No. 9: Untangling the migration to mobile

Mobile technologies created huge ripples in 2008, both in and out of the news industry. Some milestones:

  • The iPhone become the top-selling handset, with more than 13 million phones sold. Plus, Apple created a rapidly expanding and diverse marketplace for third-party applications.
  • Google’s open-source mobile operating system, Android, made a big splash. Along with the iPhone, these devices completely redefined user’s expectations of smart phones — namely, migrating the richness of the Web into a handheld device.
  • Twitter, the micro-blogging service, exploded in popularity with millions of users and, by some estimates, between 1-2 million tweets per day.
  • The Kindle became a huge hit (even Oprah loves it) for reading long-form on the road, and keeping it fed with new books, newspapers, magazines and blog posts via an always-on and free wireless connection.

It was an epic year for handheld devices and the services that power them. And news organizations scrambled to respond.

Many of the most popular iPhone applications in the news category come from traditional organizations such as the AP, New York Times, USA Today, BBC, and CBS. Meanwhile, London’s Telegraph launched the first news app for Google’s Android platform. These applications allow for new modes of interaction. For example, users can contribute photos and reports from the field via the AP’s application or vote in polls that are broken down locally at USA Today.

Newsrooms also embraced the Twitter phenomenon. According to Erica Smith’s count, there are nearly 50,000 people following the updates from just the top-10 newspaper-affiliated Twitter accounts. She counted more than a thousand newspaper Twitter accounts in all last month, a number that’s sure to grow.

More importantly, these services facilitate communication in both directions. One study showed mobile-enabled systems helped information circulate more clearly than traditional channels during the shootings at Virginia Tech. James Buck, a UC Berkeley graduate journalism student, tweeted on his way to jail after being arrested by the Egyptian police for photographing protests in the country. Just last week, Mike Wilson posted Twitter updates moments after escaping a plane crash in Denver. During the attacks in Mumbai, Twitter became such a clearing house for information that Indian police asked users to stop posting for security reasons.

Challenges for news orgs

This abundance of information, and the tricky nature of attaching any type of authenticity or locality to it, becomes a major challenge for news organizations. Chrys Wu, who blogs at Ricochet, said that news organizations will need to balance their attention and vetting process with more speed than before. Some problems she sees:

  • Deciding what is worth paying attention to (choosing which fire hoses you will drink from).
  • How to monitor the incoming information.
  • How to quickly and reliably distinguish what is “real” from what is not.
  • How to best use the resources in-house (not just people, but the storehouses of information) to bring additional context to the incoming information.
  • How to stay on top of the story and follow it all the way through.
  • How to reach readers and earn their trust for news tips.
  • And how to do it at a speed nearly as fast as the rest of the information being posted and traded by people who are where the news is happening.

William Couch, a designer at USA Today who helped launch the news organization’s iPhone application, believes that most news forays into mobile platforms thus far have been relatively underwhelming. “Most implementations I’ve seen have not leveraged the organization’s content in ways that are befitting of the medium.”

“There’s an interesting dichotomy growing in how people are consuming content,” he said. “The most obvious scenario is when you’ve got a few minutes free, whether you’re waiting in line, or — ahem — traffic, and want to get a few quick hits. The less obvious scenario that I see emerging and really growing as the mobile sphere matures is long-form content being consumed on mobile devices.”

He points to Instapaper (a Web service that allows users to store articles for reading later, in particular via an iPhone application that makes for more mobile-friendly reading) and the Kindle as examples to transport long-form content off the printed page. (Newspapers are faring relatively well in the Kindle marketplace).

Underlying this rapidly changing landscape are the hurdles facing designers: smaller screens, limited bandwidth, wildly varying capabilities between devices and entirely new user-interface paradigms — and all these variables are evolving at a whirlwind pace.

Where can designers turn for advice? Here are a few starting points:

And, obviously, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Sound off in the comments with your observations of mobile innovations this past year and resources for better utilizing these tools and services.

