Using mobile to break free from ‘architectured’ content

By Matt Neznanski

NeznanskiThere’s a lot of hope for newspapers in capturing some of the emerging (exploding?) mobile market in the coming months and years as phones get smarter and people begin to rely on them more and more for information.

But despite the best of intentions, most small newsrooms aren’t prepared to go mobile and no amount of technology is going to get them there. The biggest impediment is the single-deadline mindset of publications that still cling mightily to shovelware posted after print pages are sent to press. It hasn’t ever fit the Web and it’s even more glaring in a mobile world.

Shoveling content to the Web in the middle of the night is, sadly, still the norm for lots of newsrooms. My organization is still one of them even though we’ve made a major effort to train everyone in the newsroom to post their own work and keep hounding everyone about it.

For us, the biggest reasons that shovelware has such a grip include:

  • perception that posting to the Web is yet another duty tacked onto an already overworked staff
  • resentment about the Web stealing circulation from print, so the online effort is half-assed at best
  • fear of technology and content editors that enable the technologically challenged to remain that way

Aside from institutional inertia, I also think there’s a lack of understanding in how different the experience of news is online and in print.

Years ago now, I read a post by Doc Searls about the live Web, which summed up the fundamental difference between traditional publications and new media beautifully. In discussing why an unnamed industry found itself asking why it had so few visitors to their sites:

…Their sites were buildings. They were architected, designed and constructed. They were conceived and built on the real estate model: domains with addresses, places people could visit…
The Web isn’t just real estate. It’s a habitat, an environment, an ever-increasingly-connected place where fecundity rules, vivifying business, culture and everything else that thrives there. It is alive.

As a flyfisher, I can’t help but think of things in terms of rivers. Rivers are made up of water collected from streams spread out over a broad area. There’s a saying that you can’t ever stand in the same river twice: they’re always fresh, always moving.

Modern journalism is as much about how the story unfolds as it is the story itself. It’s about taking a stream of information going by the reader and directing a flow of relevant stuff their way when and how they want it. Newspapers are great for constructing information. So let each medium play to its strengths.

I’m convinced that once the difference is clear, the roadblocks will fall away. Here are some strategies we’re using (or plan to use) to get one-deadliners used to an information stream:

  • Scheduling posts throughout the day. There’s no reason that your letters and opinions can’t be made available whenever they’re ready. In our case, we give a little deference to the print product and schedule them at 9 a.m. Same with obituaries, but at a different time.
  • Stress to reporters that publishing incremental stories to the Web doesn’t have to be extra work. Teach them how it’s part of the process.
  • Teach bloggers how to turn their blogs from unfocused pastimes into powerful and flexible reporting platforms and testing grounds.

It’s an ongoing challenge, but hopefully the potential for mobile revenue and readership will encourage some fundamental rethinking.

Has your organization tackled the stream vs. architecture challenge? What strategies worked for you?

Matt Neznanski is a city hall and business reporter for the Corvallis Gazette-Times. You can read more about – and from – Matt on his site.

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