The great thing about teaching college students is how much they teach you.
In my classes at SUNY Oswego, I often ask my students how they get their news (sports and otherwise). My online journalism students did an assignment center in their news consumption habits.
One thing is clear from all of these assignments and discussions: They live on their mobile phones. They are not going to websites to find news. If they're not being directed to news and stories by social media, they are getting push notifications from the apps they follow. Several students have said they got dozens and dozens of news notifications all day. A lot of times, they're not clicking through to the story or summary. They're just scrolling their notifications. This is no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the news world, or who's spend time around any young person lately.
I've been thinking a lot about mobile news. I don't think it's the future of news, I think it's the present. I'm in the middle of developing a course specificially about mobile journalism. Last year, I wrote about the demise of Circa and what it meant for the future of sports journalism.
But I think for any new mobile news app, there's a fundamental question, a problem that needs to be solved:
How do you stand out?
If not speed, then what?
How do you make your app the one that people will pay for, subscribe to, or open regularly? What will you give readers that they aren't getting anywhere else?
That second question is the big one for me, the one I'm thinking a lot about these days. Because fundamentally, right now, mobile journalism is all about speed. It's about who can send out the push notification first. The first app to send out the notification is more likely to get a click through, to get their story read.
This goes against what we like to teach in journalism schools. Don't worry about being first, we tell students, because the news is out there. Worry about being right. This is understandable, because we want our students to value accuracy and to not get burned.
But that goes against what the mobile news market, as currently constructed, values. Speed with the push notification is what matters.
And here's the thing: If you're building a new sports news app, one way you can try to compete with ESPN is through speed. It's by breaking news and getting notifications sent out before people hear the "da-da-da, da-da-da" in their pocket. But that just promotes and perpetuates the culture of speed in mobile journalism, and is that the best culture for our industry? Also, is your long-term strategy really based on always beating ESPN, CBS and the other networks with a push notification?
Remember, often, students aren't reading past the notification. So no matter how you atomize the news (like Circa brilliantly did), or textify the news (as Quartz is doing), it may not matter if people are just scrolling through notifications.
To me, that's the central problem facing mobile journalism. If not speed, then what?
From me, last year:
(Maybe a platform) that takes the immediacy of Twitter and the speed of the ESPN app and adds more user functionality to it. More of a local focus, more location-based updates, finer-tuned notifications so only the important stuff gets through.
Mobile journalism is the present. I've learned that from my students.
Now, how can we take the lessons they've taught me and teach them to build the future?