Cory Bergman

Most newsrooms know that mobile is growing fast.  Everyone can see mobile usage (phones and tablets) creeping up on their desktop numbers. For example, The Guardian recently said mobile visits hit 35%, outpacing desktop at certain hours of the day.  A growing handful of media brands — including where I work at Breaking News — have watched mobile soar over desktop in audience.  And we’ve all seen the stories about the unprecedented growth of tablets, the fastest-growing product in the history of consumer electronics.

Soon, mobile will be the primary way people get their news.

If that’s really the case, then why isn’t mobile dominating journalists’ discussions on Twitter?  Packing sessions at journalism conferences?  Sitting at the top of “most popular” story lists on journalism blogs?

I have a few theories:

1. Social media is all the rage

Journalists (including me) love to talk about social media on social media.  Just look at all the hubbub around Instagram’s new terms of service over the last few days.  Anything social is an extremely popular subject in journalism circles: Twitter techniques, Facebook referrals and Reddit AMAs are grabbing much more  mindshare than mobile news experiments, MAU growth (monthly active users) and app store rankings+SEO, arguably among the most important metrics for a news organization outside of revenue.

In fact, Harvard Business Review just went as far to say that media companies are largely wasting their time with social media metrics.

Don’t get me wrong: social media is very important — it’s an increasingly critical referral source, newsgathering tool and marketing vehicle — but it’s a subset of a larger mobile revolution that’s fully underway.  And let’s not forget that social platforms are not directly monetizable and compete for audience attention and ad dollars.  Growing our own mobile experiences should be the top priority.

2. Social is easy, mobile is not (yet)

I worked in local TV over a decade ago, struggling to convince reporters to adopt the web.  Fast-forward to today, and even the most old-school reporters have Twitter accounts.  What gives?  Social media is easy and convenient for anyone to participate, and metrics like “followers” and “likes” are something most journalists — who battle for reach — immediately grasp.  It’s also easy for newsrooms to experiment with social media without much technical effort, especially when drawing on many (mostly free) plug-and-play social tools. 

Mobile, however, is hard, and the barrier to experiment is high.  App development is downright difficult, requiring longer development cycles, talented designers and engineers — and deeper budgets.  “Good mobile developers are hard to find, expensive to hire and demanding to keep,” explains Andrew Locke, who heads up devices for NBC News. New platforms keep emerging, demanding more development attention.  And while many hope that HTML5 will be the savior, apps are becoming engrained in the behavior of millions of device users.

This doesn’t mean you need to learn how to code (I can’t).  But it means you should strive to learn as much as you can about consumer behavior, mobile design and best practices across news, gaming and utilities.  Become a student and soak up as much as you can.

3. Not just a new form factor, mobile is fundamentally new

Back in the newspaper days, websites were primarily regarded as a new distribution channel to extend print reporting to the digital world.  However, as newspapers learned, the web is a fundamentally new medium with its own use cases (i.e. search) and business models (i.e. CPC auctions). 

Similarly, mobile is not just another form factor, but a completely new medium, from content to monetization.  It’s a fundamentally different mindset focused on solving problems in a new context.  We can’t just shorten content and shovel it onto phones.  Or create a responsive design and say we have a mobile strategy.  Or create snazzy retina-loving photos in a tablet app and charge people for it.  

"We need to rethink media around informing you in new ways," explains Jeff Jarvis, who calls mobile a “personal bubble” with an unprecedented ability to know what a user wants. “Advertising? I’m not sure what advertising is,” he adds.

In many ways, mobile is a reset.  “By far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has,” says Y Combinator’s Paul Graham in a must-read startup manual.  What problems should news organizations solve on mobile? 

4. Journalists don’t have the data we need

In just about every newsroom on the planet, desktop data comes first and mobile numbers are few and far between.  Perhaps you’ll see a couple tidbits about the mobile web, but what’s happening beyond a simple visit?  How do downloads correlate with retention?  Which dayparts are most popular?  How do people interact inside your mobile experiences?  Phone vs. tablet?  Web vs. app?  Do they read articles or bail out after a quick scroll?  When and how do they share?  What are the most cost-effective marketing tactics to attract loyal users?

We need to conduct more mobile-only research projects and track mobile-only user behavior.  We need to put mobile data at the top of our analytics reports.  We need to compare ourselves competitively on mobile numbers over desktop.

After all, if journalists can’t see how users are consuming or ignoring our mobile content, then we can’t — and won’t — adapt to the new world.  

5. Invest more in mobile and set bold goals

With a few exceptions, newsrooms are under-investing in mobile.  If mobile is truly a new frontier, it demands the resources to succeed.  

"When the Web was new, many of us went online with creativity and energy," says Regina McCombs, who teaches mobile at Poynter. "Now, faced with even bigger potential and pitfalls for developing — or losing — our audience, most of us are getting by with as little investment as we can. That’s scary."

At Breaking News — a quickly-growing mobile startup owned by NBC — we’ve been fortunate enough to have the resources and the freedom to drive mobile innovation.  In turn, we’ve focused on creating a mobile-first culture with bold goals that virtually ignore the desktop.  We hold ourselves accountable for mobile, and by extension, that’s our team’s priority.  From product brainstorming to coverage to success metrics, mobile is the default everything.

As mobile startups pop up everywhere, not investing is not an option.  They have the freedom to disrupt.  Do you?

6. Mobile can be more of a threat than an opportunity

With the explosion of devices, mobile traffic has been viewed as a bonus, adding to desktop audiences to grow overall reach.  If it’s all incremental, why worry about it? But that’s increasingly not the case.

"From board meeting to board meeting, we are seeing a similar pattern. Web is flattish. But mobile is growing like a weed," explains Fred Wilson, a VC and principal of Union Square Ventures.  “There is a significant shift going on this year, much more significant than we saw last year, from web to mobile.” 

As audiences shift to mobile, advertising revenue — mobile CPMs are a fraction of desktop web — will drop by extension, at least in the short term.  Recently, I attended a meeting of venture capitalists who agreed that they won’t invest in any mobile startup based solely on mobile advertising for the next two years.  That’s why there’s an urgency to experiment with new monetization models against new approaches to news like never before.  

Journalists are a deadline-driven bunch.  We need to recognize that the desktop cliff is right around the corner.

I don’t have all the answers, but I challenge journalists everywhere to talk less about social media and more about mobile.  Immerse yourself in devices.  Become a student of the industry.  If you’re not getting the data you need in your newsroom, pressure your analytics folks to give it to you.  Cozy up to your mobile developers and designers and brainstorm — and try — new ideas.  Attend training sessions, like Poynter’s upcoming "mobile first" class.  Pressure journalism conferences to add more mobile sessions.

If we don’t, history is due to repeat itself.  Nothing less than the future of journalism depends on it. 

(Adapted from my presentation to MIT’s Future of Journalism event).

Notes

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    Not me…
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    Interesting discussion here. I’ve been doing a LOT more responsive and mobile-friendly design lately, and it’s...
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