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WSJ’s mobile editor: ‘Newspapers will outlive websites’

Submitted by on July 23, 2014 – 10:56 am | 5,686 views

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The Wall Street Journal’s editor for mobile, tablets and emerging technology has forecast that websites will be outlived by newspapers and other ‘edition-based’ news content.

Speaking last week at the news:rewired conference in London, David Ho said the concept of a finite, self-contained content set – a newspaper or tablet edition – is regaining importance in a world of non-stop news. He also said all signs point to websites evolving into a different kind of digital experience.

He also urged the news industry to stop the “endless cycle of technology catch-up” and do more to innovate by itself, adding that journalism needed to take the same leaps forward more commonly associated with the likes of Google and Apple – what he called “moonshots”.

Ho said:

Journalism needs moonshots. We need to think beyond the next six months. Journalism is the art of courageous storytelling. It is in our DNA to be bold. So why are we so often afraid of technology? When it comes to our stories, we have moonshots. Big stretching moments exposing atrocities, corruption and surveillance. We must apply that boldness to our tools, to our storytelling technology. To the experience of news…

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of innovation in journalism today. Many, many people are chasing the next step. I just believe that, for the survival of what we all do, we must take more than one step at a time. We should take five steps. We should leap. When we surrender to the notion that the future is unknowable and we are consigned to follow the innovation of others, that is why we fail…

You don’t have to be at a start-up, just learn about change and let your imagination run wild… Why wait to chase these things? Why be at the tail-end of change? I understand all about limited resources and budgets, but the only way we’ll get answers is to try. The only way we’ll stop our endless cycle of technology catch-up is by daring to leap ahead. Really far ahead.

Ho likened newspapers and websites to vinyl and CDs.

I’m not saying that a miraculous newspaper recovery is on the way – clearly digital wins. I’m also not saying that ‘the web is dead’. That phrase gets tossed around and is too simplistic…

Newspapers have been around for about 400 years and they have a lot of staying power. The people who like them really like them.People are beginning to understand something that we at the Journal figured out four years ago when we launched our iPad app. A finite self-containing non-updating content set still has value – the concept of the edition still matters, especially in a world of non-stop news.

I think print will be with us for a very long time. Print books. Print newspapers. I’m not saying they will be widespread or even successful many years from now, but they will exist. It may get to the point where newspapers are like vinyl records that people want for the sensory experience. For the feeling of paper. But does anybody feel that emotionally attached to a website…

If newspapers are vinyl records, perhaps websites are CDs. And in a world of streaming music and song downloads, do you miss CDs? We get so caught up with the disruption of analog that we miss the disruption to digital itself. The longevity of the traditional website concept is less certain than the longevity of print news. Because digital is evolving faster. Websites are becoming something else.

Ho called out seven signs that point to this change in digital news:

  • News consumers are shifting to mobile.
  • Most data traffic on mobile happens via apps, not websites.
  • Mobile Web visitors tend to skip home pages and go straight to articles via search and social.
  • Tech companies are focusing on deep-linking technology to take users from one one app to another, bypassing Web browsers.
  • Technology is becoming more personal and anticipatory – contextually aware of user actions and environment.
  • User interfaces are evolving beyond screens to focus on voice and gesture control.
  • The Internet of Things and wearables loom right behind smart phones poised to deliver a profound change.

“Put that together and you can see what I see,” he said. “The Web is becoming more conduit than destination, a channel serving other platforms and experiences.”

The WSJ built its first mobile website in 2007 and first smartphone app in 2008. A major upgrade to its iPad app is said to be coming soon.

Ho said that this year there will be more than 7 billion mobile devices in service – more devices than there are people on Earth. Of these, more than 1.5 billion are smartphones. 60 per cent of all US digital time spent is on mobile – and most of that is apps.

Ho, both a longtime journalist and a programmer, said many people are shouting about the importance of mobile but fewer people really understand it.

Mobile is not the future – mobile is the present. Mobile is not coming – mobile is here right now. If you are just now ready to welcome mobile into your journalism world, you are not racing out to meet the future, you are playing catch-up. If you don’t have a mobile strategy or a mobile presence, you are already behind. It is like the web all over again… Before we know it mobile will be old news and the world beyond mobile will be upon us.

Here are some of the lessons the Wall Street Journal has learned from mobile:

Remember that mobile is a very personal medium

We are our phones – our phones are us. Our phones are our contacts, our family our friends. Our phones are our work, the games that we play, the places we shop… There’s never been a technology this personal, this intimate. That’s why its so critical that we in the news business get this right, because when we send news to p[eople on mobile we’re sending it directly into their lives.

Make sure your graphics work on mobile

Graphics made for print don’t always work on mobile. Ho said this was part of a larger “fundamental conceptual problem that a lot of journalists have trouble with, especially if they’ve worked in only one medium”.

He asked:

The one-platform world is dead. It’s gone. It doesn’t exist. We live in a world of many platforms. When you produce news, it goes everywhere. It goes to print and TV and the Web. It goes to phones and tablets and aggregators and atomizers and smart watches and Google Glass. No matter what journalism job you do, this matters. It matters because how you tell a story is related to how people consume it.

Avoid web-only terminology

Using platform specific language can also have negative effects, Ho said, as phrases like ‘click here’ make little sense on a mobile device:

When you see “click here” on a touch screen device, what does that mean exactly? What are you clicking with? There’s no mouse. This kind of thing insults the reader. You are telling them: this content was not meant for you and your device, it was meant for someone else and their device. You are just getting a regurgitated version. So text in a world of many platforms needs to be platform-agnostic – it needs to work everywhere.

Think mobile from the very start

The need to be aware that all elements of a story need to be viewable across different platforms is a matter the whole production team need to be aware of from start to finish, Ho said.

This is especially true for graphics, he said, as readers regularly encounter images or pictures that were not designed to be viewed on a small screen. While reporters may not be directly involved in the production, the “reporting work you put into a story suffers and it may turn readers away” if a graphic is poor on mobile, he said.

Ho said:

Whatever the project – a graphic, a big immersive story – you must think and plan for mobile from the very beginning. When mobile is an afterthought, it’s bad. Bad things happen. You have to make sure the right people are involved. Mobile experts. Graphic experts. They have to know the project is coming.

Mobiles are a sensory experience – take advantage of that

The old journalism motto ‘show, don’t tell’ should become ‘feel, don’t show’, Ho said, as smartphones become a physical extension of how readers interact with their world. Features on smartphones such as scrolling, gesture and voice control can be used to add depth to a story.

Ho explained:

We’re just beginning to explore what’s possible. … We as journalists – our pattern indicates 2-dimensional thinking. This doesn’t mean your storytelling is superficial or lacks depth. I mean this literally. For the most part the stories we tell are confined to two-dimensional flat surfaces: pieces of paper or screens of some kind. It doesn’t have to be that way. With accelerometers, geolocation, augmented reality, voice control, gesture control – there’s a lot that we can do.

The video of Ho’s speech will soon be available to view online at Journalism.co.uk, and digital tickets to see all the sessions and workshops at news:rewired – including spreadsheet skills, a Facebook masterclass, Reddit for journalists, new forms of engagement and more – are available to buy here.

Update: this article has been updated to clarify two of Ho’s points relating to graphics and websites in news.

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