Mobile = Local = Me: Context Over Content
The other shiniest toy for news organizations these days is mobile, especially apps for tablets and phones. But beware a few misconceptions.
First, much of what we think of as mobile often isn’t mobile at all. Most tablet usage is in the home. I often use my tablet and my smartphone when I am stationary, on the couch or at my desk or in a boring meeting. Indeed, you had better not be using these devices when truly mobile — on foot or on the road — or else you might slam into a tree. I think of mobile as a transitional term we’ll use as long as we still think of smartphones as phones instead of what they really are: computers, connection machines, memory machines, assistants, toys, entertainers, maps, movie theaters, tv screens, cameras…. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Glass, smartwatches, and their coming competitors may break the association of mobile with the phone when we can just speak to the air, asking questions and getting answers without having to haul out a device, without having to type or click, without going to a site or, for that matter, without ending up at a page. What happens to our notions of our products and services in news media when they are no longer built with pages at all?
As, more and more, we are able to get easy access to information and service wherever we are, through any device and via many interfaces, I think it will be foolish to organize our work around devices — a desktop product versus a mobile product — and instead we must organize it around the person: Oh, hi, Ms. Smith, we last saw you on your phone and you were asking about weather in Florida and now you are connecting to us via your laptop in Florida so now perhaps you’d like some nearby restaurants and, by the way, you’ll be glad to know that the weather back home is dreary and miserable. (That pretty much describes Google Now.) Ms. Smith is mobile even if she isn’t using her mobile device. Giving her relevant local information doesn’t mean tying her to a postal code.
No, mobile means “around me.” Mobile means context: where I am and what I’m doing. See the earlier discussion of signals — knowing who you are, where you are, where you are going, what you are buying, and so on. Mobile devices provide those signals — that context — and that is the reason Google entered the phone business, to learn more about each of us so it can serve us as individuals. Of course, this knowledge raises privacy concerns that need to be addressed by the companies gathering our signals, and certainly by government in the wake of Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s hoovering of data about us. As I will discuss later, companies collecting data about us must give us transparency and control over data or they will lose trust and permission. But so long as value is added through this knowledge about us — and that value is delivered to us and not just to advertisers — then I believe the market will negotiate transactions using personal data to mutual benefit and with sufficient security.
Another misconception about mobile is that phone and tablet apps will recapture for media companies the control over experience, brand, and business model that the web and its links took from them. Some magazine publishers — notably Hearst — have said that selling apps has improved their post-print businesses; others have been disappointed. Newspaper publishers and TV and radio stations have tripped over themselves to make apps. But I have seen private research showing that apps are frequently downloaded but rarely or never used. Bragging about the number of downloads is like bragging about how many email addresses you have, regardless of how many of your missives go unopened. I have downloaded many of the whiz-bang apps that garnered oohs with their smoothly swiped pages. They’re all pretty, and we in news have much to learn from them about rethinking our idea of the page and of navigation through information. I enjoy the experience of Flipboard, Pulse, et al, and I do indeed use and like the New York Times and Guardian apps (though mostly because I can download their complete content before I get on a train that runs through a tunnel without connectivity). But I still find that I most often come to my news not through packaged experiences but instead through social links.
Apps have not proven to be news’ salvation. They have many limitations. They tend to cut content off from links out to other content and links in from outside recommendations. They are expensive to make. They require marketing to get users to find, download, and use them. Though they provide a clean and controlled environment for ads, apps on the whole have not been embraced by advertisers — mostly because the audience for each app remains small. One news executive lamented to me that his mobile ads are selling for five cents per thousand views vs. $24 on his web site. It’s true that when they began, apps gave designers and editors better tools to create sleek and responsive pages, but HTML5 and responsive design now make mobile web sites more appealing. On the whole, I believe making apps has proven to be a distraction for many news companies.
Am I suggesting that we ignore mobile? Hardly. Usage and traffic for mobile is fast outpacing the web. Many news sites see or are about to see a majority of their traffic from what is classified as mobile. I had a conversation with a Google executive in which I whined about functions I wanted to see added to their web services and he pshawed me, dismissing the old web as practically passé. Google is devoting itself monomaniacally to mobile, where it provides us with no end of useful and specifically built apps — mail, maps, documents, calendar, photos, entertainment, communication — that all know me as a single user. Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, told The New York Times that he is deconstructing his big, blue mobile Facebook application and buying or building a chain of specialized new apps — like WhatsApp, Instagram, and the beautiful Paper — to lay atop his relationships with users and his data about them. Facebook’s apps are built for specific uses — one for checking updates, another for instant messages and chat, another for sharing pictures, and so on. Facebook’s apps all offer connections. Google’s apps all offer services. Both companies’ apps are built atop their relationship databases. Google and Facebook are in the relationship business. We are not.
