Knight Center
Knight Center


Mobile journalism: It’s not "the web only smaller"

The following text was written by Professor Gary Kebbel for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and was also published in his blog, "Bits and Bytes."

Kebbel, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, mobile expert and a veteran journalist, will be instructing the Knight Center’s online course, “Introduction to Mobile Reporting.” The four-week course in English will teach participants why news organizations are adopting mobile strategies, information on mobile media usage, how to cover and publish breaking news from the field with stories, photos and video.

Journalists can apply to this course until April 10 by 5 p.m. (Austin, Texas time). Click here for more information.

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By Gary Kebbel

Gary Kebbel.

When more than a billion people in the world are using the same communication tool, it makes sense for journalists to be especially good at using that tool. Those tools are mobile media – phones, tablets and whatever comes next – and they have the greatest chance of connecting and engaging all of us.

Mobile media bridge all the digital divides: young-old, educated-uneducated, poor-rich, rural-urban, national-international. The audience of the future is the audience reached on a mobile device, whether that’s a young, poor, woman in Bolivia or an older, wealthy businessman in Chicago. Youth who have never held a newspaper in their hands still can, and often do, read news every day on their phone.

News organizations need to go wherever their audience is, using the tool the audience uses. For youth, the audience of the future, that means mobile devices.

The challenge for journalists and news organizations extends beyond realizing that they need to present their work on mobile media. The challenge is learning how to present it natively and effectively on mobile media. Mobile media are not Internet pages, only smaller. You don’t create a mobile site by building a website and accessing it from your phone. You lose audience if your story, photo or video is written and produced for the web, and viewed on a phone.

It’s natural to try to understand a new medium in terms of the old medium, but our understanding has to grow beyond that. Take television news as an example. Originally, it was televised radio news. A giant television camera was wheeled into a radio news booth to televise the radio newscaster reading the news. A more current example is Internet news. In 1995 USA TODAY and The New York Times originally called their websites USA TODAY Online and The New York Times Online. Because that’s literally what they were.

Quickly, however, we learn to use the new medium with its natural capabilities. With television, we learned to use multiple cameras, to cut from camera to camera, to take cameras into the field and to add graphics. With online news, we learned to use the native capabilities of the online medium by adding audio, video, interactive graphics, polls, chats, discussions and games. With mobile news, we’re learning to use apps, and particularly the geo-location abilities of smart devices. We’re learning to find things “near me.” We’re learning how to use that to find sources. We’re also learning about the need for responsive design that recognizes what device – laptop or phone – we’re using at the time.

Mobile media are an increasingly important tool for journalists. They can deliver a new audience if you learn to adapt your content for that audience. If you’re not sold, yet, on why journalists need unique mobile skills consider a few tidbits:

  • 36% get news from their phone daily (Pew Research Center, State of the Media 2013)
  • People with less education and income (some college or less and household incomes less than $30,000) use their cell phones as their primary means of accessing the Internet (Pew Internet and American Life Survey, “Cell Internet Use 2012”)
  • 17% of cell phone owners do most of their online browsing on their phone, rather than a computer or other device. For some, their phone is their only option for online access. (Pew Internet and American Life Survey, “Cell Internet Use 2012”)
  • U.S. tablet adoption: 12% in 2011 (28 million); 31% in 2012 (74 million users); 47% (117 million) expected in 2013 (Online Publishers Association, Census Bureau, eMarketer June 2012; download report)   
  • Top tablet activities: 64% get news weekly; 37% get news daily (Pew Research Center, State of the Media 2013)
  • “The improved availability of high-speed Internet access has significantly enhanced the average user’s media consumption experience, contributing to a rapid uptick in mobile media consumption.” (comScore Mobile Future in Focus 2013)
  • Tablets have emerged as one of the fastest-selling devices in history. (comScore Mobile Future in Focus 2013)
  • “Tablet owners show a higher propensity to browse and engage in more involved media behaviors. (comScore Mobile Future in Focus 2013)

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