do spend staff resources on Web design (for instance, simpler display and larger headlines and body type will make for easier mobile Web use).

While vastly better print design delivers only a marginally better user experience (if at all), design is critical to the mobile user experience. Type that is too small or an application that loads slowly or is confusing to use can doom a mobile project. But a “killer app” can develop viral momentum as users talk, tweet and blog their delight. The mobile-first operation needs designers with visual and technical skills to design new products and to carry out the daily execution of existing products.

Sometimes we will want to do multiple versions of content. For instance, we might change text size on a video clip so the TV and Web versions are the right size for those screens but the mobile version has bigger type that is easier to read on the small screen. But in a mobile-first operation, if you can take the time to make only one version, you make the font large enough for the mobile screen and let web and TV users get used to larger text.

Technology

The information technology staff of a news operation faces multiple, constant and often conflicting demands from throughout the operation. Priorities need to be set to ensure that technology experts, whether part of a central IT staff or assigned to a department such as a newsroom, have the training and time to help other departments execute an effective mobile-first strategy.

Development. The Web-first operation (or even a print-centric operation with a Web site) can make constant demands on Web developers. This staff resource needs to shift heavily into mobile development. To the extent that you still commit staff time to Web development, you need the training and priorities to ensure that all products developed for the Web provide a strong user experience for mobile Web use.

Applications. A news operation needs staff developers who can quickly and effectively develop mobile applications. The evolution of mobile devices will dictate whether you can develop effective applications that work on multiple devices or whether you have to develop separate apps for iPhones, Droids, BlackBerries and other products. But applications appear likely to become the primary platform for content and commerce in the mobile world, so they need to become a high priority for the mobile-first operation.

Apps will be important in several ways. You will use apps to deliver content. For instance, you might have apps for specific parts of your routine content, such as a calendar app, obituaries app, local sports team app or business directory app. Or you may develop apps for an investigative project, a new interactive database or for coverage of a big event (for instance, Gazette Communications might develop an Orange Bowl app, providing access to a variety of content about the Hawkeyes’ participation in the Orange Bowl).

Don’t think of apps just as devices for delivery of your content. Apps should become a revenue source, too. Just as newspaper and television companies help business customers produce advertisements for their products, a mobile-first organization is going to help business customers develop mobile apps to promote their businesses and sell their products and services. Many of the aspects of the mobile-first approach will require shifting resources from current print, broadcast or Web operations to mobile operations. But development and deployment of commercial applications will produce revenue to support eventual expansion of mobile operations.

Sales & Marketing

Sales staffs need to listen to consumers and businesses and learn how to help businesses serve the mobile audience. In the early stages of a mobile-first organization, sales efforts will be focused heavily on educating and training business customers on mobile opportunities and your organization’s role in connecting businesses in your community with mobile customers.

Mobile commercial content will be convenient and responsive, rather than intrusive. Search advertising provides the answer that the potential customer was seeking. Location-based advertising should not be intrusive or people will devise ways to turn it off. Our community apps and sites need to provide location-based tabs such as “shop nearby,” “dine nearby” or “nearby entertainment.” The user can ignore those tabs if she knows where she wants to go and just wants information on parking, for instance. But a user who clicks on such a tab welcomes our help (and the help of businesses paying us for access to these customers).

We also need to be careful not to use just a single mobile tool, such as a mobile Web site or iPhone application. Some businesses may want to sponsor breaking news alerts, reaching the text-message audience with a link to the company’s Web site or to its enhanced listing in our business directory. Some may want to sponsor a podcast or an e-mail newsletter, reaching people wherever they access e-mail.

Sales staff will need training in how mobile opportunities can work and how to teach a local business to pursue those opportunities. While we need to be willing to invest heavy sales staff time in landing accounts and in training businesses to use their apps, we also need to design self-serve mobile accounts that the business customer can change and update after we get them launched.

We need to develop pricing that helps businesses use our mobile services. We can’t discount services that we know will be valuable.

News companies know how to market newspapers and newscasts. We shouldn’t stop marketing those products and our Web sites, but the mobile-first organization will have a mobile-first marketing department. The community knows about the legacy products and will continue to find them with a reduced marketing effort.

