News in motion: six ways to be a good mobile editor

So you want to be a mobile editor?

Or maybe you just got the gig. Congratulations! Now what?

I’ve heard that question a lot lately from newly minted mobile editors at organizations big and small. It’s not that surprising. Mobile has been the coming future of news and information for a long time, but many news outlets only woke up to its importance in the last year.

Why? That’s easy: 50 percent. Last year, many news organizations either hit or approached the 50 percent mark in digital traffic coming from mobile. That opened many eyes. It became very clear that mobile isn’t coming — it’s here. It’s been here. Mobile is now. And news organizations need mobile editors more than ever (read on for Six Ways To Be A Good Mobile Editor).

I became The Wall Street Journal’s first — and, at the time, only — mobile editor in 2009. Mobile was different then. Legions of BlackBerries with trackballs still strode the Earth. A new book-sized gadget promised to revolutionize the news business: the black and white eReader. The shockwaves from the iOS asteroid impact had only begun to spread.

The years since have seen remarkable change. Android’s rise. The iPad. HTML5. 4G. Mini tablets. Giant phones. Google Glass. Smart watches. Mobile and tablets overtaking desktops and laptops. Even improved auto-correct that — mostly — doesn’t turn my last name into “Honda.”

The mobile editor job has evolved, too. It’s a job that must be as nimble as the changing technology, adapting as people interact with news in new ways.

In my world, the work changed from running a BlackBerry app and a first-generation mobile website to conceiving of, building and running entirely new tablet and phone apps plus creating publishing tools, global newsroom workflows and cross-platform content algorithms. Lately, I’ve been pondering hard the future of journalism amid the Internet of Things. Across five years, I went from being a solo act to leading a mobile editorial team.

There is no one set job description for a mobile editor. It will vary from organization to organization and situation to situation. The needed skills will vary, too. There are many flavors and combinations.

For most, the job will likely involve curating news and multimedia presentation on a mobile app or website, providing human editorial judgment. At the other end, it might be about overseeing content algorithms and automated publishing to phones and tablets. It could be both roles, too.

The job often involves making sure graphics and images are mobile-friendly. It could be about working with developers, designers and product folks on setting a direction and helping create new news experiences. It might involve troubleshooting tech problems or testing new mobile advances. Maybe you’ll work with mobile and tablet news aggregator partners, too. It could be deeply technical work down to coding or perhaps not that at all, instead more focused on daily news tasks like sending out breaking news push alerts.

Very often it is an advocacy job, spreading the mobile way in the newsroom since what begins with a mobile editor must end with an entire organization thinking about news on mobile and platforms beyond.

And the job could even be all of these things. Trust me, it can happen.

When I’m hiring a mobile editor — and I’ve hired more than half a dozen of them since 2010 — the first thing I look for is news judgment. That surprises folks. They expect me to rattle off a big list of tech qualifications like Homer naming the ships. Tech skills from serious coding to Photoshop chops are a big plus, but not the heart of what’s needed. Instead, I look for a high and almost instinctive comfort level with technology.

Since everyone loves a list these days, I will not disappoint:

Six Ways to be a Good Mobile Editor

  • A mobile editor needs to be a mobile user. A serious mobile user. Simply owning a smart phone isn’t enough. Because if you don’t live it, you don’t get it. If you’re not using apps and mobile websites and mobile tools yourself in your own life, it’s all but impossible to do a good job serving that audience.
  • Know you are a journalist. No question. This is a real journalism job. You may not be an “editor” in the traditional sense of the word, but you still have to understand news, to value clarity and accuracy and immediacy and relevance and speed.
  • Be a mobile tech MacGyver. The technology has been around a while, but in the big picture a lot is still new and changing very fast, especially in newsrooms. So you must be willing to dive into the guts of it when things inevitably break. More so if you don’t have lots of tech resources on call. Learn to speak the language of developers. And keep the duct tape handy.
  • Understand the vast variables. A lot can affect a mobile user’s experience with news. Screen size. Device rotation. Operating system and version. Device age and processing power. Connection quality. Location. Time of day. App versus Web. Adaptive versus responsive. It is indeed a lot to keep in your head, but serving a digital audience has come a long way since Netscape browser testing.
  • Fight for the users (yes, a Tron reference in addition to Homer and MacGyver). In this day and age, an editor does more than edit. To deliver a meaningful, beautiful, relevant, engaging mobile news experience, a mobile editor has to be there on the front lines every day understanding how the constant flow of news, the changing technology and the many needs of readers and viewers come together.
  • Be an advocate. Despite mobile being everywhere, in many newsrooms the mobile editor might be the only person who understands mobile deeply. And the only one who gets why it is so important and so critical to the future of news and journalism. So you must teach and talk and train, one person at a time if necessary. Tell them why “click here” is a bad thing to write in a world of touch screens.

Today’s mobile editors are a diverse bunch. Some are former reporters, specialists in everything from deep data to high fashion. They come from print. They come from online. They come from video.

It is a great, crazy time for mobile news. Innovation is nonstop and crops up everywhere. You’ve got aggregators and atomizers and immersives. There’s no stopping the numbers: mobile is where people are and where they will be — at least for a while. And mobile editors are often the guides, figuring it out as they go and leading the way.

So, welcome aboard, new mobile editors. It can be a scary job in a land of constant upheaval, but that’s what makes it worth doing.

David Ho is editor for mobile, tablets and emerging technology at The Wall Street Journal. He is founding editor and co-creator of the WSJ iPad app and Tablet Edition. As a reporter for Cox News and The Associated Press, Ho covered presidents, protests and the pope as well as tech, telecom and terrorism. A Poynter Institute Ethics Fellow, Ho also teaches mobile and tablet journalism at the City University of New York. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHo.

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