Better Content, Right At Our Fingertips

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A Facebook Instant Article by the Washington Post. Photo courtesy of The Atlantic.

Since the start of the 21st century, the news has been going digital. Newspapers started publishing their content on the Internet in addition to their papers, and have since begun publishing some things only online. There is also a general consensus among media organizations that it is just a matter of time until hardcopy newspapers are eliminated completely, since a majority of consumers would rather read the news online.

While the news has certainly met the highly-accessible, fast-paced digital age, the revolution of modern journalism is still taking place. Within the realm of online news production, an increasing number of media companies are now catering specifically to consumers using smartphones and other mobile devices instead of desktops.

Jackie Kucinich, the Politics Bureau Chief for The Daily Beast, can attest to this.

“We are moving more and more towards mobile. The majority of our traffic comes from mobile, so there is of course a big push there in terms of innovation and expansion,” Kucinich said in an interview.

Kucinich attributed this transition to today’s rising generation of millennial news consumers, who have all come of age while clutching a smartphone. “Every news organization wants the demographic that has the buying power. That’s what this is all about at the end of the day. It has to do with getting readership that will grow with them,” Kucinich said.

Social media platforms like Facebook have been instrumental in generating Internet traffic as media organizations have become more digital, and has helped kickstart online-only organizations like BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and The Daily Beast. However, the influence of Facebook in journalism does not stop here.

Over half of Facebook’s daily users only access the social network on mobile devices. Based on 2013 data, smartphone users check Facebook 14 times a day. Mashable also reported that Facebook is the third most-used app for smartphone owners, behind email and web browser. Because Facebook generates so much smartphone activity, media organizations are looking to incorporate the social network in their plans to target mobile consumers.

For Facebook, the desire to collaborate is mutual. Recognizing an opportunity to publish stories and act as an intermediary between mobile news consumers and media organizations, Facebook launched Instant Articles in April 2015. The publishing platform, which was originally offered to a select group of media organizations such as the New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, NBC, The Atlantic and BBC News, allows outlets to publish content straight to Facebook as opposed to their own websites.

Now, when readers select a story published by Instant Articles, they are taken to a page within the Facebook smartphone app instead of being redirected to a separate web browser, thus creating a mobile reading experience that features faster loading times as well as a phone-friendly article layout. Content published as an Instant Article also shows up earlier and more frequently in users’ timelines, and media organizations can customize their article layouts to closely resemble their own websites. These features have been of great interest to companies trying to solidify a business model in the now-digital—yet still unpredictable—media world. Last month, Facebook extended the invitation to publish Instant Articles to all interested media organizations.

The popularity of Instant Articles has led many to wonder if Facebook aims to become more than just a news publisher. Some media leaders fear that the social network will use its popularity and user-base to create its own news content, thereby making media organizations irrelevant. Benjamin Mullin, the managing editor at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says this is very unlikely, however.

“Social platforms like Facebook aren’t going to invest heavily in producing quality journalism,” Mullin said in an interview. “Rather, Facebook wants to be an intermediary for journalism. Tech companies can provide the lens through which we view the news.”

It may sound counterintuitive that media companies are targeting mobile users, who have been generally characterized as easily distracted and therefore less likely to have the patience to read anything longer than a listicle. Yet according to Pew Research Center and Parse.ly, a media analytics firm, mobile readers are willing to spend more time viewing long-form stories than short-form.

“Despite small screen space and multitasking often associated with cellphones, consumers do spend more time on average with long-from news articles than with short-form. Indeed, the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57,” Pew researchers wrote in a summary of the report.

These findings are a good sign for journalists feeling tired of writing clickbait articles whose only purpose is to generate buzz on Facebook. According to Mullin, as media organizations increasingly gravitate towards mobile-friendly news production, the overall quality of content will improve as well.

“There has been a shift towards the production of quality online journalism. There is a growing consensus among media leaders that simply aggregating content and serving it up to a vast audience is no longer the path to building a sustainable business,” Mullin said. “The next phase of the media revolution will be creating content of consequence and value. It will continue to be messy, but the trajectory for the coming decade is promising.”

Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of POLITICO, has a similar opinion. According to VandeHei, as more and more content and production techniques are geared towards mobile consumers, the content that is put forth will be better. Good reporting and writing are still the most valuable things to media organizations.

“Just like the web destroyed the newspaper world, mobile will destroy the desktop world. But from the rubble will emerge a much better, more eclectic, more efficient way for all of us to read, watch and listen,” VandeHei wrote in an op-ed. “This is the golden age of content creation.”