Publishing Showdown: Mobile Apps vs. HTML5

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On May 16, I had the privilege of attending a portion of Internet Week New York. Internet Week is an annual week-long celebration of the Internet industry and community in New York City. One of the sessions I attended was hosted by Webby Awards president David-Michel Davies who interviewed Jonathan Battelle, now the chairman of Federated Media. Battelle also was a founder of Wired magazine and the Hotwired website (where the first display ad was born), the Web 2.0 Summit and The Industry Standard. Battelle is very passionate about standardizing online advertising and mobile web.

Battelle said at the conference that native apps are wonderful things, but they are not the Internet, which allows linking.

“They are a specific application to do a specific thing. What I would like, I mean, I remember my desktop of my Macintosh in 1987 had a bunch of applications, and the funny thing about it, and you may forget, is that Apple had a huge push in the late-’80s to create a set of standards that linked data between applications. They had a bunch of visionaries at the company who said, the future of the Internet is applications and shared data between them,” he said, adding that ironically it’s illegal in the iOS terms of service to do that without working out a business development deal with Apple.

Marketers are now required to generate content for multiple platforms, whether it’s ads for an iPhone, iPad, or Android app. But it doesn’t stop there. Companies also, to reach their audiences, have to be on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc…

“The problem with native advertising is, there’s way too many formats. Just think about it, if you’re a marketer now, you have to be on Pinterest, you have to be on Tumblr, you have to be in blogs, you have to be on Facebook, you have to be on Twitter. Maybe you want to join a conversation at Buzzfeed. You have to make native units and you have to understand where they are. Essentially, it doesn’t scale. All of a sudden, it breaks down,” said Battelle.

Wired Ventures launched Hotwired in 1994, and this is where the first banner ad was born – it was an AT&T advertisement that had a long arrow from one side of the banner to the other that read, “Have you ever clicked here? You will.” According to Battelle, the click-through rate was somewhere between 70 and 90 percent.

He elaborated that for approximately 15 years there was a standard online advertising format.

“We may not have liked it as an industry, both as publishers and as marketers. We didn’t necessarily love the display banner or the tower on the right, the IAB standards, but they were standardized. So, you could say, I’m going to create a suite of creative, and I’m going to put them all over the Web. I could buy them anywhere, I could put them anywhere,” said Battelle. IAB Ad Unit Guidelines are voluntary standards created for media companies, agencies and marketers as a framework for online advertising. The goal was to streamline work for advertising agencies, so they weren’t creating multiple types of advertising for multiple placements. That’s out the window today.

Apps vs. Mobile Web
Battelle wants the industry to perfect HTML5 so it’s not as buggy and includes features of apps, too. “They [apps] have eyes and ears and accelerometers. I mean, you have access to stuff that you can see through the camera phone, and you can sense a response, you can know where you are. The Web is just one, big dumb animal compared to the mobile phone when it comes to sensory input and output. The ability to create a rich experience that makes you aware of those senses, that’s what apps are,” Battelle said, adding that he wants the Web to “completely infect and take over mobile phones.”

As a news publisher, Battelle, who is not a fan of Apple taking 30 percent of revenues, said, he wouldn’t want an app for his publication. He would want a product that consumers can read on a mobile device, laptop, or desktop computer.

“I think we’ve got to get past scrolling down, and we have to get past banners and into something that is as gorgeous and refined as flipping through a full-color magazine,” he said.

That being said, there has been some progress – albeit slow compared to apps – on the mobile web front:

