ONA was mobile-friendly but what does mobile-first look like for news organizations?

Only a handful of presentations at #ONA13 had ‘mobile’ in the title, but none of the many others I attended (or heard about) ignored the obvious: Mobile is now.

Sessions from tech trends, human design, breaking news, revenue models, sponsored content, product management, academic curriculums and the Latino boom talked about mobile in part or in whole. It’s fair to declare ONA13 officially mobile-friendly.

In my Thursday afternoon panel with @fionaspruill @corybe and @etanowitz – mobile was in the title  and ‘mobile first’ was the theme.

But a problem it turns out, is defining what mobile-first actually looks like. We talked a lot about the artifacts of a mobile-focused newsroom: titles, equipment, processes etc. But it is harder to describe the new mobile native reader experiences we have yet to invent.

As @jmm said in a Friday session, responsive web design is a publishing solution not a mobile strategy. It is still up to us to invent new ways to tell stories on these devices.

As more news sites move to responsive web design the need is an immediate one. A Thursday morning session highlighted the challenges for data visualization. For example,  a map-based timeline may be a great on desktop, but merely shrinking it to smartphone size does not make it a mobile experience. Aside from the interface problems (fat finger vs tiny cursor) the screen size removes context and reduces informational value.

The Boston Globe’s leading RWD and mobile-friendly interactive graphics efforts were noted, but even the best industry-wide examples are desktop-centric. What is needed are entirely new story forms, or at least some that are completely reimagined for mobile.

Two examples in the direction we need to be headed:

The Geo-list

The Boston Globe recently ran a feature rating local schools. In print the article ran with a list of the top schools geographically filtered for the Globe’s North, South and West regional editions. On Boston.com it ran as an interactive database of the results. On mobile, is the list or the database a better approach?

Given the screen size and the desire to create snackable information for mobile, a solution could be to offer a list but filter and sort it by GPS location. So readers in the South Shore would see the top ranked schools closest to them, much like in print. But the list would also simply be the default view for an interactive allowing in-depth browsing of the full data set.

The Direct Me Map

WNYC won an Online Journalism Award on Saturday night for their coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Among other things the digital team created a map of evacuation zones and evacuation centers which looked great and worked nicely on desktop and mobile. Media organizations create similar maps every day.

But citizens actually fleeing a natural disaster are unlikely to do so while browsing an interactive color-coded Google map. A better solution for smartphone users would be a turn-by-turn navigation tool. The phone knows where you are, would know your best evacuation route or shelter location, and could direct you to safety.

That is “news you can use.”

Neither of those ideas is particularly revolutionary or technically challenging – and each relies on the GPS chip alone. But, smartphones include a host of other sensors variously including those for motion, acceleration, orientation, sound, direction, light, proximity, humidity, temperature and barometric pressure. What new or mobile-enhanced story forms can we create using any or all of those? The potential is endless, but will require intense organizational focus to invent and implement. To be successful these story forms need to be integrated into our CMS’ not just regarded as one-off projects each time they are needed.

Being mobile first requires us to think about mobile as something different than just digital on a small screen. And it requires us to use all of the capabilities of smartphones to tell better stories and better serve readers. That is an organizational challenge as important as the original transition to the web.

Listening about product management

Everyone has a list of books worth recommending to someone new to your profession. For instance, this collection I posted on Amazon last month.

But what about a recommended playlist? For product management.

Sounds unlikely, but I am thinking of podcasts not Top 40 hits. (Though You Can’t Always Get What You Want would make a great theme song.)

If you have even a passing familiarity with Public Radio or podcasts these are probably all familiar titles.

This American Life has been my favorite podcast for years. But how does it inform product development? Easy one. The show features fantastic storytelling and journalism, and after more than 500 episodes has plenty to say about projects and innovation. A few of my favorites on failure and innovations are below. Also note, the episodes require payment to download to your phone but can be streamed for free. Another interesting example for product managers.

RadioLab is in its 11th season, and should be required listening for product managers. The show focuses heavily on science, psychology, cognition and related topics. Go listen to Games right now – especially the second segment The Rules Can Set You Free.

Freakonomics is the radio version of the two books. And as the name implies it takes a non-traditional approach to economics. From the deadweight loss of gift giving to the negative externalities of home burgular alarms – it is a great show to help you think a bit differently.

