Small screen, big picture

We sound out device editors from a range of newsrooms to find out how journalists are telling stories for mobile and tablet screens

Jon Burton, Herald Sun

A typical workday

A typical day is a mix of planning and production, with some user insights and analytics mixed in. The Herald Sun tablet app is positioned as a digital version of the newspaper, so we spend a lot of time making sure this edition reflects our paper’s news values in each story.

What’s important when it comes to telling stories on mobile devices?

I’ve worked on several tablet products and their central strengths are that they’re personal and tactile. By personal, I mean our readers aren’t engaging with the app sitting at a cubicle, watching for a boss at their shoulder. They engage with it when they have time, and session times indicate they’re using the app to immerse themselves in rich content.

Likewise, touch screens have also given our audience an expectation of being able to tap and slide the news, so we look at ways of creating interactive graphics that enhance their experiences, as well as adding plenty of video, images and other elements to enhance the story. The other thing that really works, surprisingly, is being able to treat digital news in a print-like way. In many ways we can think of a tablet screen like a print page and design it accordingly. And thankfully, we have no need to write insufferably boring SEO headlines – we can bring that particular newspaper art to a digital product.

What are the challenges?

We have the same basic challenge as every other form of journalism: how do you best tell a story with the time and resources you have? Along with more technical considerations such as app weight and clarity of navigation.  

What have you learned from your reader stats?

We have access to a lot of stats. They tell us that tablets are leisure devices and our readers access the app primarily in leisure times, so there’s not a lot of surprises in user behaviour. The surprising successes are more around content – either winning awards for our headlines or getting great positive feedback when we’ve published one-off games, puzzles or special sections within the app.

What role does social media play in your work?

The current version of the Herald Sun app uses social media largely as a marketing tool. Social is a difficult area for apps, particularly when you’re creating a bespoke experience that can’t easily be replicated in other media.

Connie Levett, tablet editor, Fairfax 

A typical workday

We produce a morning edition and an evening update. I start around midday and work through to mid-evening. Through the afternoon I am preparing our 6pm update edition which updates the best of the latest local, international, world and sports news.

After I see off the 6pm edition I prepare the front page and draw up a running sheet for the prominent stories that will appear in the AM edition. This edition publishes between 1am-2am and refreshes at 6am with any breaking overnight international and national news.

On big news days I have the flexibility to publish as often as required. For example, on Tuesday, March 4, I published a lunchtime front-page update on the transfer of Chan and Sukumaran to the execution island. Push notifications are sent with each update to alert readers to the new material.

What’s important when it comes to telling stories on mobile devices?

At its base, the story must be worth telling, but from there I focus on building a “rich text” environment with links out to relevant sources, with video, data graphics, interactives and photo galleries. Tablet offers tremendous opportunities to present stories as more than text and that’s the key to making the most of this app-based platform.

What have you learned from your reader stats?

Analytics give me an immediate snapshot of what my readers are looking at. After I publish I can watch in real time as the readers make their choices. Placement of stories on the front page or in the editor’s choice section immediately promotes them to the reader, but readers pursue their interests and will find the stories they are interested in, deep in the edition.

The desire for the explanation, beyond the actual news event, is a very strong thread. Our readers want to understand the context around what is happening.  

What role does social media play in your work?

We have a dedicated Sydney Morning Herald social media team promoting our best work, making choices for the different social media platforms at article level rather than promoting any one platform. Within the tablet platform readers can share articles on Facebook, Twitter or by email.

The big challenge

The challenge for me on tablet is to maintain the high production values, rich text content and contextual curation of the story mix while increasing the speed of delivery. Readers increasingly want news as it happens.

Brian Brownstein, mobile editor, Fairfax

A typical workday

I’m in the office at 5am. I commission stories and update the msite for our morning peak (7.00 – 8.30am). The main news section of our msite is manually curated and doesn’t scrape the desktop site. It’s a mobile news section for a mobile audience. Later in the day, I focus more on mobile strategy and longerterm product initiatives, while also thinking ahead to our evening traffic peak, which is 8.30pm – 10pm.

What’s important when it comes to telling stories on mobile devices?

As on any platform, a “traditional” story must be well written. We don’t just tell stories through the written word, though. Be it a video story, charts/graphs, interactives, or a yarn based on pictures, they must be engaging, informative and useful, and render properly across a variety of devices and operating systems.

All of these elements work well in their own way. I think the common misconception is that only short stories work on mobile. Be it 200 words or 1000 words, a 15-second video or a five-minute video, length doesn’t matter. As long as the words and/or footage are compelling, readers will read and watch to the end.

What are the challenges?

A lot can affect a user’s experience. To name but a few: screen size, rotation, operating system, processing power. These are all things that complicate how we present our work and the viewers’ enjoyment of it.