Perhaps our problem in media is that we offer but one thing: content, or at least that is how we present what we offer. We make users come to single portals so crammed with our stuff it’s hard for them to find what they want, especially in cramped mobile screens. What Google and Facebook offer instead is context in the user’s terms: When you want to mail, you use the mail app; when you want to drive, you open maps; when you want to check in on friends, you open Facebook; and so on. Interestingly, both Google and Facebook have so far failed in their attempts to deliver news on web or mobile. Perhaps that was because they were trying to deliver our content without personal context.
What happens if we rethink the value of news expansively in the contexts of its many uses?
Sometimes, news is about getting alerts to the latest information. There, Twitter is decidedly beating us. I’ve heard TV news executives confess that they have lost ownership of breaking news (thus, when nothing is breaking, everything on TV becomes breaking news). As a platform that empowers witnesses to share and users to discover stories, Twitter is amazing. As a news product, Twitter has its weaknesses: Taken on the whole, it is disorganized; its quality depends on whom you follow and whom they retweet in turn; what you read on it is too often unreliable; it is repetitive; it overdoses. I think there is an opportunity to build services that specialize in the alert — the real alert, the kind of update that, as I said earlier, is worth the interruption, that makes the user say, “thanks for bugging me.” News organizations tend to abuse the license to bother with too many headlines, too many promotions and teases carrying too little information in them. Breaking News, a Twitter account started in 2007 by Michael van Poppel, a Dutch teenager, did a remarkably good job of staying on top of big news; MSNBC.com bought the service in 2009. Since then, as we’ll see next, Cir.ca has advanced the art of the breaking news alert.
Sometimes, news is about following a story. That is Cir.ca’s real specialty. When you click the “follow” button on a story there, the service knows what you already know and bothers you only with what’s new. One issue is that Cir.ca’s small startup staff can themselves follow only so many stories, so the service cannot be personalized to every interest. With its dependence on its own staff to use its own content management system to break down the article in its unique way, Cir.ca could have trouble scaling. Or perhaps the way for Cir.ca to expand is for all news organizations to take on its structure of news and its CMS, offering updates for the stories individual readers want, only when there’s something new. That would require newsrooms to radically change how they produce news — cutting it up into pieces, as Cir.ca does, to separate old bits from new bits — and how they relate to users, keeping profiles on each one to know what each wants to follow and what each has has already read. That would sound like a recipe for a reborn wire service — the update company — but when I’ve spoken with executives at legacy wire services about this notion, their heads explode: the utility is apparent but it is too much to imagine the work needed to change how every reporter in the field gathers and produces news.
Sometimes news is about diversion. Many presumed in the early days of mobile that everything on a phone must of course be short and quick because the screen is small and the time available brief. That is true in many contexts. That desire for nuggeted content and social sharing have given birth, for good and ill, to BuzzFeed and the listicle. But some news sites have also found that long articles can receive better readership — more time and attention — on mobile than on computers. In context, that stands to reason: stuck in a doctor’s waiting room, how much better it is to dig into an article you’ve wanted to read than into a six-month-old issue of People (BuzzFeed beats that). So sometimes mobile is the right medium for taking in a long article. I can hear the proponents of “long-form content” hazzahing. Not so quick. I dislike “long-form content” as an organizational schema for journalism. Length is too often a criteria of editorial ego, of the hope to attract time and attention to our content. That is not the criterion that matters to the user. Quality and relevance matter. The winners in what we call long-form are services that let users collect pieces from anywhere that they don’t have time to read right now, saving them for the moment when they are in that waiting room. Our challenge is making content that is so good it’s worth saving and coming back to.
Sometimes news is about getting up to speed, filling in missing pieces, understanding a story that got ahead of you, getting an explanation. That is what has driven some good proportion of the usage of Wikipedia. That is what inspired the creation of Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight, new services devoted in great measure to providing explainers and backgrounders.
