Q&A with Sara Peach, co-author of “News on the Go”

Sara Peach is senior producer at Reese News Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also co-author and editor of a new e-book called “News on the Go: Field Notes on Storytelling for Mobile Devices.” In this interview, conducted by email, Peach discusses the idea behind the book and the rise of news on smartphones and tablets.

Q. What is the purpose of News On The Go?

A. The point of the book is to help journalists adapt to the next generation of news consumers: mobile users.

The book offers advice on how journalists can adapt their articles, videos, infographics and so on for smartphones. The authors and I developed these tips directly from our experiences of launching and creating content for our mobile-friendly politics site, WhichWayNC.com.

We know from survey research that smartphones and tablets are already radically changing our online habits. A recent Pew survey showed that nearly one out of every five Americans is now mostly going online using a smartphone, not a computer. Another survey suggested that many of us are using our phones in bed and even on the toilet.

If people are changing the way that they get their news and information, how should media organizations respond? So far, many news companies aren’t doing much more than shrinking their content to fit a phone screen. I argue in the book that journalists should think of a smartphone as a storytelling medium in its own right, not just a simplified version of a website.

Smartphones offer so many possibilities. If a reader is angry about a government policy because she read your article, why not make it easy for her to call her legislator, right from her phone? Or you can use the phone’s location services to help your user find news about the place he’s visiting.

You should also think about your users’ habits: Maybe they don’t like to read your stories on a small phone screen, but they would be eager to listen to your podcast during a morning commute. We have a chance right now as an industry to be really creative in how we’re serving our audience.

Q. What are some of the significant ways that news on mobile devices is written, edited and presented differently from desktop computers or print media?

A. When you’re creating content for mobile devices, remember that your readers are looking at your work anywhere, anytime, but especially when they’re bored.

In a Pew survey, 42 percent of cellphone owners said they used the devices to ward off boredom. And if my students’ behavior is any guide, people look at their phones whenever they have a moment of free time during their day and even when there is an awkward pause in a conversation.

When we were creating content for WhichWayNC.com, we hypothesized that to appeal to bored readers, we needed to 1) write entertaining headlines, 2) write with a strong voice, and 3) keep our stories short.

When we looked at the site’s analytics, we found that entertaining headlines did seem to attract more traffic than vague or boring headlines, even when the stories were about similar topics. For example, the headline “The good, the bad and the just plain weird of political advertisements” got far more views than another story on campaign politics called “Regulated, yes. Ethical, maybe.”

We also found that stories written with a funny or clever voice found a wider audience than those written with a neutral, “news reporter” voice. One of our popular stories opened this way: “Last month, North Carolina’s Senate flirted with taking the state into full bonehead territory when it approved a bill that would have required state agencies to ignore scientific forecasts predicting accelerated sea-level rise.”

But we were completely surprised to find out that long stories did not perform as poorly as we expected on a phone-friendly site. Our site analytics enable us to keep track of how far down on each page our visitors are scrolling. So we know when you (yes, even you) don’t finish reading a story.

Our latest data shows that about 17 percent of mobile users scroll to the end of our stories, compared with 22 percent of desktop users. Mobile users also spend about three seconds longer on each page of our site than desktop users do. So long pieces on our site don’t always deter mobile readers.

One of the most obvious yet challenging aspects of presentation is the fact that a smartphone screen is much, much smaller than a desktop screen. Our designers had to radically adapt their charts and infographics so that they would be readable on a small screen.

At the beginning of the WhichWayNC.com project, our graphics tended to look like this one about fracking, which is difficult to view on a smartphone screen.

fracking

But as we went along, our graphics started to look like this one about unemployment rates in different industries.

mining

Q. Reese News Lab has been able to step away from the daily grind of news to experiment and innovate. How can news organizations do both?

A. It’s a tough balance. When you’re chasing down a breaking news story, you generally think you don’t have time to consider a new way to present that story on a mobile device.

But news organizations need to make sure that a group of people within the organization is working on experimentation and innovation – and also that those people aren’t sequestered from the rest of the company. Great ideas can come from anyone in the organization.

Q. There’s talk that many media companies are ill-prepared for the switch to mobile. What do you see as the future of news?

A. I wouldn’t have put together this book if I didn’t think that mobile devices were going to play a huge role in how our audiences will continue to consume news. The challenge of course, is figuring out how to pay newsgatherers – no matter the platform.

The future of news belongs to anyone who can figure that out.

Learn more about “News on the Go” and follow Sara Peach on Twitter.