I'm journalism's broken heart

New iPhones, odd Pixel 3 theories, a foldable Samsung… The phone industry is having a blast (again), so why do news media companies still “live” in the desktop era?

New iPhone XS: here, all that glitters is gold

A couple of hours ago, Apple unveiled its most recent batch of iPhones. The XR model is the new default and starts at $749, while the iPhone XS Max goes up to $1,449. Don’t get me wrong, the Max looks superb, as it better be for this price, but considering we’re facing the most expensive iPhone (Ever.), I’m missing some real rant about the eye-watering premium cost. Apparently, it’s just me, in digressing mode, because everybody else couldn’t care less.

There are a number of reasons for that.

It has been a fun ride for the phone industry over the past few weeks: first, Google Pixel 3 theories messed with people’s head in a way that only the first iPhones managed to do; then, a few days later, Samsung teased a foldable smartphone launch for this year, and now Apple finally got us the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory golden ticket, but, you know, in phone form.

But there's more.

It has been a fun ride for the phone industry over the past few years. Since 2011, smartphones have been outselling personal computers worldwide, and in 2017 mobile internet traffic finally met the (hasty) expectations and surpassed the desktop browsing: smartphones became the number one gadget in the digital universe and the world’s number one internet access device in a six-year period. SIX. No one will bat an eye at spending $1,500 on a phone, and that’s why everyone and every company who bet on the mobile industry a decade ago can indulge in this 2018 extravaganza.

Guess who hasn't bet on it? I’ll tell a quick story in the meantime.

In 2008, less than a year after the first iPhone, London School of Economics professor Charlie Beckett wrote a book called Supermedia: saving journalism so it can save the world. The publication is quite nice — I’ve read it more than once, actually — , but the title — shit — , that thing is fascinating. And that’s the precise issue: no book can match the expectations of a title like that.

The title not only treats “media” as a superhero in distress that needs to be saved, but it also doesn’t specify who will do it. Moreover, it cleverly implies that media won’t save itself and that the world is pretty much doomed, given the circumstances — something that was evident then and is 10x clearer now. It’s a hell of a title.

But the thing is, despite all the buzz my fellow journalists love to spread concerning new story formats and the next industry disrupter, the hard truth about our (super)media is that it did very little on that matter. And by “that matter” I mean the obvious: “save itself so it can save the world”.

Additionally, more than half the jobs in the news industry have disappeared in the past 15 years, newsrooms’ hiring process became a joke on every level, and the requirements for publishing a story nosedived into serious shit.

One more time, guess who hasn’t bet on mobile devices?

The fact that newsrooms in general (including digital-only ones) hadn’t taken the mobile leap when smartphones outpaced PCs is unwise but understandable. The fact that they haven’t done anything about it until now is just plain dementia. Seriously, because at this point the problem is not the lack of proper weapons, the nonsense goes so far as they’re not even “fighting the good fight” in the proper battlefield.

The broad motivation behind this mad cow behavior is assessing mobile and desktop as the same. And if all the hints provided by authors such as Sherry Turkle, John Pavlik, Manuel Castells and a dozen others did not yield the desired reactions, here’s my profound contribution: NOT THE SAME.

Mobile and PC browsing differ in so many aspects that the screen size contrast could not even make the top 3 on this list. I can prove it, here’s the top 3 list:

  1. Geolocation — Startups have been exploring smartphones’ location-based feature since the first iPhone came out. Today, it’s a core element in every app category: transportation, games, dating, fitness, weather, crowd-sourced reviews and so on. Journalism, on the other hand, hasn’t figured out what to do with it (look around: it’s easier to find an article that explains how to play Pokémon GO on a PC than a good story that uses geolocation features).
  2. Customization — There is no device more personal than the smartphone. From the experience of building your unique app ecosystem to the fact that it is practically glued to your body & mind 24/7, only a potential brain chip could be this personal. Which means phones are perfect for delivering customized news content, right? Well, wrong, seemingly, as no publisher really got into it. To be fair, Flipboard has been trying to take advantage of this feature since 2010. It still does. And, more recently, Google enhanced customization ingredients into the news mixture. Both experiments are far from good, but at least they got to that “start-a-fight-prove-you're-alive” stage.
  3. Perpetual connectivity — By far, this is the easiest (to understand) and the trickiest (to use) mobile internet principle. Here’s a hint or two (maybe one is fine): media-wise, constant connectivity must be aligned with at least one of the other two features above. Take Uber, for example: Uber does not send you a notification every time the driver makes a turn or stops at a traffic light (news websites do that), it sends you a notification when the car is arriving — because that’s important to you. The same principle applies to Instagram: your phone doesn’t buzz every time someone posts a #dogfilter picture (news websites do that), but it does when someone interacts with your #dogfilter picture.

App developers have been investigating the best methods to use each one of these mobile features (alone and combined) for the last 10+ years. That’s how apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Uber, Tinder and Instagram were born. The irony is, during this period, all these tools that resulted in a billion-dollar global industry were buried in gloom by media companies in the name of a cheap trick called Responsive Web Design, a safety valve backed up by two rules:

First rule: You don't talk about mobile content.

Second rule: You DO NOT talk about mobile content.

Of course I do. In journalism, Responsive Web Design is the dumbest answer to the wrong question: — How can we adapt our desktop content to multiple mobile screens? First off, if you’re using the word “adapt” you better reconsider your choices. Second, this false dilemma ended up hindering the real endgame: why don’t we leave our desktop content on, say, desktops, and create new content that makes use of actual mobile features?

The plot twist is that, deep down, media companies do know that desktop and mobile platforms are very different, and they let it slip in the details (where the devil and the coolest mobile tricks are).

Walk with me through the digital edition of two famous European newspapers: El País, from Spain, and Público, from Portugal. In every story, the content you find on the desktop channel is the same as the mobile version. Same text length, same pics, same video etc. The only difference is that on mobile, text and photos end up rearranged by the perverse Responsive Web Design artifice, and that's it — which means less work for the newsroom, less fun for the poor reader.

But let’s focus on those sharing icons: while the desktop version of El País features Facebook and Twitter icons (and… is that a printer?), the mobile version adds a WhatsApp icon, which is a more mobile-friendly sharing app. And the same happens in Público (except for the printer anomaly): LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest icons in the desktop version are replaced by WhatsApp and Messenger on the mobile adaptation.

Don’t get fooled by my Iberian approach or the fact that both sites in question have a print media soul. I’ve visited a couple of new journalism darlings in the US this year, and they struggle with the same sin: focusing on desktop browsing even though their mobile traffic chart constantly hits the 65%-70% mark.

You DO NOT talk about mobile content.

Charlie Beckett’s Supermedia: saving journalism so it can save the world is a manifesto. “We live in a much more interconnected world where information is ever-more critical to our lives. And it is journalism that conveys that data and allows us to debate its significance”, he writes at some point. Possibly to do justice to the book’s title, Beckett also asks: “Why are we so careless as a society about the future of journalism itself?”

Maybe that was an honest pondering ten years ago, when the book was published, but today it’s just an honest mistake: nobody buys it anymore. Wistfully, it was journalism that became careless, and that’s why it couldn’t save itself (imagine saving the world).

As I’ve warned earlier, no book can match the expectations of a title like that. It’s the same thing as titling your work “I am journalism’s broken heart” — terrible idea, even when it’s true.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado