Watching the watch: the race to unbundle news


Remember the weekend newspapers that would arrive with a heavy “flump” on doormats up and down the country? They were always bursting with more sections and great articles than anyone – well, any employed person, anyway – had time to read.

It was all about “bundling” – delivering a printed general news section with a multitude of other more profitable sections – and it was a good strategy for publishers. Then the Internet came along and changed that business model forever.

With the migration from printed media to other digital channels, news publishers learned a hard lesson about the unbundling power of the Internet.

Readers now had a personalised menu of choices. They could be served news content from one online destination, sports from another, and entertainment from yet another. They could create an à la carte selection of content, which unbundled the reading experience painstakingly put together by the editor.

This didn’t stop with the reading experience; unbundling also took with it the publishers’ most concentrated audience and profit.

The next computing platform that came along – the smartphone – had a similar narrative. This time the smaller screens and the operating system were the drivers, creating an environment that favoured single-purpose apps.

Publishers knew they couldn’t replicate a full desktop experience on a smartphone, so the solution was to unbundle again.

Instead of a comprehensive PC experience, they created a simplified news digest app. Rather than an entertainment section, they created a dedicated crosswords app. Publishers built mobile user interfaces for shorter session times and more frequent visits, but mostly they built for the simplicity of mobile.

Publishers that unbundled their content for smartphones primarily aimed to reduce the complexity for the user and also to block competitors who threatened them in niches.

We have seen mobile unbundling played out very openly during the last few years, from traditional publishers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to publishing platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, which chose to atomise their PC experience for mobile.

Now we could potentially see the next level of news unbundling with the arrival of the Apple Watch.

From what we know about the Apple Watch, users will favour short, frequent interactions that extend the utility of the iPhone and provide a service to the user. The screen will best support succinct information such as breaking news, business data, or weather. There is no space for an entire article or even a summary.

Headlines are the new homepage for publishers working on the Apple Watch platform.

As publishers around the world release details of their upcoming Apple Watch apps, it is clear that this post-smartphone platform has whetted an appetite to explore a new form of micro-journalism shaped around content services and providing utility. But it’s not clear whether wearables will be suitable for content consumption as well as for content services.

The Moments app from The Guardian promises some level of customisation based on either the time of day or on user action. It’s interesting there is no mention of location-based customisation yet.

The Guardian uses a broad range of content, not just “breaking news,” and appears to centre its offering on serendipity as well as on enhancing the user’s mobile moments through contextually rich content. It’s a clever proposition.

Understanding the mobile user context is hugely important as mobile use is so ubiquitous and because people don’t use mobiles in a vacuum. They use their mobile while they are eating or commuting or on the treadmill or lying in bed or (not) listening to their partners. I wrote about mobile moments last year.

The upcoming New York Times app for Watch has a similar focus on breaking news and top news. It incorporates a feature that allows users to read the full story on their smartphone app. This seems to be the direction for most publishers: to drive traffic back to their smartphone apps by using notifications as expertly as they use social media to acquire eyeballs. 

At Fairfax Media we have been experimenting with wearables for some time. The upcoming Sydney Morning Herald and The Age apps for Apple Watch allow users to access trending stories from our two publications.

We want to help facilitate water-cooler conversations by providing the most-read stories from our main sections. The zeitgeist of Australian news and culture will be delivered in a very up-close-and-personal way – right against your skin. Alongside breaking news alerts we will have the news that matters, updated continually throughout the day.

Athletics is a big focus for our readers. Our apps will keep fans fully up-to-date with the latest results. They can follow a live game and receive notifications after every score change.

The big ongoing stories develop throughout the day. Breaking news alerts are now too slow for a mobile audience that wants live news. To support this, we will have an editor who atomises content updates and writes them specifically for the utility of the Watch. Users can follow a live story and have meaningful updates delivered to their wrists the moment they arrive in our newsroom and before we have time to write the full article.

We will trial this utility journalism with major news stories to begin with and, depending on user feedback, could expand into other areas later. Perhaps this will eventually create a new role of “utility editor” in the newsroom, who would sit alongside the social media editor and the data editor and whose job it is to surface content with utility and make sure our readers are exposed to this throughout their daily mobile moments.

Publishers who are already familiar with the unbundling power of the Internet are now looking at wearables and wondering how much further they can unbundle their content to provide the best value.

Will “watching the Watch” mean that smartphone use has peaked and is moving into a slow decline? Only time will tell.

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