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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Mobile first

“The numbers speak for themselves. In the next 12–18 months, many news organizations will cross the 50 percent threshold where more users are visiting on phones and tablets than on desktop computers and laptops.”

For the past six years, various people have made predictions about next year being “The Year of Mobile Fill-in-the-Blank.” In many ways those predictions have been accurate: The growth of smartphone and tablet usage has been off the charts. In other ways, the predictions have fallen short. So I’m going to weigh in with one that feels somewhat safe (and obvious?).

If media companies want to stay in step with their users in 2013 and beyond, they will no longer be able to think of the mobile experience as being downstream from, or an afterthought to, the desktop web experience.

The numbers speak for themselves. In the next 12–18 months, many news organizations will cross the 50 percent threshold where more users are visiting on phones and tablets than on desktop computers and laptops.

In November, 37 percent of all visits to the Times (including to NYTimes.com, our mobile site, and all of our apps) came from phones or tablets. That’s up from 28 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2010. When media organizations see numbers like this, they will be forced to decide whether they can continue to put the majority of their digital efforts into the presentation of their desktop report. If you do that, your product, and your journalism, will not be tailored for the majority of your digital readers.

Many news organizations are already starting to think this way. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo was quoted right here earlier in the year describing his thinking on the shift:

Inevitably, as long as mobile was something like five percent of traffic, it was just something you made available on the side. But you start to see, this is going to be half of our audience. We can’t be approaching it in a way that the website is the thing, and we’re making imitations of it — because this thing is losing its primacy. In a lot of ways, it wasn’t until late last year that it hit me at a different level. It hit me as more than a concept. It was really true.

At the Times, we made some big steps forward on this front in 2012. We used the big news events of the year as opportunities for experimentation, beginning the process of trying to make our mobile report more dynamic and not just a downstream feed of articles from our desktop website.

It sounds simple: Put your effort where the majority of your readers are. The reality, of course, is that it’s not simple at all.

First, there are the resource constraints. Most newsrooms put their digital focus on their desktop websites. Shifting manpower to mobile means either doing less somewhere else or hiring a whole new staff. The latter is problematic: Controlling costs is a top priority everywhere, and there is a new platform or device to worry about every other week. What’s the answer? I’m not exactly sure. But I think the shift has to happen, and it needs to be accomplished through a combination of smart automation and directing more human brainpower to mobile.

Second, there are the business-model problems. Figuring out how to monetize an audience on mobile (especially on the phone) is probably not going to be solved by the end of 2013. But there are parallels here with the web in the late ’90s. If news organizations had waited until all the business questions surrounding the Internet were solved before they began to experiment on websites, they would have been in bad shape. Holding back on mobile because of the monetization concerns feels perilous when that’s where the audience is going. I would like to see news organizations lead by coming up with new forms of storytelling, new presentations for our journalism, and new types of advertising, all of which are uniquely suited to mobile devices.

Third, there are a lot of complicated technical challenges. Should you pursue native apps or is it all about the browser? Will HTML5 solve all of our problems? Do you have to be on every new platform or should you just focus on the established ones? Isn’t responsive design the answer to everything? My only prediction on this front is that these questions are also not going to be answered by the end of 2013. Contrary to what some have said, I believe that we’re just at the beginning of an exciting time of experimentation with native app technologies on tablets and phones. That doesn’t mean that HTML5 should be abandoned or that news organizations shouldn’t pursue responsive designs for their websites. I think we have to continue to experiment with all of it. Easier said than done, I realize, in a time when money is short. But putting all of your eggs in one basket at this stage feels dangerous.

Finally, there are a bunch of potentially thorny but also potentially exciting journalistic issues to be addressed. It’s clear that refining the presentation of news for phones and tablets is essential. But it’s less clear whether news organizations need to fundamentally change how they approach the news. At The Times, our audience on smartphones is much younger and more international than our desktop and print audience. Does that mean we should suddenly stop covering New York aggressively or start obsessing over video games? Obviously not. But it could, over time, mean that we need to shift our concept of who our primary audience is. There are also many issues to work out when it comes to covering news events in real time and through social media, which is increasingly going mobile. And how do we deal with the fact that usage patterns on phones, tablets, and standard computers are all different?

Many of these questions have yet to be answered, but one thing is clear. If news organizations want to serve the majority of their users in the best possible way and stay ahead of the game on these issues, they will have to adopt more of a “mobile first” mentality.

Fiona Spruill is editor of emerging platforms at The New York Times.