The way people are getting information is shifting. More and more, the demand for news is being satisfied through tablets and especially smart phones. We call these devices “mobile,” but what that really means is that a small computer connected to the internet is always there, always on. Continuous connection changes people’s behavior, what they can do in the moment, which in turn forces the news business to change.
This a global trend. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report for 2015 includes 12 countries. It shows that use of smartphones to get news has been growing steadily since 2012. In all countries researched, 25 percent said smartphones are the primary device through which to get news, up five percent since last year. In the U.S time spent with mobile phones should surpass the time spent with desktops and laptops this year. The Pew Research Center’s 2015 State of the Media report states: “While desktop visits are still valuable to publishers – especially when it comes to time spent on the site – the number of mobile visits now outpaces desktop visits for the majority of the top 50 sites and associated apps.”
The change is especially dramatic among young people. They tend to come upon news through their social feeds rather than seeking it out by visiting a destination site. Through their devices, they read, comment, like, share and — sometimes — collaborate with journalists to create a conversation around what is happening.
The exploding popularity of podcasts, the rise of push notification for news, the dominance of messaging apps (and the rush by news companies to have products for them), the use of Facebook as a handy operating system for the rest of the internet — all are part of this larger shift to mobile. Some implications for news:
- Geolocation becomes more important. Delivering information based on where people are right now is huge opportunity in news. Related: contextualization. Knowing what people are doing in the space where they are currently located.
- Speed of download is a major factor in whether users will access your product. Bulky web pages often take too long or don’t render well on phones. This is one factor driving Facebook’s dominance in mobile usage.
- Adapting to the smaller screen may require changes in format. One example: Vox.com’s clever use of “cards.”
- User generated content: With smart phones, users carry with them a still and video camera, an audio recording device and the means to upload anything they capture to the internet. Never have the tools of media production been more widely distributed.
- Advertising has to adapt to fit well “in stream” or become interesting content in itself (native ads.) But there now a huge gap between time spent on mobile devices and ad dollars that are spent there.
For legacy media companies, the shift to the desktop environment was in some ways easy. A web page at least resembled the page of a magazine. Mobile is a deeper and more disruptive shift. The relationship with the user changes, becoming more intimate, more continuous — and more demanding at the same time.