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Publishers Are Driving A Mobile First Culture

Publishers are pushing their reporters and other staff to think mobile-first in today’s media world.

Recently, The New York Times said that it would temporarily bar employees, both inside and outside editorial, from accessing its desktop homepage while at the newspaper’s New York City headquarters. The thinking: With 47 percent of time spent with NYT’s digital content coming from mobile, staffers should be more sensitive to the needs of mobile readers.

“There’s a disconnect between the creation of our journalism and the consumption of it,” assistant masthead editor Clifford Levy, who spearheaded the experiment, told Digiday. “This is vitally important for us.”

That thinking has become increasingly commonplace among publishers, which have seen mobile traffic overtake that of desktop. The result: Publishers are creating new ways to infuse mobile-first thinking into their content-creation strategies and overall organizations.

For many publishers, the most popular solution is to offer writers mobile previews of their stories both before and after publishing. This gives them a clearer idea of how their stories will look on mobile screens and reminds them of what the primary content-consumption experience actually is.

“That’s crucial,” said USA Today Sports content director Jamie Mottram, adding that the feature was a result of a mobile-only experiment For The Win that ran in mid-2013.

But building mobile-specific tech can only do so much if there isn’t a mobile-focused culture around it. Quartz, which also built mobile-specific tools into its CMS, has also gone as far as to build mobile into its overall editorial strategy. Its stories are written “to be sucked off the screen of a smartphone in a swaying subway train,” according to its style guide.

“The result, I think, is that when writers picture their audience, they’re picturing people on phones, and that mental shift alone makes a big difference,” said Quartz vice president of product Zach Seward.

It’s not easy, however, for major media companies to make this kind of shift, particularly at a place like the Times, where many reporters are more interested in getting their stories on the front page of the newspaper than how they look on a smartphone screen. CNN, which gets 73 percent of its traffic from mobile readers on an average weekend, has also gone a long way toward putting mobile front and center by starting each day with an 8 a.m. mobile news meeting. and pushing editorial staff to think less about homepage placement and more about how well their stories spread on social networks, which are dominated by mobile consumption.

“People might hang onto desktop the same way they hang onto print, so they might need something more severe than a suggestion,” said CNN digital editor-in-chief Meredith Artley.

The move to block desktop access to the homepage has already borne fruit. Levy said that even before the experiment officially began, a Times reporter noticed some discrepancies in how a series of articles looked on desktop and mobile screens.

Apple Hiring Editors, Not Algorithms, To Run Its News App

Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature will be dependent on its all-powerful algorithm, but Apple is hiring human beings to run its News app – which is a compelling and divergent strategy from these tech titans!

Not content to let Facebook swoop in and become the central distribution platform for news with its “Instant Articles” partnerships with major publishers, Apple launched itself into the media sphere at its recent developers conference. There the company announced a dedicated news app – complete with ad-revenue sharing deals with dozens of leading media companies, such as the New York Times.

There’s a key difference between the two offerings, however: in keeping with the algorithm-driven nature of the giant social network, Facebook’s news feature will be almost completely automated. Publishers can format their articles in a certain way using the site’s markup language and they will appear in the news-feed just like anything else, with their placement and ranking determined by Facebook’s software.

Apple, however, seems to want to make human beings the most important factor in its News app – both in terms of the selection of stories and their ranking. The company posted a job listing that says it is looking for multiple editors to work on the Apple News team and help select the news stories that users will see.

In addition to filtering breaking news reports for the best content, these editors will also be responsible for topic verticals – think business, sports, technology, etc. – based on their background and expertise. They will not only be working with media partners, but also putting together e-mail newsletters and presumably other media products as well. That sounds a lot like what editors do in traditional newsrooms, except, of course, this one is owned by Apple.

Apple says it wants these editors to “be able to recognize original, compelling stories unlikely to be identified by algorithms.” Of course, it’s entirely possible that Apple’s focus could stem from the fact that its algorithms simply aren’t as good as Facebook’s. Even some fans of news-filtering and recommendation algorithms would argue that they have limits: Gabe Rivera, who founded the popular technology-news aggregator Techmeme, used algorithms exclusively until 2008, when he admitted that this approach was simply not good enough and hired human editor/curators.

For its part, Facebook maintains that its algorithm doesn’t deliberately hide or promote certain things in the feeds of users, it simply determines what to show a user based on their past behavior and interests. Whether that’s true or not, however, the outcome is the same. Critics like sociologist and social-media expert Zeynep Tufekci say Facebook’s approach carries with it the risk that some users will never see information that could affect their awareness of certain important social or political issues.

And that’s just one of the risks. The other is that Apple and Facebook are both corporations with shareholders and financial responsibilities – they aren’t journalistic organizations, or even media entities. How do we know what criteria they will use to decide what to report, or whether it is journalistically sound? Where does objectivity play into the equation? And most importantly, how will we know what we haven’t seen? All compelling storylines in our digital age.