News on the move

It looks like mobile phones will surpass desktop computers as the most common devices for online access in about a year.
Gaven Morris explains what this means for the business of news. Cartoon by Lindsay Foyle.

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What is the single news event you can recall most vividly? That where-were-you-when moment forever embedded in your mind?

For most Gen Xers it’s September 11.
That perfect New York sky at first smudged by smoke rising from a gash in the World Trade Center. Then, those everlasting seconds when the second jet glided into frame and silently sliced through the South tower.

In real time, CNN screens filled with fire and the world was glued to televisions, watching the day’s events unfold. It was 24-hour news in its prime.

Who needed the precocious internet? What could be more immediate and more impactful than live TV?

 

Well, imagine if September 11 happened now. Imagine if the news of that day was gathered, delivered and shared via mobiles.

Every person in New York is equipped with multimegapixel cameras. Thousands of raw images and videos from every angle at every location are swirling around within minutes. Hundreds of the doomed inside the World Trade Center are posting their final fears via Facebook and live streaming their farewells. Emergency workers have GoPros going. Rumours, facts and conspiracy theories mingle on Twitter at a rate of 200,000 messages per second. Meanwhile in newsrooms, journalists are trying to make sense of it all.

The way we communicate and get informed has been entirely transformed by mobile in little more than a decade.

The rate of change is only going to accelerate. Last year, 1 billion smartphones were made worldwide – up 40 per cent on the year before. But unlike with other waves of technology, a person’s income, education and age are barely barriers to access – nannas and toddlers, bogans and billionaires are equals on Android.

Mobile phones are on course to surpass desktop computers as the most common devices for online access in about a year, according to Nielsen. Tablets will overtake the PC by the end of 2017. Not bad for something few people had ever swiped a finger across four years ago.

The number of Australians seeking news on their phone increased by more than one-third last year and tablet access doubled. In 2010, 13 per cent of online traffic to the ABC’s federal election coverage came via mobile. During last year’s campaign, it was approaching 50 per cent.

We’d like to think we’re deftly crafting content to appeal to new, hungry audiences. Sometimes we are. But social media is now in charge and the democracy of a phone for every person is ruled by a few powerful players.

Take YouTube. On August 6, 2014, ABC News posted to our YouTube channel the video of commuters pushing a train to free a passenger who’d slipped between the platform and the carriage. It was quickly shared across Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. It’s now been viewed via the ABC 15 million times.

This one viral video hardly represents the best of ABC journalism, but it shows the exponential reach of social channels to also bring new audiences to standout stories. ABC videos are rapidly approaching 100 million plays on YouTube – almost double any other Australian news outlet. The @abcnews Twitter account is the most followed official news handle. In the week of the recent anti-terror raids, Facebook posts for ABC News reached more than 7 million people.

What’s that got to do with mobile? Well, 70-80 per cent of Facebook traffic now happens on mobile devices. For Instagram in the US, it’s 98 per cent.

As newsrooms seek to be relevant on social media, digital natives are emerging without the mainstream baggage. Vice, HuffPo, BuzzFeed, Taptu and Circa are among the made-for-mobile crowd striking distinctive editorial poses and rapidly attracting attention. The first three are seeking journalists in Australia.

The traditional media takes comfort in the beliefs that broadcast audiences remain huge and amid the digital noise, people still turn to them when they really want the truth. Right? No. For the first time, according to Nielsen, the digital audience is now on par with radio in the morning and with TV viewing between 6pm and 8pm. After 8pm, more Australians now access the internet, mostly on mobiles, than watch broadcast TV.

At least we still have trust! Sure, anyone can use a phone anywhere, anytime to be alerted to the latest breaking story, but when they want credible information, to know if it’s really happened and why, they’ll turn to reputable news organisations.

So, what happens when this trusted reporting is competing with social media? Fast forward from September 11 to a much smaller terrorist attack in the US, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

As citizens tuned into police scanners on social media, searched shared phone videos to identify potential suspects and used GPS-equipped mobiles to follow fresh clues, media giants including Fox News, The New York Times, the Associated Press and, yes, CNN rushed some of the false details to air.

Enter a range of new tools that work across social media to enable the rapid spread of information to be ordered and even trusted. Geofeedia aggregates social media posts from GPS locations, providing an instant aggregation of public information and images around a breaking news event. APTN has invested in it and is using it. Bambuser is a Scandinavian tool that’s revolutionising the streaming of live video from mobiles to mobiles.

There’s Storyful and Newzulu, which are essentially news agencies for social media sourcing, verifying and distributing videos posted by people. Storyful has been bought by News Corporation and Newzulu has struck alliances with a wide range of news agencies.

Then, there’s Dataminr. It’s one of those annoyingly misspelt digital creations from geeks in too much of a hurry to use vowels.

In its own words, “Dataminr transforms more than 500,000,000 public tweets per day into a small set of actionable alerts identifying the most relevant… using a powerful, proprietary algorithm”. In other words, it takes random social media information, connects it by identifying trusted and verifiable sources and claims to make it accurate.

Twitter is in a partnership with it and it’s coming to a mobile-ready newsroom near you very soon. Following the Boston bombing, CNN signed up and has been trialling it for a while.

The same CNN the world trusted on September 11, 2001 is now using an algorithm to help it keep pace with breaking news on social.

Recently a friend mentioned an image he saw in the newly opened 9/11 National Memorial. It’s a crowd of people standing around a car somewhere in dustcovered downtown New York. The doors are open and people are bending an ear to listen to the latest news on the car radio.

These were the days before mobile – just 13 years ago.

 

Gaven Morris is head of news content for ABC News.
He tweets at @gavmorris
Lindsay Foyle is a past president of the Australian
Cartoonists’ Association