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David Ho on our wired lives and the future of digital journalism

There are now more mobile devices than people on earth: What does that mean for journalism, for digital design and for our lives?

For one, «print newspapers might outlast websites in their current form because websites are changing so fast», David Ho, Wall Street Journal’s Executive Mobile Editor, predicted  during a talk on mobile journalism and responsive design in Oslo this week.

Currently there are more than 7,2 billion mobile devices in service in the world. As of last year, there are more mobile devices than people on earth. There are bout 2 billion smart phones in the world. More than 60% of all US digital time is spent on mobile. Most of that is spent on apps, rather than websites.

Ho said that in a sense every aspect of our lives is now becoming wired and chipped, a trend he described as very cool and very unsettling at the same time: very exciting and a bit Orwellian.

«We are moving towards a world where there’s a chip in everything...  A world with more data collection and less privacy, and if you really want privacy you have to go out of your way to get it,» he said.

We’ve been talking about that privacy challenge for so many years now that it’s hardly news.

But I think it is as if we’ve seen the overall mobile trends for a very long time, while the implications for how we live our lives (and consequently for the news industry) have  only come into full focus more recently. As a result, I found the talk by Ho, organised by the Norwegian Institute for Journalism (IJ), interesting - even though much of the things he talked about were not all that new.

As a former technology journalist and mobile (smartphones & tablets) columnist I’ve been to countless such talks by major players in the industry, but it’s as if five years ago, when many were (wrongly)  predicting how the iPad would bring about a new golden age for journalism, we saw only the blurry outline of the mobile future. But as this picture has come more and more into focus, details have appeared which makes the overall picture much clearer. And Ho’s talk brought a lot of this together, which is why I find it interesting to dwell on and summarise in a blog post.

I am aware that David Ho also was the keynote speaker at last summer’s Newsrewired in London, so I’ve summarised the points from his talk in Oslo I found most interesting in a bullet point list to make it easier to scan for new/old insights.

At the start of his talk, he had everyone in the room, mostly media folks, unlock their smartphones and hand it to the the person sitting next to them: An experiment which had many people in the room feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

He used this experiment to illustrate how «we are our phones». Our smartphones hold our contacts, our family, friends, work documents, email, photos –  they organise our entire lives.

We’ve never had «a technology this personal and this intimate. So when we in the news industry send news to mobile we send it to a very personal sphere,» he said.

Some of the insights Ho shared from his work (in the US):

  • Mobile is now, not the future. If you’re not already embracing it, you’re behind.
  • Mobile is social and social is mobile. The vast majority of Facebook’s revenue comes from mobile.
  • We see a major shift to mobile. At the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 news websites had more traffic from mobile than from desktop. The vast majority of data traffic on mobile comes via apps, not the web.
  • Mobile news users skip home pages and arrive sideways. One place desktop is still holding on: At work, at the office, a place where people still go to frontpages.
  • Tech companies focus on platforms and app-to-app «deep linking». We also need to think about how apps talk to other apps and go directly from one app to another with no website inbetween
  • Mobile news sites tend to be high traffic, low engagement. People read one story then leave.
  • Apps are different: Lower traffic but very high engagement, people who use apps stay. The time is what’s important on mobile.
  • Mobile is a battle for time. So the challenge is how do you get people to stay.
  • Tech is becoming personal, contextual, aware of behaviour, habits and location. It anticipates you.
  • Interfaces are evolving beyond screens to focus on voice and gesture control.
  • WSJ launched a new responsive news site this year that a lot of work went into. Having a responsive website is a must, a minimum to survive in this mobile world right now.
  • Advertising doesn’t work as well on mobile for most people. Native ads are definitely the trend, definitely working better than traditional banner ads, but advertising is work in progress on mobile.
  • If your content is good enough people are willing to pay for news on mobile, but it has to be unique. Subscriptions are a major part of WSJ’s strategy – but a lot of the news provider's content is stuff people rely on for their work.

Ho also shared his 50 favourite apps for journalists in 30 Minutes, and has later shared those slides on Twitter:  Journalism Apps slide 1, Journalism Apps slide 2, Journalism Apps slide 3 & Flappy bird lessons for news.



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