News Media in the Year of Mobile-First


Among the many facets of mobile featured on today’s agenda—from gaming and education to crowd-sourcing and encryption—was a timely look at mobile’s growing importance to consumers, and thus its growing importance to news and content providers. Mobile-first has naturally been a recurring theme at Mobile World Congress built around the idea that mobile is everything. But for news media, 2016 may be a pivotal year in their gradual move toward a mobile-first strategy for reaching their audiences.

In its 12th annual study on the state of news media, the Pew Research Center last year reported that a “mobile majority” of news consumers visited 39 of the top 50 digital news websites from mobile devices rather than desktop computers. Those sites included traditional print, network, cable, and public broadcast outlets, along with online-only news sites. (Interestingly, the study also found that desktop viewers spent more time on half of those top 50 sites than did mobile viewers.) Social media has had an impact on news consumption as well, as previous research indicated that nearly half of adult social media users get their news on politics and government from Facebook.

On the inbound marketing front, user expectations for high-quality content will “soar” in 2016, predicts Julie Ellis of Social Media Week. “Smart content creators will factor in users’ preference for video and image over text, their preference for informative and useful content over blatant sales efforts, and their preference for custom content over shared content,” she writes. That suggestion surely applies equally to content generated by news outlets.

Some traditional news organizations have already made high-profile forays into the mobile landscape, seeking their audiences among mobile users. Perhaps most notably, Time has launched two newsy websites aimed at women, Mobile Marketer reports: one a beauty retailer (“Powder”), and the other focused on careers (“Motto”). It’s a mobile-first initiative, says Motto editorial director Callie Schweitzer. “Mobile is where readers are spending more and more time, and we want to make sure we are delivering them news and information in the format they prefer…We want to be where our readers are.”

Some of us still remember the struggle that traditional publishers endured in the transition from print to desktop computer. Translating layouts from two-page spreads to display screens was a new kind of challenge for news outlets. Now mobile is posing a similar challenge for publishers who are quite comfortable with their desktop websites, and just starting to accept the disruption of mobile-first design.

In the design department, mobile-first means starting with the mobile site, and then adapting it to work on the desktop—inverting today’s usual practice of starting with the desktop design and merely shrinking it to fit on a mobile screen. Today, content providers who want to grab mobile users are designing layouts, navigation bars, and everything else with an eye toward making it look great on a smartphone or tablet.

Even more importantly, mobile-first design by necessity results in a content-first approach, as UXPin content designer Ben Gremillions explains. “Mobile has the most limitations, screen size and bandwidth to name a few, and so designing within these parameters forces you to prioritize content ruthlessly, [which] organically leads to a design that’s more content-focused, and therefore user-focused. The heart of the site is content — that’s what the users are there for.”

That’s not breaking news, of course. As ClickZ cleverly noted back in 2014, “Content is King. Again. Still.” Technology platforms will evolve, the wants and needs of news consumers will adapt, and distribution channels will be driven to follow suit—of this we can be sure. Whatever unfolds, content is bound to remain our once and future king. For news media in this year of mobile-first, that might be the most essential message of all.

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