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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Dec. 13, 2011, 1 p.m.

ProPublica.org goes responsive to better serve mobile readers

Despite the news org’s investments in mobile apps, ProPublica found usage of mobile web was “an order of magnitude” higher.

In what some like to think of an age of apps — smartphone, tablet, or otherwise — it might seem hard to get worked up over a mobile redesign. But last week ProPublica rolled out a new look for small screens that’s pliable and flexible enough to fit across device types and that runs off of the same code as the big-screen site. Yup, it’s our old friend responsive design, more recently seen over at the much lauded launch of BostonGlobe.com.

ProPublica says their design is more “adaptive” than responsive. BostonGlobe.com has a half-dozen or so versions based on screen size, but ProPublica’s site only has two: below 480 pixels wide (which shows the mobile version) and above (which shows the desktop version). That’s because the new look is really for one audience: mobile web users, who ProPublica says far outnumber users of ProPublica’s iPhone and Android apps.

How much bigger is mobile web than mobile apps for ProPublica? Scott Klein, editor of news applications, says it’s “an order of magnitude.”

“We noticed that the audience on our regular old website, for people on mobile devices, was much larger than people using the app every day,” Klein told me.

An interesting data point for any news organization trying to figure out how much to invest in building for multiple app platforms versus building a strong, fast, mobile experience. Admittedly, ProPublica’s not a standard news organization; its streams of stories are more organized by the specific investigative projects its reporters are working on rather than by what’s breaking at the moment. Those investigations would be hard to summarize in a push notification on your phone.

The readership knows that, Klein said, which is why they developed a habit of checking on the ProPublica web site regularly, essentially porting over their behavior from reading on a computer or laptop. Those readers, Klein argues, want familiarity across devices. They also want to know that they’re not missing out on an interactive graphic, map, or other features from the full site that didn’t translate onto an app, Klein said. “This is just a way of making sure people who come to our site from mobile devices can see it really well and can read comfortably,” he said.

They’re introducing simplicity for readers, but also, for the site itself, Klein said. To a degree, both the apps and mobile site were limiting some of ProPublica’s rich content because it either wouldn’t work within a mobile template or otherwise just wouldn’t look good, he said. Under the new site, things like maps for the Congressional redistricting series, Muck Reads or news apps like the database of physicians taking drug company money in Dollars for Doctors will be accessible. “Our hypothesis was, if we made it better for those people, they would come by more often, stick around, and find links to other material they find interesting,” Klein said.

Even as ProPublica embraces a multi-platform approach with its new mobile site, they aren’t abandoning native apps, Klein told me. Though the readership is smaller compared to mobile browsers, the downloads of the apps remains fairly high and have a dedicated audience. “I can’t help but think there is a real future to this approach, making it so a website is ready for as many platforms as people want to look at it,” he said.

POSTED     Dec. 13, 2011, 1 p.m.
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