The good and bad of mobile, social and vertical news

Looking forward to the future of news, Kate Tenenhouse finds it is mobile, social…and vertical. By Kate Tenenhouse “News consumption is undergoing two fundamental shifts across the globe,” writes Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in her essay “The Rise of Mobile and Social News.” The first shift is the increased…

Looking forward to the future of news, Kate Tenenhouse finds it is mobile, social…and vertical.

By Kate Tenenhouse

“News consumption is undergoing two fundamental shifts across the globe,” writes Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in her essay “The Rise of Mobile and Social News.”

The first shift is the increased use of mobile phones to access news and the second is the staggering turn to social media in accessing that news.

We’ve been talking about the “explosion in mobile audiences” for a few years now but in 2016 there is more to it than just the need for responsive website themes and mobile news apps.

News content continues to evolve thanks to the push towards mobile viewing. Moving beyond the threshold of traditional online reading, mobile news has developed an entangled and integral relationship with social media like never before; one that is both fascinating and frustrating for the news industry.

A recent report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism states, “This year’s data (2015) sees a quickening of the pace towards social and mobile news, a decline in desktop Internet, and significant growth in video news consumption online.” The report includes data from 12 countries (including France, Japan, Spain, the US and the UK), surveying more than 20,000 people. The data shows that two-thirds of people use their smartphones to read news every week. However—and this is key—only about one-third of users actually use news apps on their phone, even though 70 per cent of users have them.

People would rather see news entangled with events in their daily life. As Joshua Benton argues in a NiemanLab article, “Putting news just a couple taps away from someone’s social life has enormous potential power.” And so, news must “go where the audience is.”

As a result, we are beginning to see rising news organizations in the media landscape that are not only reliant on, but fundamentally embedded in social networks.

This comes with its own set of perks and challenges. Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Good news? Great, here we go.

The good news: More access, engagement and innovation

Will and Kate’s royal engagement, the discovery of ice on the moon, the deaths of Whitney Houston, Osama Bin Laden and Michael Jackson all have one thing in common—the stories broke on social media.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit to social media content is ease of availability. Using social media to find news means 24/7 access to condensed versions of the most important content to you. With more than one billion active users on Facebook, for example, news organizations have the ability to produce content that is guaranteed to reach a lot of eyeballs. And with the increase in mobile use, that reach is magnified by the fact that the information is right in your back pocket.

Not only do readers have easier access to content, but research from the Pew Research Center shows that 61 per cent of people tend to stay engaged with news longer on their phones compared to their desktops. This study on the “future of mobile news” from 2012 sampled just over 9,500 adults in the US, including more than 4,600 cellphone users.

As we transition from reading digital news on the web to interacting with news on our phones, content is getting more creative, innovative and unusual. Social media is allowing different avenues for news development.

Maybe the best example of a news organization that has seamlessly transitioned from desktop to social smartphone is NowThis (formerly NowThis News).

NowThis is news for the social mobile age. There is no website—no homepage—just a landing page that directs audiences to all of its social platforms: Tumblr, Kik, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat.

“We’ve been trying to get more creative, more unconventional, in terms of what we do. It’s this idea of art and news colliding that excites us,” President Sean Mills told NiemanLab.

Pushing short content onto all of these social platforms, NowThis uses video, graphics, text, animation and music to package key news stories of the day. Each story is presented differently depending on the platform. It is an outside-the-box approach to content that works on desktop but is created for the mobile audience.

Another example that made headlines this year is Snapchat Discover, a feature of the photo-sharing social app that allows the user to view tailored news content from partner news organizations (including National Geographic, CNN and Vice). It is 100 percent devoted to mobile on a 100 percent social platform.

“We can already see, with Snapchat’s move towards the news vertical, that social platforms are becoming legitimate news sources,” says Sonny Tosco in Adweek. “The Snapchat’s Discover feature lets editorial teams upload stories that put ‘the narrative first.’” Tosco points to the San Bernardino coverage as an example.

The bad news: Losing control (and capital)

Looking at the changing media landscape and how news is so often shared via social media, many have raised concerns over who controls the content.

Bell wrote, “The existential question of a decade ago ‘who is a journalist?’ was born out of the access of the general populace to publishing tools. Now the question has been replaced by ‘who is a publisher?’”

Similar to the media concentration argument, some worry that if social media is the main form of news dissemination, companies like Facebook will have too much power in deciding what news content gets promoted to viewers.

Control over the story, how it’s told and who sees it, are all major points of concern.

“The free press is now controlled by companies whose primary interests are not necessarily rooted in strengthening public discourse and democracy. On the one hand, journalists can reach far greater audiences immediately than was the case in the past. On the other hand, journalists and publishers have very little control now over how information reaches the world and there is limited transparency,” says Bell.

This is magnified in the Facebook example.

“Its algorithm, which dictates content in a user’s News Feed, will favor publishers that partner with the company,” warns Alyson Shontell writes in Business Insider. This will lead some publishers to be “punished from a traffic-referral standpoint.”

Only time will tell how much of a threat this will become. These platforms are continuously adapting and as news becomes an integral part of their function, they will likely continue to evolve in ways that benefit both their partners and their users. Even on traditional media platforms, news organizations tailor their homepages and newsfeeds to highlight certain stories. A filter of some kind always exists, whether it is a Facebook algorithm, a homepage feature story or even an editor’s final cuts to the evening news line up.

There is another issue that needs to be addressed when talking about social media and the news: money. How do you get readers and advertisers to pay? How do you make a profit? Content models have been in flux for two decades, since the emergence of digital news, but this is amplified by the move to social and mobile.

The Reuters Institute report on digital news highlights this concern: “The challenge for traditional media brands is how to manage this growing divergence in behaviour, along with the intense business pressures being thrown up by the second wave of disruption from mobile and social.”

Facebook generates ad revenue but what does that mean for news content posted directly to the site by other sources? For social companies that are new to the social news sharing game, like Snapchat, “monetization is still in its infancy” as advertisers still don’t understand the appeal of short content and vertical video. This is further complicated by the fact that there is a  “continued resistance to paying for content on mobile devices.”

Just like any other avenue of dissemination, making money off news is the main problem.

What’s next?

As news becomes increasingly social and video content becomes king on the web, social media sites are turning to live streaming as the next wave of social news and information sharing.

In the past, “shoot horizontal” was the rule of thumb, but vertical video is increasingly becoming the norm thanks to live streaming on mobile devices.

Beginning with Snapchat and now with the emergence of Periscope (owned by Twitter) and Facebook Live, social media platforms are changing the way we view news video.

“It may sound crazy, but we wanted to build the closest thing to teleportation,” reads the Periscope website. “While there are many ways to discover events and places, we realized there is no better way to experience a place right now than through live video. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but live video can take you someplace and show you around.”

Certainly sounds like the future of social news—maybe even bordering on the beginnings of social virtual reality. And recently, it was rumoured that Google is planning to jump in the game with YouTube Connect, its own version of a social streaming service that will better connect famous YouTubers with their viewers.

No one can be sure what the future of journalism will hold, but based on the emerging trends of today, it seems that the future of news will mobile, social and vertical.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.