Expert Commentary

Mobile news: A review and model of journalism in an age of mobile media

2013 review of research literature in Digital Journalism about the rise of mobile devices and the response of news organizations.

hiker with computer tablet (iStock)

A 2012 report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Economist Group, “The Future of Mobile News,” found that an estimated 50% of U.S. adults now own either a tablet device or smartphone that connects to the Internet, and 66% of these device users say they get news from these mobile devices.

The report notes shifts in news consumption patterns: “There is growing evidence that mobile devices are adding to how much news people get. As many as 43% say the news they get on their tablets is adding to their overall news consumption. And almost a third, 31%, said they get news from new sources on their tablet.” For those fearing that the rise of mobile news access will simply bring about a more headline-driven environment, other data offers a mixed picture: “73% of adults who consume news on their tablet read in-depth articles at least sometimes, including 19% who do so daily. Fully 61% of smartphone news consumers at least sometimes read longer stories, 11% regularly.”

The Pew/Economist report, which also shows divergent demographic patterns, is complemented by data from another 2012 survey and report, from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. The Reynolds report found an association between tablet ownership and increased news engagement: “About 41% of the large media tablet owners who also owned a smart phone said they used their devices on average more than one hour per day for news. About 31% of those who only owned a smart phone spent that amount of time consuming news.”

For journalism, these changes offer many opportunities, observers say, if approached in the proper way. For more on this, see these articles by Tom Rosenstiel and Cory Bergman at the Poynter Institute.

A 2013 paper titled “Mobile News: A Review and Model of Journalism in an Age of Mobile Media,” published in the inaugural issue of the journal Digital Journalism, reviews the existing research literature on how Internet-enabled information and communication technologies (ICTs) are changing both producers and consumers of news media. The paper, from the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, serves as a useful overview for those trying to understand, in context, the frenetic changes in the news industry.

Key points in the paper include:

  • The history of mobile news media has been characterized by several distinct phases of development. From the early 2000s through 2006, media companies generally converged around using SMS texting and MMS multimedia to communicate and push news updates. In 2007, with advent of the iPhone, the focus began changing to building native mobile apps for various types of phones and their operating systems.
  • In the current era, patterns among companies have diverged greatly. Though many news companies articulate a “mobile first” strategy, there is a wide variety of experimentation, as it is simply “difficult to predict what will happen next.”
  • Diverse experimental practices include: “News publishers such as The Guardian focus on publishing tailored content such as live and breaking news plus news summaries, whereas the San Francisco Chronicle prioritizes opinion articles and blogs, since mobile users are often the most engaged. One also finds niche apps promoting in-depth information on topics such as the New York Times’ election app or the Chicago Tribune’s app for the Chicago Bulls…. On the other hand, companies such as the Financial Times are taking a platform agnostic approach by not publishing mobile editions of their digital content through native apps. In fact, they have instead used responsive web design (HTML5), which other companies such as Sanoma, the Chicago Tribune and Deseret News are also considering.”
  • Many companies are aware of the need to develop more customized apps across their media portfolio. However, managing multiple platforms is a significant task for media managers, and though there may be technical solutions, at present legacy news organizations are constituted in such a way as to make this difficult.
  • Mobile devices not only allow for new and novel forms of reporting by professionals, but they also empower citizens to become part of the media process. This has produced some frictions: “Mobile-enabled citizen journalism obviously involves facilitating two-way communications between people who have traditionally been considered producers and users of media.” The tension between the two groups “seems to be especially pronounced in the salient case of journalism. Seemingly reluctant to relinquish their historical authority and control, the long-established ideologies and practices of legacy news media continue to guide their approaches to participation….”
  • Overall, the research literature “suggests that more and more legacy news media no longer rely on journalists’ manually crafting unique journalistic content for mobile devices. Instead they are increasingly leaning on utilizing machines for automated repurposing of journalistic content, while at the same time making use of technological functionalities to provide an experience with the news customized for the (perceived) affordances of the mobile device.”

The paper concludes by proposing a framework for understanding these mobile news dynamics. It’s a model that sees a continuum along two lines: the continuum between human work and machine work; and the continuum between customization and repurposing.  There is an inherent tension here, the author notes: “One finds that the production of mobile journalism has generally traveled from the human-led customization dimension towards the technology-led customization dimension (alongside some who exercise only different kinds of repurposing). Mobile news publishing seems to have become increasingly synonymous with excelling in technological customization, harnessing technological assets that enhance the perceived affordances of mobile devices.”

A related 2012 reported from Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present” (PDF), makes several salient points about mobile news in the context of larger industry trends. First, “Web advertising has never generated anything like the same revenue per reader, mobile looks even worse, and the continuing rise in online advertising generally is now often bypassing traditional news properties altogether. Meanwhile, hoped-for sources of direct fees — paywalls, micropayments, mobile apps, digital subscriptions — have either failed or underperformed.” Furthermore, “the old model, where most users visited a home page or used a mobile application tied to a single organization, will continue to lose ground to superdistribution, [with] users forwarding relevant materials to one another. We already live in a world where the most widely circulated stories acquire audiences that dwarf the median headcount.”

Tags: technology, telecommunications. mobile tech

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