Our stories are produced in one content management system (CMS) for all platforms so it’s important that something that looks good on desktop, tablet and social also looks good on mobile. If a story loads quickly and looks good for you on your iPhone 6 Plus on WiFi, what kind of experience is someone having on an iPhone 4 on 3G? This kind of thing is at the forefront of my mind.

We’re very aware that interactives must be “finger friendly”. If you want your readers to engage with it, make it simple for them to use and the data easy to digest. The beauty of mobiles is what they can do. Sharing, networking, playing, buying, publishing – people do all of this, and more, on their phones. And mobiles are only going to improve.  

What have you learned from your reader stats?

Intuition and a deep understanding of what our readers want is key to our success, yet we still rely on stats to interpret our traffic. I use real time data, plus various systems where I can dig down to reveal trends.

There was an initial thought people might read different content at different times of day and that we might need to give readers the “right content at the right time”. But we quickly realised that wasn’t so.

People want breaking news and want to know what is setting the agenda no matter what time of day. The response to our coverage of the Martin Place siege was overwhelming. It was obviously a huge international story and this was reflected in the number of new readers who came to us for up-to-date news of what was going on.

The pace of growth has been incredible, particularly in the last six months. The msite is dominating at weekends in particular.

What role does social media play in your work?

Major. Mobile is the platform most closely aligned to social. I closely follow what’s happening on social to see what is trending, what people are talking about and what they are sharing. We post our content on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, YouTube and Vine, which readers can share. Viewers can also share stories at article level, while there are share buttons on our multimedia stories. We write “shareable” stories and produce, among other things, videos, interactives and quizzes that target a social media audience, the majority of whom access their feeds via a mobile.

Screens, Andrew Weldon

Screens, Andrew Weldon

Matt Buchanan, ABC’s The Brief app

ABC’s The Brief app was a finalist at the 19th annual Webby awards in the International category alongside Yahoo, Al Jazeera and WIRED for Best News App (tablet and mobile devices). Forbes regards the Webbys as the Oscars of the net.  

Tell me about your job — what does a typical day look like?

Every day is busy, feeding the beast of production while keeping an eye on the news and maintaining our content “feed lines” with key ABC departments including news, 7.30, Australian Story, Four Corners and the archives. We also run a landing page with videos from the ABC archives, and must stay across the technological side, such as updating operating systems and providing feedback for readers on the app stores.

The Brief produces eight stories of the week from the ABC, typically two or three news features (domestic and international), a profile, a film review, and broader articles on health, social issues or culture. Eight stories a week means we must average two a day. Each piece is storyboarded – usually sketched on paper – before going to the designer. There is much scrambling for assets, chasing producers and reporters to make sure we have our eight stories ready by Thursday late afternoon. We leave the news features till last, and on Friday we proof, test functionality, secure rights approvals, and create renders for Android (The Brief is published in iOS, Android and Windows), and then we publish at 5pm.  

What’s important when it comes to telling stories on mobile devices?

This might sound silly but the key is to remember to actually tell the story and not overdo the dazzle and tricks of interactivity. Interactive multimedia elements must be used in the service of stories.

Great design is essential. We’re lucky we have a lot of talent in the room, and the journalistic capital at the ABC is very strong. That said, I sometimes think that the near-frictionless ease one can experience swiping through a tablet magazine means one can get to the end having had quite a pleasant sensual experience but not having really taken much in. We have had to become good at making arresting presentations, putting ourselves in the users’ position. That and making sure form doesn’t flatter content. Looking good isn’t nearly good enough.

How does this affect the journalism that’s done for devices — what elements really work?

The horizontal orientation demands an emphasis on visual storytelling, in contrast to the more text-heavy designs that come with portrait orientation and vertical scrolling, like The New Yorker and its 5000- 10,000 word articles.

When you’re not relying solely on words to tell your story, other elements come into play, and the words themselves need not always run on in a block or column. Non-textual storytelling elements that work include gyroscope, panoramas (whereby the user might rotate the tablet to experience a 270-degree view, or virtual view), touch-and-drag timelines and adaptable maps, as well as more playful morphing elements such as our Archibald Prize interactive whereby the user drags their finger across the screen to morph successive portraits into each other and back again to contrast the different subjects over the competition’s 90-year history.

Or we might just tell a story graphically: our Budget analysis, for example, re-cast a 2500-word piece into the key numbers over eight or nine screens, which you can see in part below (the actual piece had moving parts of course).

What are the challenges?

The usual things that bedevil all journalists: time pressure, fact-checking, reacting creatively to changing stories, being ready to kill a story that looks good but isn’t saying anything. Also staying across software updates on different platforms.

What have you learned from your reader stats?

The engagement time has been really impressive. We average about 14 minutes per user. The industry average is nine minutes.  

What role does social media play in your work?

Social media provides a great forum for people to discuss what we’re doing right, and also what they would prefer to see us doing, too. The app store comments have been quite overwhelming in their thoughtful feedback. The landing page www.abc.net. au/thebrief is also a good hub: we have over 250,000 visitors there.