Forget desktop computers, laptops, and tablets. They still have their place, of course, but these days increasing numbers of people are getting their information and entertainment on smartphones. Smart news outlets are taking advantage of this fact by optimizing content for mobile and, even more important, finding new ways to reach smartphone users via chat apps. The BBC, for instance, is on WhatsApp, WeChat, BBM, and Mxit, distributing news, crowdsourcing information, and reaching new audiences. For instance, it provided coverage to Indian audiences during the general elections in April-May 2014, and announced plans to cover the World Cup via WhatsApp and BBC Brasil.
Yet there are challenges for news outlets that want to go this route. One big challenge is finding a way to scale their efforts via chat apps, breaking the one-on-one limitations of chat and reaching much larger audiences. Secondly, they have to find a balance between keeping their customers engaged and annoying them. Third, content creators who are accustomed to producing for print or larger screens will need to hone their approach, learning how to optimize text and graphics for smartphones. And finally, and perhaps most important if the news outlets are to survive, they need to improve their monetization efforts.
Future shock for old-school journalismJust a few years ago, traditional news media – particularly daily newspapers – were waking up to the realities of the online revolution. The Internet changed nearly everything that had been accepted for many decades about publishing and news delivery. It was quite a shock for many. As Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, wrote in a piece for the Spring 2014 issue of Nieman Report, the old monopolies had been broken. There were no more gatekeepers. The Internet allowed pretty much anyone to publish to a potential worldwide audience, without the benefit of a printing press, broadcast tower or license, or, for that matter, without a degree in journalism (or even, in many cases, without any basic literacy skills at all).
TV news media were perhaps a bit quicker than print newspapers and magazines to catch on the fact that this Internet thing was here to stay and that they’d better start producing online content. Newspapers and magazines finally got on the bandwagon too, some reluctantly. As newspapers’ online content expanded, their print editions often shriveled, with some disappearing altogether. The strong survived, though it hasn’t been easy. And now, just as traditional news outlets are finally becoming comfortable online, a new revolution and publishing model has emerged, driven by the reality that pretty much everyone has a smartphone these days. It is, as Mr. Benton notes, a handheld computer that’s in everyone’s pocket. People use their phones for just about everything, including keeping up with what’s going on in the world. The news industry is paying attention, and as the BBC goes, so goes the news world at large. Still, as indicated above, there are challenges to overcome.
Obstacles to reaching the “mobile majority”
Scaling up. Traditionally, chat has been a tool for one-on-one conversations or small group interactions. Can news outlets scale up so that instead of one-to-one, it’s one-to-many? Technically, of course, it’s possible as more sophisticated apps become available, but it’s important to remember that nobody can be everything to everybody. News outlets need to customize their approach, and to “meet their audience where they are,” as conventional journalism wisdom advises. The right chat apps can make this process easy if they’re used correctly. As Caroline O’Donovan wrote in a much-cited June 10, 2014 Nieman Journalism Lab piece about the issue, “There are really two major implications for publishers when it comes to chat apps. On the one hand, they’re great for pushing out content to potentially enormous, previously untapped audiences. On the other hand, they’re intimate, private platforms where readers feel more comfortable engaging one to one, which can result in news stories that would not have been uncovered otherwise.” It’s up to news outlets to get to know their audiences and give them what they want. And that brings us to the next challenge.
Finding the customer’s sweet spot. The trick is to find a balance between providing crucial content on a regular basis and appearing intrusive. As BBC News India’s Trushar Barot noted when discussing the coverage of the India elections, mobile users feel that private messaging services are more personal than other forms of social media. One option to help news outlets strike the needed balance is to send messages as push notifications and to limit the number of messages per day.
Optimizing content for smartphones. It’s not that the media have neglected mobile; it’s just that so many of them placed their bets on tablets, thinking that these devices were going to be the platform for substantial content consumption. As Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton explains, many news outlets – particularly magazines – created apps that looked lovely but were clumsy and slow to download, and offered only limited interactivity. They never could get the subscriptions they’d hoped for, and tablet sales have declined in the past year and a half or so. So it’s back to square one for many, because unlike tablets, smartphones aren’t simply web browsers with smaller screens. They are, as Benton notes, “personal, social machines, optimized for communication and entertainment.” Here’s the catch: although people are spending more time on mobile and getting their content that way, consuming newspaper content is still not a top priority for most. A May 2014 report from comScore reveals that reading newspapers takes up only 0.9 percent of total connected time on laptop and desktop computers. On phones the total is even more dismal: only 0.2 percent. Obviously, news outlets are going to have to learn make their content more attractive to smartphone users, and app designers are going to have to make sure that apps provide the best user experience possible. A painfully slow download, limited interactivity, and obtrusive pop-up ads do not add up to a pleasant user experience.
Monetization. News outlets that want to survive are going to have to improve their monetization efforts. When subscription revenue fails to keep them afloat they must turn to advertising, and only a few big players have the lion’s share of mobile ad revenue. Although online advertising has long been dominated by a few, they have an even greater presence on mobile. According to a March 2014 report by E-Marketer, Google and Facebook will earn 68.5 percent of all the mobile advertising revenue worldwide in 2014. The fact that they have the pertinent data about individual users gives them a distinct edge that’s difficult if not impossible for smaller news outlets to best. In 2013, according to the Newspaper Association of America, mobile ads contributed less than 1 percent of all newspaper revenue in 2013. Though difficult, however, monetization is not impossible. News organizations simply need to get a handle on new technology and in some cases to even create new, app-centric divisions. NBC News’ Breaking News is an app-centric outfit that has taken creative approaches to increasing customization. The New York Times has a new iPhone app, NYT Now, that, even though it doesn’t offer the full array of content in the print edition, is a vast improvement over their old mobile app. The major media outlets already have their brand working in their favor; as they continue to improve mobile user experience, they will be able to attract more subscriptions and/or more advertising. Until the next revolutionary gadget comes along, smartphones seem to be the platform of choice for content consumption. The news outlets that are up to the challenges – that know how to meet their audiences where they are, and deliver the best possible experience – will survive this upheaval and the next.
Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post. She is a writer from
and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.