Mobile is a big deal, two experts told the audience at INMA’s 2017 World Congress Tuesday.

“I’m going to tell you why mobile is a big deal, because certainly no one has told you that before,” joked David Ho, vice president and executive editor of digital audience and news innovation at Hearst Newspapers.

Even though the word “mobile” is not in his title, Ho still considers himself a mobile editor: “I have spent years trying to convince people that mobile is a big deal.” 

David Ho, vice president and executive editor of digital audience and news innovation at Hearst Newspapers, speaks on the priority of mobile.
David Ho, vice president and executive editor of digital audience and news innovation at Hearst Newspapers, speaks on the priority of mobile.

To emphasise the ubiquity of mobile devices, Ho asked the crowd how many mobile devices (devices with a SIM card) are in service around the world right now. Guesses ranged from 1 million to 2 trillion, but while the answer is somewhere in the middle, it is no small figure: 8 billion.

“That means that right now there are more mobile devices on Earth than people,” Ho said.

In this era, everyone knows mobile is important, Ho said, but they do not fundamentally understand why. Ho then asked everyone to unlock their phones and hand it to the person next to them. With the audience still holding some else’s phone, Ho asked them if they felt uncomfortable. They did.

“Good. Now hold on to that feeling because that feeling is why mobile is important,” he said.

When companies send news to mobile, he added, they send news directly into people’s lives in a very personal way.

Ho gave three levels of tips news media companies can take to move toward a better mobile culture.

Level 1:

  • “Mobile friendly webpages are a necessity.”

Ho said if any organisation have a Web site that looks like a desktop Web site on a phone, they have a big problem: “If this is you I encourage you to go home and fix that right now.” 

  • You should have a news app, too.

“I think apps are really really important,” Ho said. “They are critical for notifications and notifications are in turn critical for the future of news.”

The big challenge with news apps is not cost, he added. It’s discovery.

  • The one-platform world is dead.

“I’m sure everyone has someone in their organisation that does not get it,” Ho said.

  • News is an experience & the device is part of the story.

Ho told the audience that news is in a battle for time. It is news vs. Netflix, and news vs. Pokémon Go.

“We’re already kind of on the losing side here,” he said.

Level 2:

  • If a graphic doesn’t work on a phone, it doesn’t work.

The energy put into making mobile work everywhere is wasted if graphics are bad.

  • Mobile is social. Social is mobile.

“Facebook is a mobile company,” Ho said. “Let’s be honest. The vast majority of facebook usage happens on phones.”

News media companies must remember that anything that they do on social must be considered from the user’s point-of-view.

  • You need the right mobile team.

Ho struggled to hire mobile editors when he first began working in mobile because they were not any.

“You still need experts,” he said. “You need people who understand the audience, who understand the technology.”

Level 3:

  • The real mobile first: plan, think, see mobile at the start of every effort.

When mobile becomes an afterthought, bad things happen, Ho said: “But the real mobile-first is about embracing mobile across you organisations in every aspect you can imagine.” 

  • In the age of mobile, we’re all wire services.

Digital is a dirty word for some people, Ho said. But they understand what is important about being a wire service.

“A lot of orgs have thought adapting to that idea and that comes up a lot in the digital transition people are trying to make,” he said.

  • Beyond the screen is “Dimensional Storytelling.”

“The news that we create for the most part is confined to flat, two-dimensional surfaces,” Ho said. “Pieces of paper or a screen of some kind.”

To expand the idea of what a phone is capable of, Ho suggested the audience check out a mobile game called “Black Box.”

The biggest myth in mobile news, Ho said, is that mobile = short.

“This is a very common idea, and it’s also wrong,” he said. “And it does a lot of harm.”

The idea that mobile must be short happens when someone in the news business gets “mobile religious,” he said. This happens when someone suddenly becomes obsessed with mobile after not paying attention to it for a long time.

The sign of a mobile religious, Ho said, is when someone says something like: “Have you seen all those people on the metro? They’re all on their phones. We’ve got to do something about this!”

What usually follows is a directive to make everything short. But the problem, Ho said, is that mobile does not equal short. Mobile equals relevance.

“Mobile is about things that matter to people,” he said. “It’s about filling needs and solving problems.”

