On Mobile Services, Broken News

Steve Buttry has a terrific post up about the importance of news organizations having a smart mobile strategy, and makes the excellent point that just as traditional organizations are finally learning to be Web-first, they may need to quickly become mobile-first.

"Mobile first” needs to change how we think and act throughout our organizations. Reporters, editors and visual journalists need to think first about how to package and deliver news for mobile devices. Information technology staffs need to work first on development of mobile applications for popular devices. Sales staffs need to make it a top priority to guide business customers in using our mobile apps and platforms to reach customers with advertising and direct-sales opportunities. Designers need to present content that is clear and easy to read on the small screen (even if this means spending less staff resources on design of print or web products). Executives need to redirect resources and set priorities so that we pursue mobile opportunities as aggressively as we pursue the most important news stories in our communities.

Absolutely true, on all counts. As I've written before, building great mobile products is no more about pasting the Web on a cellphone screen than building great Web products is about pasting the newspaper on a computer screen. They're almost entirely different media, and they require very different sensibilities and thinking—which seem generally lacking in most old-line news organizations that are still grappling with the Web.

Among other things, mobile brings to bear more immediacy and relevance, a need for much smaller bits of information, and the ability to pinpoint news and information to a reader's specific location. Those are all powerful differences, and every news organization with a mobile service or app is still grappling with them—and still pasting the Web onto a mobile screen, alas. Indeed, mobile may be the ultimate breaking news medium—but too many of the efforts to do it are just broken.

I've been meaning for a while to do a case study on how not to do a mobile strategy, and Steve's post gives me an excuse to get to it. (Want to see some good mobile strategies? See my "what works" post on mobile from a while back) The guinea pig for my examination is the mobile service provided by my hometown newspaper (and long-ago employer), The Washington Post. I've been using the Post's text-message news service and mobile app for several months now, and they're almost always frustrating, almost comically so.

For one thing, the Post seems to have no consistent clue about news judgment on its text-messaging service. Too often, the headlines sent are hardly important or immediate, involving some piece of international or government news that simply has no urgency, like a procedural vote in Congress or by a local government, or a headline the other day that President Obama had said he was unlikely to close the Guantanamo prison by January, which was hardly a surprise. A particularly bad example came a couple Sundays ago, when my phone buzzed with a breakdown of which Redskin players were inactive for that day's game, the first time all season something like that has gone out. Not particularly important, except maybe to bettors or die-hard fans.

The flip side is that the service often strangely misses breaking news: I swear the Post didn't text out any headlines about Michael Jackson's death, though it had Farrah Fawcett's earlier the same day. And too often, the Post service sends the same headline twice, in rapid succession—a maddening glitch for those who have limited text-messaging accounts.

On the other hand, the Post service occasionally comes to life with news that does have value, especially to a mobile user: Traffic alerts, especially, are really helpful—when they arrive, which is sporadically. I just wish the Post took advantage of mobile's ability to be location-aware—getting a bulletin about a traffic tie-up all the way on the other side of the Washington region isn't much more useful than the Redskin inactive-players list. Location-aware traffic reports would be the sort of mobile-first thinking that Buttry is writing about, really taking advantage of the medium to provide valuable services to customers.

The Post service is so flaky that I've started to not really trust it. One morning, out of the blue, it messaged the day's weather forecast, something it hadn't done before (or since). My immediate reaction? Must be a new editor managing the bulletins. Minutes later, I thought I had proof of my theory: The next headline was about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. That was a legitimate piece of news, of course, but truth be told, I thought it was a test message, sent by that rookie editor who had accidentally put the weather up a few minutes before. A news service has to be more reliable and trustworthy than that. 

The text-messaging service isn't the only flaw in the Post's mobile strategy. Take the Post's mobile site. Please. 

Updates of the Post's mobile site run hours behind the paper's Web site. That makes it not very useful as a breaking news tool, even though mobile users probably have a higher desire for breaking news because they're out of range of most other news sources. In addition, like many other newspaper apps, the limited Post mobile site is hard to use to search or browse more deeply into the main site; it's usually easier to just click the tiny "View the Full Web Site" link that appears way down at the bottom of the page to see the "real" Post Web site. 

But the real frustration come when the Post's text-alert service links to the Post mobile site. Oh boy. Text-alert stories don't have direct links to the relevant Post story; they all have a big generic "More at http://www.washingtonpost.com" link on them. Where does that go? You guessed it: Not the story, but the home page of that damn mobile site—which, of course, almost always knows nothing about the headline you just received. That's just maddening. Yeah, there may be "more"—but it may be a while before you can read it at mobile.washingtonpost.com. Either put a direct link to the Web version of the story or don't promise "more" at all.

All of this combines, as you might guess, to make the Post's mobile services less than handy or attractive to customers, or at least this customer. The conclusion I draw is that nobody there really has responsibility for the mobile product (you wonder if Post execs have even ever used it themselves, though at least one has touted it to me). Ideally, the paper should have dedicated editors whose job it is to make mobile news and information as good as the Post's other media. At a time when the Post unfortunately is being increasingly perceived as paying less attention to its online product and readers, that doesn't bode well for the future. 

Mobile news and information (and advertising) are where the action is going to be over the next few years. As Steve Buttry says, traditional news organizations like the Post need to learn to be mobile-first in the same way they're trying to be Web-first. If they don't, I'm sure there will be plenty of competitors eager to take away those mobile readers, too.

PS: Want to see an exampl
e of a traditional news organization with the right priorities about mobile? See my post from June about Tampa Bay Online.

PPS: A Dec. 8 followup: Steve Buttry returns to this important subject, with another great post. And just to continue my critique of The Washington Post's feeble mobile alert service: The Post sent out texts today about the FBI requesting an independent review of its actions leading up to the Ft. Hood shootings (anything but urgent) and about the Senate rejecting an abortion amendment to the healthcare bill (procedural news, at best)–but was utterly silent about a gunman firing shots this afternoon at a local community college campus (urgent and local). That's just horrific.

2 thoughts on “On Mobile Services, Broken News

  1. Though mobile phone is more accessible and portable than computer, I don’t think mobile news and information are where the action is going to be over the next few years unless there are great improvements on its applications and text-messaging service. I gave up reading news on my mobile phone after just trying it for two days. It is not convenient to browse long information on such small device.

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