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Oct. 19, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

What it means to be a mobile editor, as told by mobile editors themselves

“Many debates these days about mobile news platforms and technologies are already dated. In not too long, the disruptors will be disrupted. And then the real fun begins,” says The Wall Street Journal’s executive mobile editor David Ho.

“Mobile editor” is a role that didn’t even exist at most news organizations just a few years ago — at least not the multifaceted, multi-team, multi-platform, multi-everything roles that we sometimes see today. “The role of the mobile editor is defined by motion,” The Wall Street Journal’s executive mobile editor David Ho said it describing the position. “Motion and change — not just in the news, but in the technology, the tools, the tasks, the roles, and the workflows. It’s a job of constant evolution, of daily disruption.”

“I really struggle to come up with a succinct description of what I do, partly because I do have a regular job description, but I also spend a lot of time currently immersed in certain big projects,” Nathalie Malinarich, BBC News Online’s editor of mobile, told me.

“When I started here, our mobile traffic was probably around 10 to 12 percent,” said Subhajit Banerjee, mobile editor for The Guardian. In 2011, he was the first at The Guardian to have such a title. “A lot of it was around BlackBerrys — remember those?”

As mobile traffic continues to grow globally, news organizations are scrambling to reach the places their audiences already reside, from WeChat to Snapchat, Facebook to Apple News. In the U.S. and around the world, news organizations are throwing resources into mobile (and worrying about how to monetize — a whole other story).

I checked in with a few of these people who have “mobile” in their job titles — to understand how they steer their newsrooms to think mobile, and to hear how things have changed since their jobs first came into existence. Their responses below are condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Bloomberg News

Emily Banks, deputy editor, mobile:

Banks: Broadly, my job as deputy editor for mobile is to strengthen and build Bloomberg Business’s mobile strategy, straddling the line between editorial and product. So that includes, for example, refining our push alert strategy and also working on developing completely new mobile products.

There are a few constants day-to-day for me — publishing to Apple News, attending standups and news meetings, and editing one of our newsletters. (The closest I come regularly to a “traditional editor role” is when I edit the Bloomberg Business Daily newsletter.) After I’ve finished my usual catching-up-on-the-news routine in the morning, I publish to Apple News. Apple actually announced the News app during my first weeks on the job, so that was a fun surprise to jump into and be able to craft the editorial strategy.

Right now, because we’re still in development and beta, I review the stories I publish to Apple News to make sure nothing looks off. If I come across anything that our developers or designers need to address, I log that in Jira. I’ll typically do this whole process once or twice in the afternoon, too.

Every morning, I attend the standups of two of the development teams: the whole mobile R&D team and then a much smaller team that’s working on Apple News. I also attend the daily Bloomberg.com news planning/debriefing meeting in the afternoon. This is most useful for me in knowing what big news events, features, and exclusives are upcoming, and I can work with the homepage team to discuss our alerting strategy for those stories.

The rest of my day varies greatly. Some days I’m doing a lot of work for an app redesign — like taking the designs to mock up real content for an upcoming presentation to leadership, then actually doing the presenting, or meeting with the designers to talk through all aspects of the app, from the editorial strategy to the first-time user experience.

I’ve been at Bloomberg for a few months and was at The Wall Street Journal previously. As the lead news editor for mobile, my daily responsibilities there were quite different and evolved significantly. There, I experienced the process of ideation, building, staffing, and publishing to a new mobile product — What’s News, which I was the editorial lead on. My job there started out much more focused on the mobile web experience.

The role of a mobile editor at a large legacy publication is as much about the mobile user/reader as it is about your colleagues, making sure they understand what mobile readers in general want and need and how that compares to our users specifically; how those patterns differ based on mobile web versus mobile app users; what even is mobile web and mobile apps and how do I know, as an editor, what I’m looking at; what works and doesn’t on various platforms based on the publication’s technical limitations. I’ve held training sessions internally to train editors on all of the above.

WhatIsCode-mobile-responsive-screenshotMy role is new for the company and so far it’s just me, no team. I’m integrated and physically alongside the rest of the digital editors. I work really closely with the homepage team around push alerts, because it fits in seamlessly with their workflow. We believe teams shouldn’t operate in silos, so it’s important to have colleagues from various groups working together to achieve the same goal. Actually, there are no offices here — Bloomberg is one of the early pioneers of the open floor plan and everyone sits at the same size desk, which promotes collaboration and transparency.

