Here’s something we know to be true: People are accessing news on their phones. In fact, in many newsrooms, our mobile audience has surpassed our desktop audience.
You might think as an industry we are all over this trend. We know what our mobile readers want, and we are giving them the stories they will find irresistible, with videos and photo galleries and simple interactive graphics that help to explain the news and explain their communities and their world to them. We do that every day without fail, right?
Honestly, there are newsrooms out there that are still mired in print. They agonize over what will go on A1 and A2 and every other inside page. And their newspaper readers are dying every day. Our obit pages are filled with our loyal newspaper readers. Meanwhile, news is increasingly being consumed on mobile. But since we haven’t figured out how to monetize that audience, we don’t serve it.
My answer to that attitude is that we need to serve our mobile audience right now. In newsrooms everywhere, that’s what we can do to save our industry. And our industry is worth saving. We add value to the lives of those in our communities by exposing wrongs and holding public officials accountable. Not to mention all of the other information and storytelling we share.
Let’s start putting mobile readers first. What this will do is force us to approach content differently. But that different content can power our desktop sites and our print products. We are just turning the operation upside down. Instead of planning for print — centerpieces and enterprise stories planned seven days out and Sunday analyses planned several weeks out — we are planning for mobile first. We still need stories with great photos and graphics. We still need enterprise and analysis. But we need to think of all of that from a mobile perspective first.
Here’s exactly how we can turn our thinking upside down and create engaging content for a mobile reader:
1. Appoint a mobile champion: Have a mobile champion in your newsroom. Whether your newsroom is big or small, someone needs to advocate for our mobile audience. Here’s what your mobile champion will do:
- Check mobile-specific analytics: Find out what your mobile audience is most interested in. What are the mobile trends? What stories work best? What videos work best? What headlines engage that audience?
- Check the phone: Discover what doesn’t work on mobile. Find solutions and workarounds.
- Follow the leaders: Check a mobile-specific news site, such as Billy Penn, or mobile-friendly ideas, such as the Washington Post‘s State of the Race 2016 (you’ll find it on every election story WaPo writes).
- Advocate for change: The mobile champion needs to be in every planning meeting to remind us to think mobile first.
2. Think about content differently: Experiment with mobile in mind, and pay attention to analytics to see how your mobile audience responds to your experiments.
- Story ideas: First, make sure the stories you write are on interesting topics. Check out analytics for trends: Are your mobile readers most interested in stories about students? Restaurant openings and closings? Big decisions from your city council? And ask yourself: Is this a story I would read? Or, is this a story my random neighbor would want to read? Let’s stop writing boring, process stories.
- Story approach: Instead of writing a 20-inch story on some meeting you attend, find a single topic of interest from that meeting and turn it into an alternative story format. Present the info in chunks. Use bold and light face fonts to identify topics within that story that would interest your readers. They can read the topics and zoom in on the ones that most interest them.
- Story length: We used to think short stories were better for mobile or web in general. Not so! The most important thing is how interesting the story is. People will stick with a story, even on mobile, if they are truly engaged. Facebook just changed its algorithm to avoid clickbait and to favor long-form, meaningful stories. This is great news for news organizations creating quality content.
- Digital layers: Think of ways to keep your readers engaged. Would a map help illustrate the story? Would your story work best with a timeline? Knight Lab tools are easy to put together. Enhance your readers’ experience with your content.
- Data visualization: Keep in mind how small the phone is when creating graphics or even presenting photos. If you want to see how something will look on mobile, grab the corner of your window and pull it to the left as far as it will go. How does your graphic look now?
3. Involve everyone: The move to mobile should interest every person in your newsroom. Let’s get everyone involved. Ask everyone to check their phones at least once a day and approach a story differently at least once a week. Everyone needs to experiment.
The bottom line is that we have a new relationship with our readers. Phones allow for even more immediacy and, frankly, more intimacy. As I heard someone say, many readers sleep with their phones. We are literally in bed with our readers now. Our phones are the last thing we look at before we sleep and the first thing we look at when we wake up.
How can we create content that serves those mobile readers? That’s our challenge, and one we can all get excited about.