Student guest post: Can I get the news, to go?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Tyson Leonhardt is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studies journalism and political science. Leonhardt is president of the UNC chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a digital producer for

Three minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, CNN interrupted its commercial programming to break the news to an unsuspecting nation.

Across the country, Americans turned on their televisions to learn more — many in time to watch the second plane slam into the South Tower.

Back then, the Internet was comparatively undeveloped — journalists and media consumers alike had not even begun to realize its full potential. Social media was non-existent — only birds could tweet and friend requests were made in person.

When news broke, Americans had little choice but to turn to broadcast news.

Fast forward to May 1, 2011, when Keith Urbahn — chief of staff for former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — scooped the major news networks and broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death with a 15-word tweet.

The news spread like wildfire on social media. Many learned of the terrorist leader’s death on digital devices before they heard it on TV.

This illustrates an important point — the way Americans consume news has changed, drastically so, in the last decade. And, according to Pew Research Center 2012 State of the News Media report, it’s still changing — even faster than before.

The annual report, produced by the center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, argues we have entered a new phase of the digital revolution — “the age of mobile,” an era of unprecedented connectedness.

The statistics are astounding. According to the report, more than four in ten American adults now own smartphones, with one in five owning a tablet device, such as an iPad.

More importantly, the report finds, these mobile devices have increased Americans’ news consumption — more than a quarter of the U.S. population are now using their mobile devices to get news. What’s more, 23 percent of U.S. adults now consume news on multiple digital devices.

It’s not surprising that this growing trend in mobile news consumption is accompanied by a surge in social media usage. 133 million Americans are active on Facebook, while the number of Americans tweeting now tops 24 million — a growth of 32 percent in 2011 alone, according to the report.

Fortunately for news organizations, mobile news consumption does not seem to be eating away at traditional news consumption habits — it’s an additive experience. In other words, news consumption, as a whole, is expanding.

Further, the report suggests the proliferation of mobile devices is strengthening new outlets’ brand names and allowing them to reach greater audiences.

Such findings are encouraging for news organizations, especially those still searching for ways to shore up revenue in a world where most people are accustomed to consuming online news for free.

However, media companies cannot afford to react to this mobile device surge as slowly as they did to the Internet boom. Journalists must make an effort to learn news consumption habits of mobile device users and develop technology and revenue models that incorporates their needs.

That brings me to editing.

As more and more Americans turn to their iPhones, iPads, Androids, Kindles and the like for news, it’s imperative that editors get the memo, too.

They must recognize that the pages they design, the headlines they write and the copy they edit, no matter what platform it is intended for, will likely end up being viewed on a mobile device.

As journalists, we must remember it’s our job to be a resource. We must ensure readers are able to consume news on any platform, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

And although news applications tailored for specific mobile operating systems and mobile-friendly versions of websites have proliferated in recent years, it is an imperfect solution.

Multiple content systems are often disorienting for readers when switching between devices to consume news. For example, a story or photo gallery available on a news outlet’s desktop website may, for a number of reasons, never make it to the iPad application. This can anger readers.

There’s got to be an easier, more uniform way to get the news to today’s multiplatform consumers, right?

The Boston Globe thinks it’s found an answer to the problem in the form of responsive design technology, which automatically detects the platform being used and seamlessly resizes all content to fit the size and shape of the screen.

Such technology ensures readers always see the same content and layout across all platforms, whether it’s a tablet, smartphone or computer. The Globe switched over to the design system in September 2011.

Not many have followed in the Globe’s footsteps, yet. But with more and more Americans using multiple digital devices to get their news, that’s sure to change.