The mobile-first content I think about most right now (that aren’t simply smaller reproductions of what’s on the desktop) are newsletters and alerts. We’re constantly looking at the performance of the newsletters and making sure they’re ideal for mobile — whether it’s in the design or the subject line. Our mobile site, which is responsive and fairly new, plays nicely on small screens.

A top long-term priority for me is an app redesign that will be a departure from the existing design and editorial strategy. It will consider more the needs of our mobile app readers specifically, rather than being a purely down-stream product from the desktop web. In the shorter term, my energy is focused on push alerts and Apple News. I’m also toying with an idea for an event-based news app too — something lightweight that could be built quickly, the content would be laser-focused in topic and the whole app would only be relevant for a specific time frame.

BBC

Nathalie Malinarich, BBC News Online’s editor for mobile, and Trushar Barot, BBC World Service mobile editor:

Malinarich: My official title of “mobile editor” was set up last year. It’s probably been about a year and a half since, and before that I was still working on mobile, but it wasn’t my job title — I was looking at it and looking into project work around it.

My current job is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s the standard editorial aspect, which is making sure everything we do works within a mobile. When I started a while ago, the kind of approach was “Are the pictures cropped right? Do they render properly on mobile?” Now our thinking is more “Is our storytelling right on mobile?” as we work to make all our content completely responsive.

What my average day involves is really hard one to describe. When I first get in, I’m checking a range of things from our own app to our responsive site — If I feel like I need to weigh in with suggestions, I will. I check Twitter, Nuzzel — which I really rely on — and a few other sites. I’ll probably have a very quick scan of U.K. sites and some American news sites as well. I don’t read much on desktop, actually — I do most of my reading on my phone, and tend to use my phone far more than my desktop. I watch a lot of videos on my phone, unless of course it’s something I need to pull from the BBC video library. The meetings I have are a bit ad hoc, but I do have a lot of them: with product teams, with UX teams.

We have the main newsroom, which is in the basement, but I’m based with the digital team a few floors up. I sit with the digital development director and near the head of audience engagement.

In previous jobs, it was more obvious what I needed to do every single day. I had a clearer routine around the news cycle. This is different; really, no two days are the same!

I’ve been very focused recently on a project around making video for mobile and what that means. I’m watching what other people in different areas are doing, how they go about producing content. How can we make better use of what mobile can do? How can we make the news more personalized? I’m always working on trying out different things, talking to different people. Then there’s obviously a separate conversation that needs to be had around design and product.

These days, who I interact with most and what questions I get that relate to mobile varies. I find that part of my job is about evangelism. I get a lot of questions from anyone from producers to reporters asking how I think things should work on mobile and what they can do to achieve that — there are very clear ties here with social.

In general, I will tell reporters to think about the best possible way to tell their story, which may seem obvious. The second thing I tell people is to remember that readers can often make decisions very quickly. So you have to make sure there’s something that attracts a person’s attention within the first few seconds (in the case of text, this would mean partly about making it easy to read and also scannable).

I was having quite a few conversations with one of our correspondents who was sent to Hungary to cover the migrant crisis. What he sent in was exactly the kind of thing I was looking at for that type of story: he did a walkthrough of the Budapest station, which gave you a sense of place and was quite raw.

BBC-Hungary-migrants-walkthrough-screenshot

In some aspects, my job now is easier because when I started we were probably closer to the 50 percent mark in terms of mobile traffic. So the argument to be made for mobile was harder. It’s reached a point now where I don’t have any more questions about the need to make things for mobile. In terms of what’s difficult: There are always lots of people releasing lots of cool stuff and it can be hard to focus.

What I’ve seen and think is interesting is that people are definitely now more than before trying things out and asking relevant questions. For example, do people really watch videos on mute? The questions I get are far more specific than they used to be.

Barot: I work with the BBC World Service on mobile and some partnerships around that. My work involves three main areas. The first is thinking about our editorial propositions and how we make them optimized for mobile audiences. The second area is looking at our own mobile apps for World Service. The third area is looking at third-party mobile phone platforms, and that primarily involves platforms like chat apps.