Sometimes news is about answering questions. When I worked as a young cub on the midnight shift at the Chicago Tribune, guys in bars would call the city desk to settle bets because libraries were closed. My editor insisted on always giving them an answer, “and preferably the wrong one,” amusing himself with visions of the fights that would break out the next day when the truth emerged. Google does a great job of giving us answers to the kinds of questions we used to ask of libraries or Yellow Pages. Wikipedia does an impressive job of answering the kinds of questions we used to ask of encyclopedias. Is there a business opportunity in creating a premium service to replace the librarian and my old night city editor, or maybe employ them as human beings who can reliably answer urgent or hard questions?
Sometimes news is about recommendations — where to eat tonight, which movie to see, which phone to buy — if news media have not already ceded that function to Yelp, TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Rotten Tomatoes, Epinions, Amazon reviews, et al. Early in its web days, in 1999, The New York Times bought a service called Abuzz devoted to readers asking readers questions, such as, “Where is the best ice cream in Boston?” It folded, perhaps because it was ahead of its time or it emphasized the wrong kinds of questions or it was too limited in its scope; I don’t know. I created the magazine Entertainment Weekly but if I had the same idea today — helping people decide how to spend their scarce time and money on entertainment — I wouldn’t start a magazine and hire critics and make content to fill pages in print or even on the web. I’d build a platform for shared opinions among like-minded souls — thriller fans over here, romantics over there — perhaps adding a critic or two as convener and curator of the best discussions.
Sometimes news is — or should be — about connecting with others in a community of shared interest, like our neighbors. After Hurricane Irene hit the Jersey Shore, a city planner and surfer with no journalistic experience named Justin Auciello started a Facebook page called the Jersey Shore Hurricane News. It became an incredibly active hub for neighbors at the Shore — a quarter million at latest count — to share news every day. Earlier, I discussed Nextdoor as a platform to connect neighbors.
Sometimes news is about instructions — how to find a bargain or grow a garden or win at golf. There’s an opportunity to rethink such so-called service content around the context of mobile devices. One of the few plausible reasons I’ve seen to don Google Glass is to deliver instructions while the wearer is in the midst of a task.
Sometimes news is about discussion. Sadly, much of the discussion we are subjected to — on cable networks or in website comments — is vitriolic, venal, or banal at best. Too often, it is hijacked by trolls. A 2014 study found that trolls are in fact sadists and it’s nigh unto impossible to exterminate them. Still, I have not given up on the art of conversation online. There have to be ways to encourage and reward productive discussion about issues that matter among sane, reasonable, smart people. In fact, our democracy depends on it.
Sometimes news now is about sharing — and sharing is about news. People share what they witness, whether that’s as momentous as a plane landing in the Hudson River or as unfortunately common as a fire (alert TV news!). People share news, passing on links — often manipulated to do so by the likes of Buzzfeed and Upworthy — to inform friends or just to rack up social capital. Sharing is often misused and misinterpreted — more on that later. Nonetheless, sharing is a social trait that the internet fosters and amplifies and there are many opportunities and benefits for news organizations to help their communities share what they see, what they know, what they need to know, and what they think with each other.
Sometimes news is about taking action, helping the public or a community within it to vote, to be heard, to affect law or policy, to help others.
Whew. That is a long list of distinct uses of news: updates, followups, explanation, diversion, answers, recommendations, connection, instructions, discussion, service, sharing, action. Any of those uses can be mobile. None of them has to be. Isn’t that too much to expect of one site or one app? No wonder readers constantly complain of news sites: “It’s so hard to find what I want.” That’s because we are still trying to cram a big, old newspaper into a bottomless portal on a little, tiny screen and then add all kinds of new functions and different media. We hope it will be appealing and worth the bother because it carries our brand. Perhaps we can use mobile as an excuse to rethink the value of what we offer and as a means to unbundle our services into their useful bits — as Google and Facebook do. If we allow users to declare their own needs at a particular time or in a particular place or because of a particular mood, we can better serve those needs. Perhaps mobile will force us to get better at building profiles of our users as individuals so we can serve each of them better. Mobile can make us reorganize what we offer around our users rather than around our content. Mobile isn’t just another content-delivery mechanism. Don’t try to be mobile first. Be user first. Context over content, that’s the lesson of mobile.