  • The Financial Times, which launched an HTML5 web app on June 11, could have more digital subscribers than print by 2013, according to Rob Grimshaw,‘s managing director, who also spoke at Internet Week. The Financial Times has print circulation of 310,000 and 270,000 online subscribers. And, according to The Guardian, the FT Web app has reached 2 million users since it was released. Bucking the tide, the company decided to stay out of the Apple App Store because it didn’t want Apple taking 30 percent of its revenue. “It is actually easier to promote outside of Apple,” Grimshaw explained at Internet Week.
  • The Boston Globe, whose main website was previously, discovered it had two audiences: one that valued traditional journalism and article writers more, and the other that wanted to know more about the sports and entertainment scene. So, it launched a paid site,, in 2011, using responsive design. The responsive design site adapts to whatever screen size the user is using, whether it’s a mobile device, laptop or desktop computer. I recently interviewed folks at The Boston Globe, as well as the person who coined the term responsive design, Ethan Marcotte, for an Editor & Publisher article.Marcotte told me: “Responsive design on a basic level is about using more flexible layout, more flexible page design, and using a little bit of technology called CSS (cascading style sheets) basically to articulate how those designs should reshape themselves to be viewed on smaller or wider screens,” he said. Jeff Moriarty, vice president of digital products for The Globe, told me, at the time of our interview, that had only published one responsive design advertisement so far, but it has made life much easier for editors, who only have to update stories once. It’s definitely still early days for mobile web advertising.
  • Nonprofit news organization ProPublica also launched a responsively designed site, in December 2011. However, it doesn’t plan on eliminating apps. “Keep in mind, I think both approaches are very interesting. ProPublica is not making a big bet on responsive Web design and abandoning our apps. We’re absolutely in all of these places and are likely to remain so indefinitely. What excites us about the mobile Web is, there is a large audience who we can promote via the regular means,” ProPublica’s Scott Klein, told me for the Editor & Publisher interview.
  • The Chicago Tribune will be switching over its homepage,, to responsive design later this year. The newspaper decided to make the move after trying out responsive design first on election center and breaking news websites. It also converted its blog network,, and Spanish-language website,, to responsive design.
  • Hearst newspapers also tells me it’s planning on converting sites in its major markets to responsive design, and The Los Angeles Times told me it is looking at it, too.

In addition, the BBC launched its responsive design site in March, and LinkedIn used 95 percent HTML5 for its new iPad app, as well as a Javascript framework called Node.js.

ProPublica’s Mike Webb on Public Interest Journalism


Michael WebbAs journalists across the country know all too well, investigative journalism is expensive, and as a result, it’s becoming harder for newspapers and magazines to pull off in-depth investigations. With that in mind, nonprofit newsroom ProPublica focuses on investigative stories with “moral force.”

In 2010, an article on euthanasia at a New Orleans hospital made ProPublica the first online news organization to win a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Last year, a series of ProPublica stories investigating Wall Street bankers won a Pulitzer for National Reporting.

Ebyline chatted with Mike Webb, ProPublica’s Director of Communications, about the intersection of social media and news reporting. Webb tweets at @ProPubPR.

How is ProPublica’s coverage different than in previous years?
When we first started out, we were almost exclusively long form investigative journalism with the occasional blog post. We hired a blogger Marian Wang who used to write daily and we just promoted her to be a reporter, but we have other people to do that. We riff off the news or a significant source of the news. …we’re still all about investigative journalism and copywriting services. That hasn’t changed, but we’ve tweaked a few things here and there.

It’s been noted on the site that certain stories allow readers to fact check an article along with the reporter. Can you talk about this process?
The reporter Marshall Allen and they (news developers) talked about showing the sources where Allen was getting the information. And Allen had to fact check it as it was including the sources in the story made a little sense. It’s difficult to do so we haven’t done it with every story…Our news application developers are very involved with the reporting process, so the reporter and news application developer can come together-it’s a neat experiment to let readers in on the reporting process. It gives you a level, it helps validate the work that you’re doing, people can see for themselves that it’s not biased, it’s true information.

Editorial note: For an example of the way news application developers used their skills, see Allen’s article here.

How can freelancers break into ProPublica?
It’s very difficult–we have a limited budget. The freelance budget is not huge, also because our editors prefer to work with reporters they know very well, and they trust, and they know they can work quickly and accurately. We actually don’t use a lot of freelance content, we used it a bit early on, then we stopped. Then this year we had two freelance pieces. Both of those came from established relationships. In general if a freelancer wanted to work with us, if the editors really loved it, then they would have a conversation with which way to go. We don’t do a lot of freelance work–it’s infrequent. Stephen Engelberg is our managing editor, he’s very open to good ideas for our stories, but after that I can’t say. The process is not the same every time. It’s not any straight process. ..Absolutely, a freelancer can approach us with a story idea and we can consider it.

How has social media played a role in your stories for ProPublica?
So, for the most part, we use it (social media) in a lot of different ways. Amanda Michel used to head our social media team. We were trying to find how the stimulus money was being spent. Amanda asked people to help us check projects that were beginning in their cities and states, they were doing background checks on companies, they were taking photos to see show where the work had started, they were just doing their own reporting and feeding that information to Amanda and we were able to work their quotes and information into what our full time staff was doing. Obviously we use Twitter and Facebook to get stories out, we get very good tips that way and incorporate it into our stories. …a lot of it is a promotional vehicle to spread our stories, and share as many stories as possible.