I often make sure to carve out time in the morning to keep on top of industry news, on top of news about platforms, what our competition is up to, interesting use of mobile platforms that are being talked about. And then I try to spend some time thinking how that could be relevant to us. The rest of the day will depend on what particular project I’m particularly focused on; figuring out how particular strategies work for particular languages.

We have 28 different language services. My job is a little more removed from the day-to-day of those different services and much more about providing a centralized strategy, and how to develop this strategy so that it’s more relevant to local conditions. I help come up with general best practice guidelines, which varies depending on the language service and territory: should we be using images differently, what is the right story length for mobile users, where is the right space or place for longform?

I am in the BBC Broadcasting House on the fifth floor, where the majority of our World Service language team is. As for people working specifically around mobile, it’s me, but there are other teams I work closely with. I don’t have regular editorial meetings, but I’ll often have different meetings with people across language services, some of the digital team, the social team.

In the past, we thought about mobile and social as two different things, and now increasingly social is mobile; one will inform the other. What tends to do well on social, we’re increasingly seeing them have success on our mobile sites. If something doing well on our responsive site, we make sure to give it play on social as well.

As we launch on particular chat apps, I work closely with app team and business development team, as well as the chat app companies themselves, to help figure out the right content proposition plan for that channel. Then I also think through with the editorial team about what day-to-day content should be, and how we can measure success.

One of the first language services we worked on was the Hindi service in India. Last year, we did several editorial pilots around chat apps like WhatsApp and WeChat during the Indian election. All of that involved me having conversations with these app companies, talking with our editorial teams about how much time it would take them, what content they should produce, and so forth. BBC now has a more permanent service on the Line messaging app.

Everyone is curious about better understanding the mobile audiences they have. Our audience insight team created an internal analytics dashboard that makes it much easier for our editorial team to understand where traffic is coming from. Sixteen of 28 language services have more than 50 percent of their online traffic coming from mobile audiences. Some of them get as high as 80 percent. A few of them are moving toward magic 50 percent marker.

We also have an internal mobile phone emulator. It’s a browser plugin that allows different teams to see what their website would look like on different screens. People are getting much better at using it.

The Wall Street Journal

David Ho, executive mobile editor:

For me, personally, there’s no such thing as a typical day. Yeah, I’ll usually kick it off at home checking our apps, from latest news updates to morning editions my editors curated the night before. But after that, anything can happen.

These days I have many meetings: news planning, roadmap priorities, developer sprint reviews, design discussions, partner projects, and coordinating editorial, product and business-side efforts. But I’m also giving presentations, testing app improvements, and exploring emerging technology platforms.

For the great mobile editors on my team, there’s more routine: schedules for curating latest news and multimedia on our apps and platforms like Apple News, building and publishing morning tablet editions for Asia, Europe, and the U.S. But even then there can be a ton of variation for these editors and producers: overseeing how live news events play out on mobile; experimenting with new mobile storytelling forms; testing enhancements to our apps and publishing systems; refining cross­platform content algorithms; coordinating with newsroom editors and graphics on special projects.

Mobile-focused storytelling adds new depth and dimensions — often physical dimensions. Yes, there’s the smaller screen size, but there’s also accelerometer control, voice interaction, geolocation and the touch interface — which is itself evolving. Our virtual-reality rollercoaster ride of the Nasdaq index is a good example of mobile-focused storytelling. We’ve also experimented with card­-based visual narratives for mobile that run alongside more traditional story forms.

Our mobile editors are incredibly connected to every branch of WSJ’s many workflows across every platform. We live in a world of many platforms, but they all converge on mobile. That requires WSJ mobile editors to master many different publishing systems and workflows, and many different tools across all types of multimedia.

The mobile team participates in the larger newsroom’s daily meetings. We are at the table for big story projects, meetings that include editors, graphics, design. We also do discuss how specific news events will play out across our mobile platforms.

Geographically, our mobile team is on the Journal’s central news floor, seconds away from the hub at the center of everything. The Journal’s mobile editors sit right next to our mobile developers, who joined us this year in a change that has done a lot to improve communication and speed in the way we work — both for news and technology.

