Will the Smartphone Usher in a Golden Age of Journalism?

People think that just because the screen is small, the content should be too. That’s wrong.

August 1, 2014
WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED in New York, some time back in the last century, I gazed in awe and fascination at subway riders reading The New York Times. Thanks to a precise and universally adopted method of folding the paper (had it been taught in schools?), they could read it and even turn its pages without thrusting them in anyone else’s face. The trick? Folding those big, inky broadsheets into neat little rectangles—roughly the same size, in fact, as an iPad. It’s as if they were trying to turn the newspaper into a mobile device. And that, we can now see, is precisely what news is meant for. Today, New York newspaper origami is an all-but-lost art; straphangers have their eyes glued to their smartphones.
Journalism, however, is holding its own. Statistics from the Times say roughly half of the people who read it now do so with their mobile devices, and that jibes with figures from the latest Pew report on the news media broadly. But if you were to assume that means people have given up reading actual articles and are just snacking instead, you’d be wrong. The Atlantic recently reported that a gorgeously illustrated 6,200-word story on BuzzFeed—which likewise gets about half its readers through mobile devices—not only received more than a million views, it held the attention of smartphone users for an average of more than 25 minutes. (Wired’s in-depth web offerings have also attracted audiences. Joshua Davis’s profile of a brilliant Mexican schoolgirl garnered 1.2 million views, 25 percent of them from phones, and readers spent an average of 18 minutes on it.) Little wonder that for every fledgling enterprise like Circa, which generates slick digests of other people’s journalism on the theory that that’s what mobile readers want, you have formerly short-attention-span sites like BuzzFeed and Politico retooling themselves to offer serious, in-depth reporting. “Maybe we’re entering into a new golden age of journalism,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen mused in a recent blog post, “and we just haven’t recognized it yet.”
Even just two years ago, such an assessment would have seemed almost ludicrous. Demand Media, the “content farm” that went public in 2011 in an IPO that saw it valued more highly than the Times, seemed like it was going to be the way of the future. Its business model was breathtakingly cynical: With an algorithm dictating what they should write about, people working at peasant wages churned out valueless verbiage that could be festooned with loads of advertising and optimized to turn up at the top of a list of search results. “They really understand consumer behavior on the web and how to build businesses on it,” Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg told Bloomberg Businessweek at the time. In fact, they understood neither: After Google changed its search algorithm to penalize low-quality, ad-heavy sites, Demand Media’s traffic and stock price collapsed. Other outfits relying on similar search engine optimization tactics to generate big bucks with crap content have experienced the same fate.
Media investors and entrepreneurs began to realize they’d need distribution that Google didn’t control—like social media, which doesn’t rely so heavily on search results. But this strategy means those stories and videos have to appeal to humans, not algorithms, and for that they need to be satisfying.

New York Times mobile app presents Times content with news from around the Web. “It’s the best Twitter feed I’ve ever seen,” one tester said.

It may have been coincidental, but around the time this new truism started sinking in, we began to see investment in businesses both new and old that promised serious journalism. Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes bought The New Republic; Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post; eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar pledged $250 million to fund First Look Media, which hired Glenn Greenwald, one of the reporters who broke the Snowden revelations in The Guardian. Vox Media, home of tech site The Verge, raised $38 million and BuzzFeed $35 million in new rounds of funding.
With money has come innovation, both in journalism itself and in the tools to produce it. When Ezra Klein left the Post’s Wonkblog for a new site funded by Vox Media, it was in part because Vox had built a sophisticated content management system designed with mobile readers in mind. Atavist—founded by Wired alumni Evan Ratliff and Nicholas Thompson as a net-native platform for magazine-style journalism—built a similar platform that it licenses to other publishers. Such tool sets make it simple to create a seamless mix of text, video, music, maps, charts—a mix that, done right, spells the difference between just reading a story and taking a deep dive. Now this kind of enhanced storytelling is turning up in places beyond journalism, like the Brookings Institution’s Brookings Essay, an online series typified by historian Margaret MacMillan’s 7,000-word thought piece on the parallels between 1914 and 2014.
And because the bulk of their traffic now comes through social media, publishers have also been rethinking the homepage. Quartz, the two-year-old business site from the publishers of The Atlantic, opted for a string of stories presented streamlike on smartphones (and bloglike on PCs). NYT Now, a new mobile app from the New York Times Company, takes a similar approach, presenting Times content along with news from around the web—posts from Boing Boing, PopMatters, Business Insider, and other sites the Times would barely have acknowledged a couple of years ago. As one NYT Now tester is said to have told the development team, “It’s the best Twitter feed I’ve ever seen.” Which is pretty much the point.
Like Twitter, mobile has long been underestimated: People assume that because the screen is small, the content should be too. That’s turning out to be both simplistic and wrong. No one should expect the imminent disappearance of the listicle, a story form at least as old as the Ten Commandments. But based on what’s happening already, we have good reason to expect that listicles and their ilk will share the screen with great writing, investigative journalism, and deep-media storytelling. Mobile actually enables those efforts as it puts us face-to-face with the endlessly onrushing stream of events that journalists exist to capture—a stream you can now dip into at will, even as you hold it in your hand on the subway. ◼︎

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