Editorial note: For an example of a story that was reported with the ProPublica Reporting Network, see Michel’s Our Stimulus Spot Check: Summer Wave of Projects Nears Crest

Any closing remarks?
The news apps team are the thing that’s most overlooked. They’re doing some really spectacular work. Our most popular feature is the Dollars for Docs project.

Our two lead health care reporters Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein had a conversation with Dan Nguyen (the news app developer). Tracy and Charles were frustrated with pharmaceuticals who were paying a doctor at a convention or at an educational training. It was very difficult to obtain that information and they mentioned that to Dan. And he said I could gather that and put it in an apple format. And he did it and we built an app called Dollars for Docs to see if they’re being paid by any pharmaceutical company. …very time consuming getting everything together. It’s one of our most popular projects because people go in and look all the time.


Opportunities for Digital Journalists and Social Media Mavens

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digital fellowshipLooking to hone your digital or social media skills? A slew of fellowships, scholarships, and internships with upcoming application deadlines offer an opportunity to do just that. Here’s a look at opportunities offered by ProPublica, Google, and more, listed according to application deadline:

ProPublica News Apps Fellowship: If you’re a savvy journalist who’s curious about developing news apps, then this could be the fellowship for you. The New York-based fellowship runs through the end of the year with the goal of answering the following question: “Can a smart, technical journalist with excellent and proven skills in other nerdy newsroom disciplines like graphics and CAR become a news app developer?” Coding skills are helpful but not required.
Application deadline: January 20, 2012

New York Times Social Media Internship: The Gray Lady is recruiting a social media intern for the spring semester to assist with social journalism projects and on the paper’s social media accounts including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram. According the Times’ website, “Candidates should understand the journalistic opportunities presented by social media … You should also have an excellent eye for detail and great news instincts.” Graduate students are preferred.
Application deadline: January 20, 2012

AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship: Open to college undergrads or grad students with a minimum 3.0 GPA, the AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship will provide $20,000 scholarships to six students who are “pursuing or planning to pursue degrees at the intersection of journalism, computer science and new media.” The goal of the scholarship program, which is administered by the Online News Assocation, is to foster innovation and build the skills of digital-minded journalists and article writers who will ultimately become industry leaders.
Application deadline: January 27, 2012

The Nieman-Berkman Fellowship in Journalism Innovation: This year-long fellowship is a collaboration between two Harvard programs: The Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Applications are asked to submit a proposal outlining “specific course of study or project relating to journalism innovation.” The Niemen-Berkman Fellow will receive a $60,000 stipend over ten months, plus additional allowances for housing, childcare, and health insurance.
Application deadline: February 15, 2012

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut /

Daily Dose: Everyblock Redesigned, ProPublica’s New Timeline Tech, Cover Letter Tips, AOL Continues Cuts + More News


For today’s serving of stories, we have some tips on new timeline technology and how to write a killer cover letter. Also from the Future of Journalism desk, we have an analysis on Everyblock’s redesign for increased hyperlocalism, and the scoop on Wall Street Journal’s iPad plan.

Read all the news fit to blog in today’s Ebyline Daily Dose.

TimelineSetter: A New Way to Display Timelines on the Web

“The timeline is a very useful way to visualize sequences of events, and they’re especially useful to orient readers within the complex investigative stories we do at ProPublica. But they’re not very easy to make. As far as we know, there are no good open source frameworks that web developers can use to generate timelines quickly without losing design flexibility. So we made our own, which is debuting today.”

How to Write a Cover Letter

“Learn how to write a targeted, customized cover letter that will get you in the door”

What Everyblock’s Redesign Tells Us About The Future Of Hyperlocal News Sites

“With yesterday’s relaunch, new social elements have been integrated into the site that encourage users to share and interact with their neighbors both online and off. So what are these changes, and what insight do they give us into the future of hyperlocal news?”

WSJ Launching Single-Issue Downloads For iPad

“Looking to get more subscribers for its iPad app, The Wall Street Journal will start selling single-issue digital versions of its morning paper for $1.99 in the iTunes App store tomorrow.”

AOL Folds 30 Brands, Including Politics Daily

“First it was the people. Now it’s the brands. AOL just notified staffers of a major consolidation of its portfolio of content sites, undertaken as part of its merger with the Huffington Post.”