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

Look beyond news for mobile innovation

“The list of breakthrough interfaces for reading news on smartphones is a short one…it’s hard to find boldness and creativity in the news industry’s smartphone products.”

Mobile news will start growing up

The list of breakthrough interfaces for reading news on smartphones is a short one. Instapaper is arguably the pioneer in this area, with its focus on a simple reading experience. Vox Media’s SB Nation iPhone app cleverly grouped news updates about the same topic (Vox tweaked that design in its current web app approach.) But many mobile news apps and sites are little more than re-skinned RSS readers, and surprisingly few publishers even bother to format their email newsletters for easy reading on iPhones and BlackBerries. When we were creating Quartz earlier this year, we needed to look for inspiration to non-news applications, such as the Clear to-do list app — it’s hard to find boldness and creativity in the news industry’s smartphone products.

Recent arrivals such as Circa have been bolder in their efforts to tailor content and design architecture to the smartphone. It’s certain that 2013 will bring an acceleration of efforts to reinvent the smartphone interface for news.

The reason is that nearly all of the growth in Internet usage around the world for the foreseeable future will come on mobile devices. Roughly two billion people have access to the Internet today, with over one billion more in the developing world expected to come online — primarily using phones — without much delay.

Given the rapid growth of smartphone usage elsewhere, it’s very possible — if not likely — that the most interesting consumer interfaces for reading news develop outside of the U.S. Look for new formats for content and improved integration of photographs and interactive graphics. More content specifically for mobile will come. Better touch- and place- and motion-optimized interfaces are likely. Comments and sharing have the potential for radical breakthroughs. It’s possible that the media will need to look to non-media products to identify improvements they can apply.

HTML5 will get another look

Most news publications have to date prioritized native iOS mobile applications over their mobile websites.

Responsive HTML5 approaches to building web apps rather than native apps can be technically difficult and frustrating for consumers when they don’t work right. Mark Zuckerberg is among those who have raised questions about HTML5.

But all too often creators of native news apps run into even more fatal challenges. As Jason Pontin recounted, Technology Review spent well over $124,000 on iOS and Android apps whose user base never justified the effort. Among the limitations of News Corp.’s now-defunct The Daily was its requirement that users download an iPad app to access its full functionality.

In contrast, an HTML5 web app allows a publisher to be fully part of the open, social web. It can minimize any friction holding back the sharing of content and that content’s successful travel through the social media slipstream. With Quartz’s web app, we have no paywalls, no application downloads, no separate article page urls for each device a reader is using.

Native apps have advantages for computing-intensive and image-heavy offerings such as video games, but that’s generally not needed for news sites. And web apps’ performance should get better in the coming year, thanks to improvements in the mobile and tablet hardware they’re running on.

Clearly, more publishers will reconsider their native app focus in 2013 in favor of HTML5.

Publishers will continue to wrestle with how to improve commenting

Most news sites have a love/hate relationship with their comment sections. They love the traffic and reader engagement it represents. They’re embarrassed by the vitriol and name-calling that often dominate. And they have no idea how to structure comments to make any sense of them for readers.

Gawker Media’s Nick Denton is among those who have made admirable efforts to improve commenting, and Nick has rightly proclaimed that comments on their own can represent as high-quality content as any article. But most of the best discussion takes place off publishers’ sites, on Twitter, Facebook and in private emails. This is a reality that won’t be fully addressed in 2013, if ever.

Will 2013 be a turning point in the use of machine translation?

The Wall Street Journal is a leader in generating content and translating its English articles for local-language websites in Asia and Europe. Few other American news organizations have the financial resources to tackle that opportunity.

Will Google or others achieve sufficient advances in machine translation for newsrooms to launch mostly automated local-language versions of their websites? Will improved machine translation allow journalists to accurately gather ideas and reporting from sources in languages they don’t speak? I hope that happens in 2013 — but for this prediction I’m not holding my breath.

Kevin J. Delaney is editor-in-chief of Quartz, the global business news site launched in September by Atlantic Media. He was previously managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Online.