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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 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.


  1. Robb Montgomery
    Robb Montgomery October 20, 2013

    “Being mobile first requires us to think about mobile as something different than just digital on a small screen. ”

    Amen. Brilliant. This is spot-on thinking.

    • dkiesow
      dkiesow October 20, 2013

      Thanks Robb.

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