The Future Is Platform Nativeness

In 2012, The New York Times published a story that set a new precedent in the world of online media. “Snow Fall” was among the first eye-catching decidedly digital-first news stories. Never mind the story’s content, “Snow Fall” integrated video, audio, maps, photographs, and parallax scrolling into the article, creating a more cohesive, engaging, interactive reading experience.

It was (and remains today) a strong example of what digital media is, can be, and should be.

Digital media is not — or rather, should not be — print media pasted to the web.

When The New York Times launched its website in 1996, in many ways, it was little more than a transliteration of the physical, printed newspaper. The website allowed for easier and more universal access to news stories. With the exception of, perhaps, breaking news updates and more photographs, there was little that early news sites offered that printed media didn’t already do. They were simply online versions of newspapers.

Fast forward about a decade, and the digital media landscape was shifting, largely due to the proliferation of personal computers and digital twins of print publications.

Then came the online-only news sites. With no print component, digital-first media outlets took advantage of the world wide web in the most literal interpretation — global access, infinite content and engagement opportunities, and a connected network. The Huffington Post (where I interned during the summers of 2009, 2010, and 2011) aggregated news stories from dozens of websites (and continues to do so), and published hundreds of stories each day, most of which were based on the reporting of others or comprised little more than photo slideshows. Today, that number is almost certainly in the thousands. From where I stood as an intern (with no access to traffic stats), quantity was favored over quality, and unique page views were more important than time on page. The higher-quality, more engaged reader was great to have, but as it concerned ad dollars, reach mattered more.

While “Snow Fall” was not the first article of its kind, it arguably had the greatest impact. Readers perked up and saw what digital media could be. But at the same time, digital media demands more than just parallax technology and custom coding — it demands a new way of thinking.

In much the same way that web-based journalism took several years to “settle” into the digital medium, apps, too, have begun to evolve.

One of the newest and strongest examples is the Quartz app. Quartz was launched as a mobile-first news website, founded in an era before news apps took off. Its layout was optimized for mobile at a time when mobile web was growing increasingly important, but was still secondary, and when mobile-specific formatting was virtually unheard of.

So when Quartz, the news platform designed with mobile in mind, announced that it was launching an app, ears perked up. As a longtime fan of Quartz for both the content it produces and its approach to content (leaning on editor obsessions and interests to drive content themes, and serving as an archive of the evolution of everything from the modern workplace to The Internet Of Things), I was excited for the Quartz app not so much for its content, but rather for its format. It had to be something that was not just not desktop, but distinctly native to mobile and native to apps.

With a familiar, mobile-first interface, Quartz posits news consumption as a text message conversation with a friend. It gives you news how and when you want it, with the option to read snippets and a summary, see the full article, or skip to the next news bite.

The Quartz app positions news as a message. Or, more accurately, news as a push notification.

I first learned about the app Poncho on Medium. It’s a weather app, but also a traffic and everything-you-need-to-know-before-walking-out-the-door app. And it relies almost exclusively on push notifications. Users don’t have to open the app to get info from Poncho. Rather, it all gathers on your phone’s home screen in the form of a push notification.

This signals a shift in how organizations think of apps and app functionality, building them in order to cater to current use habits (see also: Masuma Ahuja in Neiman Labs’ “Predictions for Journalism 2016” series), and to take advantage of the tech-y nuances that make mobile apps apps, and not websites.

Writing, for me, is a means to an end. While the content of a story is certainly important, I am arguably more interested in how it is presented and the ways it can be engaging (beyond “Tweet us your thoughts!”).

Digital media’s potential is limitless and ever-evolving. Experimentation, risk-taking, and a refusal to settle or accept the status quo are rewarded. New devices will continue to be released and adopted, the ways we interact with those devices will continue to evolve, and the content we interact with on those devices will change accordingly.

The homepage is dying (or so they say). In the same way that magazine covers tease to interior contents, so, too, do the home pages of news sites. And new content opportunities, forms, and outlets will continue to arise in their place.

Nobody knows what will be two years from now, let alone six months from now, but if recent trends are in any way indicative, platform nativeness is critical. Because little more than universal access (which is admittedly notable in its own right) is gained from being able to read the same article in the same way in print, on your desktop, on mobile web, and in an app.