99 Percent Invisible I saved for last because it is so good. The show, all about The Designed World, has been around for about 3 years and is just short of 90 episodes to date. I have only listened to the first 50 – 60 so far, so may be missing some good more recent examples. Topics hopscotch from toothbrush design, the implementation of sociotechnical principles in hospital operations to the use of smart technology to improve downtown parking. The episodes are short, so download a dozen and start listening.




The death of NFC and the potential of the new news bundle

Apple Keynote

I ‘watched’ the Apple Keynote on Tuesday as per usual. And yes I plan to replace my 2-year old iPhone 4s. My immediate impression after the event: nice phone, fingerprint authentication is cool, 64-bit is great. But overall an iterative not innovative launch.

On Wednesday, I caught up on my reading. If you have not, check out these three stories:

MONDAY: PayPal unveils Beacon, a Bluetooth-powered add-on check-in device and opens its Mobile In-Store API


WEDNESDAY: Estimote Details iOS 7 iBeacon Support For Its Contextual Proximity Shopping Devices

TL;DR: Ad networks are playing with geo-fencing, but PayPal is looking to use a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device to actively recognize consumer location and facilitate deals and payments.

Apple is calling their version of a similar tech ‘iBeacon’ and looking to kill NFC before it gains any traction in the U.S. market.

And, a PayPal competitor in this niche took all of one day to announce their in-store device will be compatible with iOS7.

On Tuesday I commented to Josh Benton at Nieman Lab that the fingerprint scanner night be the biggest long-term feature on the new phone. It makes authentication and payment almost frictionless. But the real story is a lot bigger than that.

Om Malik connected a few more of the dots: 

“In the near term, the M7 sensor (a new motion processing chip) essentially opens up opportunities for new fitness applications. M7 will help create a personal computing fabric that will reside on our person — be it wearables such as Nike Fuel band, a smart watch or whatever. Sensor data is a way for apps to get ‘senses.’  …The M7 sensor processor, Bluetooth LE support and iBeacon are part of the efforts Apple is making to push “low power everywhere.”

So what is the message from Apple?

  1. We killed Flash and are coming for NFC.
  2. Smartphones are computers, not phones. (We already knew this thanks to Clayton Christensen.)
  3. The smartphone is a life tool. (More below)
  4. As per #3 utility, not content will be the primary use for these devices.

‘Utility’ is a much-abused term. But in other words, smartphones are quickly replacing or augmenting every task the average person performs in their daily public or private lives from dawn to dusk.

Call it the ‘life support’ strategy: Your phone can wake you up in the morning and warn you of too much CO2 in the house; Track your morning fitness routine and still get you to work on time; Get you deals at Target and check your credit card balance; Let you buy lunch and count the calories; Alert you to breaking news and route you around traffic on the way home; Set your home DVR to record ‘Breaking Bad’ or order and play Season One on Netflix.

Those categories look like:

  1. Internet of Things
  2. E-commerce
  3. Quantitative self
  4. Content

Media organizations are mostly focusing on #4, making content look good on a small screen. That consumer need is a key experience for journalists, but it ignores the powerful potential of the new news bundle.

The print newspaper has comics, classifieds, display ads, sports agate, events calendars, games, coupons and more. The typical news website has some of those features, the typical news app has – news.

This of course is where it gets tricky. How does a media company get involved in remote sensors, e-commerce or fitness apps in a way that serves the community and holds some promise of revenues?

No idea.

But look at the facts. A majority of U.S. adults now own smartphones, and they will soon be using them for everything. Everything. Newspapers are good at one thing and unfortunately journalism needs some help to be self-sufficient.

We can keep working on the things we are good at, or we can learn to do new things that consumers want, and advertisers need. Those lessons probably involve hiring a native app developer and spending some money on research and development. Get used to it.


When conspiracy theories strike, how do you respond?

Simple question: When misinformation is spreading on social media – can it be stopped?

Simple answer: No. As Churchill (edit: apocryphally) said,  “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” But, if you catch it early enough, you can potentially limit the damage.

Along with the tragedy of the Marathon bombing last week came the instant but well-worn conspiracy theories – none of which I am going to link to. Suffice to say, if you can dream up an improbable scenario someone has a webpage and a YouTube video dedicated to proving it is true.