2008: The Year in News Design

Tyson Evans is the editor of Update and an interface engineer at The New York Times.

About Tyson Evans

Tyson Evans is SND’s vice president and a senior editor at The New York Times.

3 comments

I’d like to note that while I said most news organizations’ mobile presences have been underwhelming, there are a few that have impressed me:

NPR’s mobile site: m.npr.org
On the iPhone, the presentation is quite clean, you can personalize the story list by choosing your local or favorite station, and you can stream the Hourly News update from the home page, or audio to any story. The audio articles are generally under 10 minutes so they’re digestible when you have some free time.

NYTimes’s mobile site: mobile.nytimes.com
This site greatly outdoes the iPhone app when used on the iPhone and is great for other mobile devices as well. I was hugely impressed by the wealth of info and updates they had for the presidential election, and they’ve recently added the ability to watch their video content, and even—how crazy is this—review holiday recipes, save your favorites to your account which will then build a shopping list of ingredients to get to make those dishes. While this seems somewhat unconventional, and I’d bet this would be better ported to actual application (AllRecipes.com’s Dinner Spinner is pretty excellent), it’s still thinking in the right direction.

AP’s Mobile News iPhone App
While I have some beefs with the UI of the software, they deliver a wide variety of content, articles, photos and video, in a way that makes their coverage feel pretty comprehensive. I also love that it can pull local stories based on your location. (I will say though, once it does, the content often isn’t that local, or genuine. Right now, I’m in Holland, Mich. and it’s considering local stories to be those published by The Detroit News from AP, which are in fact national stories. Example aside, even when the stories shown do have a degree of locality, they often lack the genuineness of my local newspaper.)

While I realize it’s difficult for a lot of news organizations, especially smaller ones, to spend a significant amount of time and money into building their mobile presence, and the question of monetizing content on the platform is an even bigger question than it is for desktop browsing, it’s certainly something that should not be ignored in the near future. Outsourcing your presence to a provider like Crisp Wireless, who is responsible for many news orgs’ mobile presence, just feels too cookie-cutter to me, and completely ignores the notion of catering your mobile presence to your content.

Newsrooms aren’t the only ones betting on mobile, or specifically, the iPhone. Book publishers Random House, Penguin, Houghton Mifflin and Simon & Schuster signed a development deal that will allow them to offer entire books on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

While Apple’s getting all the buzz, it’s still not the dominant player. Worldwide, Nokia and its Symbian OS own most of the market. In the U.S., Samsung is the current leader, with LG, RIM and Motorola and their respective operating systems also competing for big pieces of market share. And then there’s Google’s Android platform, and the anticipated announcement of more phones that will be running it in 2009.

This presents a little bit of a problem for news companies developing websites and apps. While the HTML DocType might be standardized, the browsers aren’t, so it’s difficult to optimize the experience for all users, or even a majority of users. Furthermore, not all phones will play video, and those that do don’t all accept the same format.

Nevertheless, with so many people using phones at all hours of the day, more news companies are likely to set up basic WAP sites and develop more applications to connect readers to their content.

Right, I should also point out that while I was leaning heavily on the iPhone in my last comment, the real message at hand here is content delivery in scalable form, while being mindful of each platform to which that content will scale.

Currently, news organizations’ biggest issue is organizing and building an infrastructure around their content so that they can move and scale it to whatever platform it needs to be on. Right now, the iPhone is gaining serious ground, and there’s a lot of buzz about it and its App Store, so currently that’s where the emphasis of this scaling is.

This should not be the point of all this though. Again, the important point here is making your content accessible to any platform on any device. That there are so many platforms out there and that those will likely continue to increase (although, I’d presume some standards will take shape sooner than later—there will be a unanimous cry from designers and developers to make their jobs more straightforward—there kind of already is between the iPhone and Android), further emphasizes the utmost urgency to build news content to be 110% scalable.

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