Canada’s slow shift to mobile-first news

By Arik Ligeti

By Arik Ligeti

If it doesn’t work on mobile, it doesn’t work,” is a phrase echoed by so many and so often in the world of digital journalism that it almost sounds like a broken record. The desktop browser is becoming less relevant, with most major news organizations now seeing around half their digital traffic coming from mobile. And so, the race for mobile solutions is on.

But if you think the buzz about mobile is anything new, well you’d be wrong. Steve Buttry, most recently of Digital First Media, called on news organizations to implement a mobile-first strategy in 2009. Some still haven’t prioritized, and that’s dangerous for their financial well-being.

“Imagine being able to rewind to the 1990s and help your news organization make key strategic decisions — and create new habits — that would have helped the business thrive on the Internet. That’s the opportunity we have today with mobile,” Cory Bergman, the general manager of Breaking News, a mobile startup owned by NBC News, wrote on his personal website.

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In the U.S., new media ventures like CircaQuartz and NowThis News are radically changing the mobile news space. But they all have money behind them, too, in the form of venture funding or in Quartz’s case their parent company Atlantic Media. Without an injection and patience, or a startup path, how can Canadian media possibly make the shift? Well it is happening, albeit slowly.

For all that could be done, there’s still plenty of action in Canada’s mobile news space. CBC Hamilton was the first major news site to go with a responsive design back in May of 2012. Postmedia’s followed shortly thereafter. Global News underwent a majorredesign that went live in March of last year. Montreal’s La Presse has made waves for it’s $40-million investment in a tablet product, La Presse +.

First and foremost, while both mobile technologies, smartphones and tablets have wildly different analytics and metrics. Smartphone ownership is more widespread, with 56 per cent of Canadians adults owning one, according to a Google study. Tablet numbers were placed at 26 per cent in a 2012 CBC study. Both numbers are surely much higher now.

People browse their smartphones constantly throughout the day, while tablets find usage peaking twice, in the morning before work and again in the evening before bedtime. It’s far from universal, but smartphone often equals socially-optimized, shareable content bites, while tablet can handle long-form better and is at less mercy to the 24-hour news cycle.

I spoke with three people heavily entrenched in Canadian mobile news: Matt Frehner, mobile editor at The Globe and MailJordan Timm, senior producer for tablet at Postmedia, and Joe Ross, vice-president of content at theScore. Each explained strategy, successes and opinions on the mobile news space.

“So how do you do innovation in mobile in a country as disparate and as small as ours and how do you try and find the money?” Frehner told me (disclosure: I’ll be working at the Globe this summer). That’s a question we’ll explore throughout. And with that comes these important considerations: What is mobile-first content? Do you customize to each visitor, and how much? Who’s your audience? How do you create a mobile-first culture?

Know your audience

“It’s not like there was ever rabid pack of 18-year-olds subscribing to papers,” Timm says.

Before you can even approach design and content changes, there needs to be a clear understanding of “the people formerly known as the audience,” as media critic and professorJay Rosen states. How do you be equal parts authoritative and inclusive? How much give is there compared to taking? How do you draw people in, keep them there, make them want to come back, turn that into a profitable business model? These concepts must be applied to where people are consuming news, and more and more that’s smartphones and tablets.

Extending the relevance of the newspaper brand to a digital age is the question mark Postmedia is trying to address. To do that, it’s helpful to look at industry successes like Buzzfeed as a way to tap into the zeitgeist of the millennial crowd. But it’s a fine line, and papers should understand the limitations of their brand. “There’s nothing more embarrassing than a 50-year-old dancing,” Timm says. “The [Ottawa] Citizen is absolutely a 50-year-old white man.”

And that’s exactly why it makes sense to enter the premium, higher-end tablet space.

People who can afford and — this is Postmedia’s bet — are willing to pay for news content are the people who own tablets. Educated, middle-upper class, from the young educated professionals to the public sector salaried employees working on the Hill.

Tablet experimentation

“There’s no paper in Canada that has the resources to create four newsrooms within itself. Nobody has the horses,” Timm says. What that results in is selective investment. Postmedia’s four-platform strategy (print, desktop, smartphone and tablet) will mean publishing a story that’s native to one of the platforms, but still works effectively on others.

The company is preparing to launch a new tablet product, starting at the Ottawa Citizen this spring. It’s the latest in a series of efforts by Canadian news media to adapt to the changing technology, and find a way to attract new revenues in the process. For newspapers, it’s no secret that print advertising profits are in decline. And television media aren’t immune either. While advertisers have been slow to shift interest away from 50-inch screens to a more dynamic, mobile environment, the switch is inevitable.


This feature was originally written by Arik Ligeti as a final assignment for a fourth-year journalism course at Carleton University. To continue reading, please go Ligeti's website.



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