The goal of mobile should be to fill a variety of needs. Sometimes that may require short content, but sometimes it may require a longer experience. This is crucial to understanding what mobile can be for the audience, Ho said, because it is past time to figure it out.

“Mobile is not the future, despite what you’ve heard,” he said. “Mobile is the present.”

CNN Senior Reporter Yusuf Omar went live during his presentation about mobile during Tuesday's World Congress session.
CNN Senior Reporter Yusuf Omar went live during his presentation about mobile during Tuesday's World Congress session.

To illustrate what mobile can be, CNN Senior Reporter Yusuf Omar went live. As his wife Sumaiya Omar streamed a live video on the screen and on Facebook, Omar asked where the audience went last night to find news about the bombing of a concert last night in Manchester.

Omar looked for stories from people on the ground at the event.

“I’m here to tell you that the singular biggest revolution in mobile is the stories format,” he said.

On a platform like Snapchat, users can search for content real time. This content can be layered with photos, facts, and dates to help with verification. It also provides capabilities to curate and aggregate voices of people on the ground.

When he worked in South Africa, Omar trained 12 Millennials and armed them with phones. It is a strategy he used himself as a journalist on location: “I regard myself as a jeans journalist. Everything I need for journalism can fit in my jeans.”

What makes mobile journalism even easier, especially for those intimidated by social storytelling, is the stories format. Stories allow the user to tell a story from their point of view, edit in information, and edit snippets together in their feed. The simplicity of the stories format is why Omar uses it to train other journalists.

“We did it through the stories format because it’s as simple as holding down the red button,” he said.

The stories format itself is also a great way to reach audiences. The fast, digestible content can be easy to search and consume for users already plugged into their phones. It is about making content the audience wants, Omar said.

“I fundamentally believe a lot of us are not making the same type of mobile video we are consuming,” he said.

Using Kahoot.it, Omar took an interactive, live survey of people in the room.

  1. In what format do you watch videos online? The majority (74) responded that they prefer landscape, and 50 responded vertical. Omar said this was surprising, as it contradicts audience data, but said perhaps the audience watches more long-form.
  2. How long are the videos you consume? The majority (66) responded that they are usually one minute, 35 said usually about 30 second content, 20 responded it is usually 5 minutes, and 10 said content is usually 6 minutes. “That’s pretty much spot-on with analytics,” Omar said.
  3. Do you skip or fast forward through videos? The majority (97) said yes, and 33 said no. “But the vast majority of the platforms we are using to watch video content are not built for that purpose,” Omar said.
  4. Where do you watch videos online? The majority (112) responded they watch content on mobile, while 19 said desktop. “And that’s probably representative of your audience if you look at your data,” he said.

The point is to make sure news media is where the audience is, like Instagram, Omar said. Instagram and stories, he said, is an amalgamation of everything news media could want.

“If you want to know where the future of social media is going ... we can look at what they’re prioritising,” he said. “And right now they’re prioritising stories.”

The stories format on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat may seem contradictory to the news media’s drive to preserve news, Omar said, due to their ephemeral nature. But, he said, news has always been short-lived.

“It’s always gone straight away,” he said. “My mother used to use newspapers to clean windows.”

News in a social, mobile format is not about keeping control. The big idea is that the audience is in control of the narrative on these platforms when they get involved with news.

“That for me is the sea-change,” he said.

Omar shared 10 points to build good stories:

  • Create suspense.

  • Build engagement.

  • Be native and niche.

  • Have personality.

  • Be consistent.

  • Engage the thumb.

  • Create hype.

  • Storyboard.

  • Swipe up.

  • Be creative.

On the last point, Omar said creativity is at the heart of social storytelling.

“Be creative guys,” he said. “I can’t emphasise this enough. It is a creative space.”

The technology baked into the stories format, combined with outside apps, like Apple Clips, can help publishers create better journalism.

“This is about using mobile for going beyond cost-cutting, beyond speed, but to do things that quite simply traditional equipment can not achieve,” Omar said.

Mobile is the way to reach a news media audience in a personal, one-on-one way. This has not been possible before, and the trend toward social is not going anywhere: “We are talking about a future of mobile where everything is hyper, hyper, hyper, local.”