Wired Wrists

News In The Age Of Wearables

This is the first in a series of posts for a project I’m calling The May Challenge.

The age of wearable machines has arrived. Granted it is imperfect and immature, but this new class of device brings with it intriguing possibilities for personalized news delivery. And because wearable screens, measured in millimetres instead of inches, are best suited for only brief glances of bite-sized information that live on the body, news not only becomes more intimate but more demanding. The canvas is smaller, alerts are more taxing, and efficiency is everything.

The first wave of news apps designed for the smallest of screens are very much testing the waters by distilling stories down to their simplest form. In doing so, the differences that distinguish one site from another disappear. On wearables like Apple Watch, there is no room for lush layouts or fancy branding, only a light wrapper around a bit of text. Instead of allowing for greater variety of sources then, wearables privilege outlets with already superior brand recognition, squeezing out smaller newsrooms and further eroding the abilities of mid-tier news organizations and their journalists to reach audiences. Unlike smartphones, which created a gold rush of news apps and experiences, wearables shrink the ecosystem by design, further consolidating the flow of power to those few highly differentiated players and polarizing the landscape to the extreme. Only the very few will benefit from wearables if they become the de facto medium for breaking news.

Just as wearable computers are a natural progression of computers’ tendency to get smaller and more personal, so to is their consolidation of journalistic power an extension of trends already in motion. As news has moved online, leaving behind the profitable ad space that came with physical pages and clearly defined geographic borders, the value of middle-of-the-road publications has diminished. When “good enough” content and the best possible content are equally available, the choice is obvious. When the ground started to shift, those outlets with the largest base, like the NYTimes, Wall Street Journal, and others, were best positioned to capture readers would previously have considered their content a luxury. This put greater pressure on smaller outlets to make up the losses in readership and revenue — an increasingly difficult task.

At the same time, the increasing prowess of social media to find, distribute and promote stories has all but annihilated what remained of conventional news distribution on the web. The home page has fallen out of favour. Facebook’s News Feed, already the most powerful tool in an organization’s arsenal for driving traffic back to stories, is poised to further tighten its grip on breaking, trending and evergreen news. Twitter has long provided real-time reporting — now with video — from any event, whether by professional journalists or ordinary people in the right place at the right time. Google, YouTube, and Reddit fill in the gaps.

In this brave new world, value flows to the poles. On one end, technology companies that handle the discovery and experiential components of news enjoy incredible engagement, and are able to sell their own ad space aggressively. And other the other side are highly valued publishers and writers who are able to draw big audiences to their work — audiences that actively seek them out wherever they may go online. Ben Thompson of Stratechery refers to this polarizing trend as the Smiling Curve. Its power cannot be understated, and the contraints it creates may allow for wearable news devices can thrive, for a few.

The Smiling Curve for Publishers (Source: Ben Thompson, Stratechery)

With easily accessible, high-quality content on one side, and lush, socially-driven web experiences on the other make for a very hostile environment for the majority of publishers. Their only true product, the news they produce, is no longer a defining feature. On top of this, the advertising units that kept them profitable have been usurped by better systems with larger audiences. Indeed, life has been getting increasingly difficult for years, and the trend of dwindling readership, revenue and ad dollars shows no signs of slowing.

There simply isn’t much money in the middle.

Technology has upended the economic assumptions that grounded the news, along with its actual production. In particular, the smartphone, with its persistent connection to mobile apps and social networks, has redefined the journalistic experience. It is this environment into which wearable devices have now been cast, adding another layer of abstraction and uncertainty with which publishers must now contend. And many, with their short term priorities and incentives lying elsewhere, simply cannot, driving more people to the organizations that can.

Consider the current crop of news apps for Apple Watch. Searching the App Store for news yields the following: CBC News, CNN, NYTimes, The Globe & Mail, The Guardian, Breaking News+, The Washington Post, and a few smaller apps like Circa and Yahoo News Digest. Here’s what they look like.

Apple Watch news apps (from left to right) The NYTimes, CNN, The Globe & Mail, and Circa News

All essentially equal in size, scope, and functionality. There’s simply no reason to have multiple apps when the main use case is a three-second glance while waiting in line for a cup of coffee. One app will do. Maybe two for perspective. Anything more and the wearer runs the risk of trapping themselves in Notification Hell.

Through a new device, news now presents to us a escalating problem that demands we make a choice. Small, portable screens make downloading a news app for the wrist desirable, but limiting. The number of sources is shrunk. The perspectives are condensed. Even the stories themselves are decidedly minimalist. It is a medium driven by user experience as much as information, a field in which only those with the most resources can compete, and the majority will opt for only one. Power to the poles.

Circa News, shown above, offers an interesting example. A mobile news app once praised for its unique interface and mobile-first experience announced its no longer raising funding, instead seeking a buyer for the business. In his analysis of what went wrong with what was once seen as a wonderfully innovative approach to mobile journalism, Frédéric Filloux notes, “Circa was a tiny fish compared to billion-plus ‘unicorns’ that contribute to what many see as a content bubble.” Rather than raise all boats, the flood of choices for content pushes many toward what is established and familiar, a trend big organizations on smartwatch screens can utilize.

With wearable devices beginning to catch on and a committment from technology companies to iterate on their capabilities as quickly as possible, it is important for news organizations to create compelling experiences tailored specifically for this new class of computer quickly. Waiting too long risks allowing this new digital frontier to be sectioned off to all but a few.

Rather than open up new possibilities, wearables may hasten to close the news ecosystem to only the largest and most recognizable names in news, pushing readers to stay within their containers, and let those in the middle of the curve languish in obscuring until they bottom out.

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