One of particular interest here was pegged to a Boston Globe tweet sent at 3:53pm on April 15, an hour after the bombing:

Due to the vagaries of timezones and a lack of media literacy this was almost immediately seized upon by conspiracy theorists who thought it was sent hours before the actual bombing. (See below for details.) After intermittently responding on Twitter for a day or two, I compiled a timeline in Storify and began somewhat aggressively linking to it.

It is tough to quantify the success of those efforts. But, I did learn a few things along the way. These specifically apply to Twitter, but can extend to any platform.

First, I found five different types of users who were discussing the myth. Roughly categorized they were:

  1. Passers-by
  2. Questioners
  3. Trolls
  4. Accusers
  5. Conspiracists

Passers-by were people who simply got caught up in the conversation of friends and had little or no passion about the topic. Questioners had no particular reason to believe in a conspiracy, but were troubled by what others were saying about it. Trolls are just trolls – tough to say if some of them actually believed in anything aside from causing trouble. Accusers were the easiest to spot and respond to. Their tweets typically read  “@BostonGlobe why did you <fill in the blank>?” They tended to be skeptical of any answer, but may be reasoned with. Conspiracists were probably the smallest, but most vocal group. They are also the least likely to believe any evidence that contradicts their world view. They often responded with “Yes, but what about <link to conspiracy website> that was confirmed by eyewitnesses?”

In every case, the key is to respond honestly and directly and to stay on topic. Aside from some fairly amusing reactions (one person tried to report me to the FBI for spreading the myth) the effort seemed to be worth it. There are no fewer conspiracies floating around, but this particular one seems to have at least lost some traction. If there is a next time there are a few tips I would follow from day one:

  1. Before you respond, have something (in this case Storify) you can link to that tells your story.
  2. Track @ responses, but also check for keywords (in this case Globe, controlled explosion, drill)
  3. Prioritize responses to users who have large followings or numerous retweets
  4. Engage with individuals – but assume innocence. Some people are honestly confused and are just trying to make sense of events.
  5. Respond carefully, stay on topic and stick to the facts, avoid ANY extraneous detail.
  6. Humor does not work, sarcasm does not work. Use a few short words and a link.
  7. Everyone gets one back-and-forth but then disengage. This is fact-sharing not a debate. Stop while you are ahead.
  8. Don’t expect people to respond, correct their mistake, or even RT your link. The best you can hope for is they stop spreading the myth further.
  9. Look for allies already arguing with the conspiracists. They will be more likely to retweet the link and fight its spread for you.
  10. In the face of abusive responses say, “Thanks, sorry I could not be of more help.” or something similar. Then block those accounts as necessary.

You certainly can not “win” in these situations. There is no gatekeeper available to make a ruling on truth vs fiction. Some people will continue to believe whatever they want to believe. But, we can’t pretend that the spread of misinformation is not worth fighting. The more people that believe in a fiction, the fewer people will believe anything factual we do report.

Links are the currency of the Web. By staying out of these arguments we cede the field to the fantasists. By specifically addressing the truth (which many have this week) and then spreading the message on social media, we can fight fire with fire. We won’t convince everyone, but we can at least assure that a Twitter or Google search of the subject provides some facts, not just the fantasy.




Mobile-First Journalism : a Top Ten list

This discussion originated at Poynter’s Mobile First workshop last week and is slightly edited from suggestions gathered on the Mobile Journalism group on Facebook. And yes, there are 12 items and probably a few good ones still left to be added:

  1. Your website is responsively designed with smartphones as the core case.
  2. Your executive editor/general manager/publisher uses your mobile site daily.
  3. Staffers have smartphones and both consume and report news with them.
  4. Special project planning starts with a discussion of mobile elements and presentation.
  5. Mobile performance is included in staff goals.
  6. You have newsroom and business leaders with ‘mobile’ in their title.
  7. When the mobile site/app breaks at 2 a.m. phone calls are made to get it fixed.
  8. Your advertising team is selling mobile-first and ads are targeted to devices and locations.
  9. Your CMS has multiple content channels allowing different headlines and summary text (etc.) on mobile and web.
  10. You have an API that allows ‘data first’ development for current and future devices and partners.
  11. “User Experience” and “User Centered Design” are key concepts in your product development process.
  12. Fifty percent of your traffic comes via touchscreen devices.