News organizations have historically been late to the tech party. The way people interact with technology is changing rapidly. And the experience of interacting with news and information is increasingly personal, anticipatory, contextual and sensory. People already expect that news will come to them, rather than the other way around. Imagine that interaction spread across every aspect of your life.

It is definitely easier than it used to be to generate awareness and excitement about mobile. The technology has permeated the lives of us all so it’s not this strange thing outside your normal experience. The other side of that is that people now have very high expectations for their mobile experiences. And the technology means that for users ­bailing on something and switching to something else is just a tap away.

Many debates these days about mobile news platforms and technologies are already dated. In not too long, the disruptors will be disrupted. And then the real fun begins.

The Guardian

Subhajit Banerjee, mobile editor:

Banerjee: I’ve been in this role for little over four years now, joining in 2011. At that point, I didn’t know anyone with the title “mobile editor.”

Now around 65 percent of our pageviews on weekends come from non-desktop sources — mobile web, tablet web, and apps. Our analytics tool shows us this is sometimes much higher than 65 percent. Articles we send breaking news alerts for often have 75-80 percent views from mobile. This is the dominant platform. This is a first screen. The audience is very much there, so I don’t have to fight that battle anymore.

We didn’t create a mobile team, specifically. There’s a development team for mobile and for apps. The idea is, if you create a team that sits in the corner, things becomes “the mobile team’s problem.” This was very much a conscious decision for everyone to care about mobile at The Guardian.

I sit at the live desk. I’ve tried sitting elsewhere, and you completely get cut off. Breaking news drives a lot of what we do. I oversaw and handled creation of a push alerts tool — a version of which we still use. Unless you have an understanding of how news breaks and who is responsible for what, I don’t think you could create a tool that serves the right needs.

There are morning meetings to discuss how the day’s shaping up, and I try as much as possible to make it at least 4 out of 5 days. I do wish someone could be there when I’m not around — chances are someone may have forgotten about this quirk in that part of the app, for instance. The convincing people to think mobile battle is actually always on, especially if a significant number of staff come from newspapers. So I try not be very prescriptive.

We’ve just launched the first draft of a new preview tool in our CMS where, if you hit preview, it opens the story in a mobile shell. That’s your first view. I’ve get questions like what’s the ideal length of headline and so forth. Rather than be prescriptive, I say to look at it in mobile view. Do you really want someone to go through five lines to understand your headline? It’s giving our staff a means to view content the way users are actually viewing content.

At one point I was trying to get devices on desks. I’ve got a spare smartwatch which I opened up to let people try it on for a week, with the only requirement being they had to write about their experience using it — whether about how horrible it was or how exciting it was as an opportunity.

You can really only understand how something works on the phone when you’re using a phone. Devices get old so quickly.

There’s the challenge of where to focus. There’s an endless stream of new opportunities and platforms. The approach we’ve tried is to be on platforms that show a lot of promise — even though it can be a quite light offering sometimes — and see how it pans out first before putting in more effort. If we were only BlackBerry-optimized and didn’t think about other platforms, you can understand where we’d be.

We wanted the site to be responsive as quickly as possible, so with any device you had at least an acceptable view of The Guardian. Like most outlets, we’re seeing lots of traffic from countries with low-spec devices and without high-speed Internet. We want our offerings still to reflect the best of The Guardian.

Guardian-mobile-gift-guide-screenshotI know this firsthand because I’m from India, but there’s a temptation here to only optimize for the newest iPhone and so forth. You want to add lots of bells and whistles to lovely interactives, to make stuff really shine. All these things work really well on big screen. But how do you cut that down to make it fairly good on mobile? We used to do a big Christmas gift guide. But last year we stripped it down to a grid of layout where it still worked well on desktop but wasn’t as immersive. The benefit is you gain this much bigger audience that wasn’t even seeing it before.

There are things we’d like to get better at. You don’t get a good comics reading experience on The Guardian. We’d like to make things like that a lot better, while not sacrificing load speed. We’re very proud of how quickly our site loads. It’s a reason Facebook and others are doing Instant Articles — we’d like to not even be in that list of publishers who need it.

I guess the slightly tragic story here is my six-year-old daughter has been asking me why I am always looking at my phone. I tell her it’s my job. She says, “It’s your job to keep looking at a phone?!”

Photo of a stack of phones by TechStage used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 19, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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