December 29, 2015

It’s almost a wrap for 2015, and what a year it was for the media. Here are my notables, plus my two disappointments.

Much has happened to advance storytelling. One of the most important, in my view, is that we don’t hear the phrase “digital first” as often as we did in 2014.  It is more about “the story first” now.  Concern about platforms has become secondary. The story as protagonist is where it’s at and should continue to be.  Those who populate newsrooms globally are getting the idea: we are in the storytelling business and we now have more platforms than ever to tell those stories. Amen to that, but I hope 2016 will be a year to concentrate on the need for innovative and creative storytelling techniques.

Let’s review the highlights of 2015:

  • Smartphones —If there was a platform that went for a sprint to the finish line in 2015 it has been that smartphone in your hand.  About 64% of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind, and they are getting their news there too.  We are seeing more content specifically aimed at smartphones.  Also notable: 15% of Americans ages 18-29 are heavily dependent on a smartphone for online access. We like what the Norwegian daily, Aftenposten, continues to do in this area, with more innovation in store for 2016. Keep an eye on the smartphone. It is the essential platform of consequence not just for news but also for advertising.

  • The long read — We were happy to see new start up Delayed Gratification introduce “the slow journalism solution”.  So, we are not just leaning forward (mobile) and leaning back (tablets, print), we apparently are also sinking our teeth into the very long narrative.  Another favorite in this category, The Huffington Post’s Highline, a new digital home for an old journalistic tradition of longer, more ambitious pieces. Slow journalism has its followers, reporters who take their time, so to speak, sometimes months and years to complete their report. The good news: there seems to be a market for it.  I bet we will see this third tempo developing quite fast in 2016.

  • The smartwatch and at a glance journalism — With the arrival of the Apple Watch in June, at a glance journalism truly found its most efficient platform yet.  While the smartwatch has not become a household item on your wrist yet, I believe that there is a niche market of users for it.  I am one of them and I admit that I use it continuously to get breaking news.  I continue to recommend it to publishers as a part of the media quintet in which their brands should be represented.

  • Social media and “the cards” — Undoubtedly, 2015 was the year where publishers, editors and reporters realized that social media is the main door through which readers enter their stories, and their brand.  As a result, I believe that it is in this area where some of the most exciting storytelling innovation is taking place.  The home page is not where users come first (we’ve known this for a long time). Each article carries the responsibility to bring readers in, hook them to read more and to stay longer.  Enter the cards system, where collaboration between designers, editors and technical types provide visual presentations to make those links in social media more appealing and hopefully more effective in bringing us to a newspaper or magazine’s home page.  This is an area to watch in 2016.  A favorite: Storyful, a social news agency focused on implementing a culture of innovation, with a data mentality, which offers an audience with unlimited choices a guide to the content they may choose to engage with.

  • Virtual Reality — Storytelling generally got a big push forward in 2015 as The New York Times unveiled its virtual reality example via The New York Times Magazine.  Here we have a vision of things to come, another essential tool for storytellers. While we may not see many newspapers experimenting with virtual reality on a regular basis, I believe that the Times is right when it describes virtual reality as “a new frontier for journalism”. My suggestion: Add virtual reality to your bag of storytelling techniques.  Start modest. Plan for one virtual reality project this coming year.

  • The ups and down of those tablets — Behold the tablet — yes, your iPad probably.  It is no longer the darling of the media quintet (the iPhone moved firmly center stage).  In 2015, I was disappointed to hear that Postmedia killed its evening tablet editions (a Garcia Media project).  The tablet editions of the Ottawa Citizen, The Montreal Gazette and The Calgary Herald had everything going for them visually and journalistically, but, alas, not enough readers decide it to do their lean back time with those tablet editions. While the verdict is still out on why Postmedia execs killed that tablets, no one doubt that they were well executed.  Meanwhile, tablets are enjoying a nice ride with two other Canadian dailies, the French language La Presse (La Presse+), and The Toronto Star (Star Touch).  Both have found a niche with an audience who turns to mobile to get their news.  Both are favorites.  Don’t give up on your tablet edition yet, but make sure that it includes news, that it permits users to lean forward anytime while leaning back. Our ultimate favorite: The Washington Post’s tablet edition. We also like their website redesign, too.

  • Data visualization —This is, without any doubt, one area where we will continue to see slow, but vibrant, progress.  Audiences love numbers and stories that use them well.  My favorite: The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the American criminal justice system. It tells stories with deep investigative projects, narratives and profiles. And, yes, plenty of figures.  Watch also for its design and digital savvy.

  • e-papers —Here is an area where US newspapers have a lot of catching up to do. For best examples, turn to Europe, and, specifically to Scandinavia. What good e-papers do is to go beyond simply a pdf version of the printed newspaper. Instead, the great e-papers are one sure way to bring your readers safely into the digital future.  While readers flip through the pages of the printed newspaper, they also can click to see videos and photo galleries. E-papers enhance the reading experience and I urge editors in the US to consider robust e paper editions in 2016.

Two big disappointments for me in 2015

  1. We did not do much to advance native/sponsored advertising in newspapers.  In fact, while this is the area that may lead to better monetizing strategies, I failed to see much progress to introduce sponsored/native ads in newspapers globally.
  2. Not enough newspapers moved to hire that essential mobile editor—the traffic cop for how stories enter and move within the eco system of multi platforms.

Let’s keep those two items in full view for 2016.

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Dr. Mario Garcia is CEO/Founder of Garcia Media. He is also the Senior Adviser for News Design/Adjunct Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism…
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