What the iPhone 5 says about small screen journalism

Like Apple’s high-flying share price, it appears nothing can bring the iPhone 5 down to Earth. Not even what many critics pointed out were incremental improvements over past models. That smarts for the over 2 million folks who pre-ordered the 5 but it’s a boon for journalists: we’ve entered what The Times’ Nick Wingfield aptly called the age of “technological bunny hops.” After years of relentless technological shifts in the media, now may be the time for journalism to assess the mobile landscape without worrying that it will look radically different in 18 months.

As a tool for creating journalism, the iPhone 5 is decidedly a bunny hop: an added mic, a panoramic photo feature, faster connectivity. Basically, a handful of features that help backpack reporters do a tad more. As a platform for publishing journalism, it may not even be that: most serious news operations have in-house app teams and a robust—if not always innovative or classy—presence on smartphones and tablets. It seems unlikely that this, or the next, iPhone will radically change how publishers bring their content to the mobile market or what content they create for it.

So what lessons can we apply from today going forward?

Stories must work across platforms

That’s not the same as saying stories should be on all platforms. That was the mantra a few years ago when newsrooms decided that the audience should get content where and when they want it, regardless of compatibility with the medium. Poorly designed, cluttered and unusable newspaper web sites are a legacy of that thinking. Creating stories that extend to mobile means finding the bits that work best there: the most shareable, easiest or fastest to consume, or enough to tease users onto more mainstream platforms.

“Think ‘shareable’ content,” says Joe Pulizzi, a consultant and founder of the Content Marketing Institute (@juntajoe). “When you begin construction of a story, understand how many ways you can tell that story in the different platforms.”

For smartphones, graphics, video and other visuals appeal on the small screen.

“Visual storytelling is becoming king on mobile devices,” Pulizzi explains “Whereas longer-form text rules the desktop, infographics and videos rule mobile devices.”

Write better headlines

Though mobile technology has actually increased Americans’ news consumption, there’s a lot of competition for eyeballs. A 2010 study found that many adults with a smartphone check for e-mail updates, social updates, and so forth around 34 times a day; but the interactions usually only last for 30 seconds or less. Mobile content favors short and to-the-point.

Writer Nick O’Neill made a compelling case for the importance of  headlines in his article, “How Forbes Stole a New York Times Article and Got All the Traffic.” In it, he points out how a Forbes writer took a long and well-researched NY Times article called “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” and successfully repackaged it for the web with the sexy headline, “How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did” – garnering more than a million page views and outshining the original NY Times article in the process.

Keep it under 60 characters. Even with a larger screen on the iPhone 5, short, direct, compelling headlines will win the most traffic.

Don’t forget the story

With smartphones in the hands of 44% of U.S. adults, and an estimated 27% of the population receiving news from a mobile device according to data from the Pew Research Center, demand for mobile content is going to grow, even if technology doesn’t continue to wow. So transmedia storytelling—that is, building upon a story on a mobile screen where it left off on a stationary one—is going to become a more mainstream activity in newsrooms. Smartphones will do for great journalism and freelance writers alike, what honor boxes and above-the-fold spreads once did.

The ability to advertise content will be especially important to brands and other non-newsrooms that are just now getting into the production of serious editorial product.

“The majority of journalists and storytellers in the world, in my opinion, are now being hired by non-media companies,” says Pulizzi. “Brands need to be telling better stories, but most are horrible storytellers. They are hiring journalists to help position them as true experts and thought leaders, and to help move consumers through the buying process with great content. We’ve only seen the start of this.”

Photo used under a creative commons license.

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About Sarah Erickson

Sarah comes from a background in multimedia journalism and scholarly research, recently joining Ebyline as the Content Manager. She graduated from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC and is a proud Trojan. Fight on!