We will need an aggressive (and vastly different) marketing effort to tell the community about all the ways we serve your mobile audience. The effective marketing strategy needs at least a two-pronged approach: sophisticated and witty to alert the savvy mobile customer to our services and simple and educational to teach the new or confused mobile customer how many jobs we can help him with.

Of course, print and TV ads will still be a part of the marketing strategy (Apple’s “there’s an app for that” ads and Verizon’s “there’s a map for that” ads have helped both companies pitch their mobile services effectively).

We need to work aggressively to get our apps onto people’s phones. We need to use iPhone’s App Store. And we also need to connect with local retailers selling phones and other mobile devices, perhaps offering free apps that introduce and promote our apps or offering to load our package of apps on each phone sold (perhaps as part of a deal that includes advertising for the retailer). We can offer classes in the community on how to use our location-based services and our applications.

We might consider cross-promoting: Get a new iPhone with all our mobile apps with a full-year newspaper subscription.

Leadership

If you want to launch a mobile-first SWAT team but not change the whole organization, then the top executive may not need to do much more than provide resources and direction. But if you want to transform a legacy media operation into a mobile-first company, top executives — CEOs, publishers and general managers -– need to lead the way to a mobile-first future. need to lead the way aggressively, firmly and consistently. Our default settings are powerful and the whole company or individual departments will veer back to our print-broadcast-Web roots if the top bosses are not demanding and vigilant.

The bosses need to set the example by using and mastering mobile apps for their personal use and by consuming our products and rival products on their mobile devices (and talking with managers and staff about how they use them and the lessons they learn). The top bosses need to spend time and attention on pursuing mobile opportunities. You can say mobile is important, but if you spend your time on print, broadcast or Web issues and hold feet to the fire in those areas, managers and staff will see. They will know by your actions whether mobile first is a wish to achieve in spare time or a priority for all to embrace.

Unless you’re loaded with cash (and who is these days?), you can’t pursue a mobile-first strategy without risk. Traditional media such as print and broadcast provide the revenue that supports your company. The inclination will be strong to try to pursue a mobile strategy on the side, while you protect those core operations. Top executives need to acknowledge the short-term risk of shifting resources away from those core revenue streams and also to reassure managers, staff and shareholders that the long-term risk of timidly pursuing mobile opportunities is far greater.

The top executives need to coach all managers in pursuit of a mobile-first strategy. This means tolerance of mistakes and risks in pursuit of mobile opportunities but no patience for protection of the old priorities. If the top executives preach mobile-first and practice mobile-whenever, whenever will win.

Training

A mobile-first operation will need different skills and a different outlook from an organization focused on established pursuits such as print, broadcast and web. Through a combination of training and recruiting, we need to move quickly to the right staff for a mobile-first organization.

I have spent enough time in the training business and learned enough new skills and new thinking myself to know that committed staff members can learn the skills and outlook that a mobile-first organization needs. The more we can help staff members transform, the more we will benefit from their other skills and their community knowledge.

But some staff members will be unable or unwilling to make such a transition. And we will need to hire some people for skills so specialized or advanced that we can’t reasonably expect staff members to reach the necessary level fast enough.

What’s Next

As we proceed, we need to remember the “good enough” principle of disruptive innovation that Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen taught in the Newspaper Next project. An innovation doesn’t have to be perfect to launch; in fact the cost of pursuing perfection can doom a project to failure. “Good enough” performance along traditional lines is sufficient for launch, if it is providing a distinct advantage over existing products in some new approach.

The cell phone is a great example. One of the first times I used a cell phone to dictate a news story was in 1995 in Herington, Kan., as authorities were searching the home of Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh’s accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing. The phone was huge. It dropped the signal twice during the call, and I had to call the city desk back. I pretty much had to shout to be heard. And the battery was about to die (as it almost always was, because it didn’t hold its charge very long).

Based on the performance of the phone on my desk in my office, this cell phone was just barely good enough. But the phone wasn’t back in the office on my desk. It allowed me to dictate from the sidewalk across the street from Nichols’ home as I watched the search. I knew reporting would never be the same.

That good-enough start didn’t mean we were settling for mediocre. It meant we were getting started on a new road to excellence I couldn’t even imagine then.

That’s what we need to do now with a mobile-first strategy.

This is adapted from a piece originally published on Steve Buttry’s blog. Read it in full for a more elaborated vision of how news organizations can shift to a mobile-first strategy.

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