“How to make journalism work on tablet computers” at News On The Move II

Last week I went to News On The Move II, an afternoon event organised by Press Gazette and hosted by Google. Here are my notes from a panel session entitled “How to make journalism work on tablet computers”, and I should start by saying that I think that includes a categorisation error — it implies “journalism the craft” but I think they meant “businesses that finance journalism”…

“How to make journalism work on tablet computers” at News On The Move II

In a panel session chaired by Jon Bernstein, the Guardian’s Anthony Sullivan started by outlining some of the patterns of usage that the paper is seeing in the tablet and mobile space. Anthony is a Group Product Manager at the Guardian with responsibility for the desktop site and apps, and he said that over the last year, whilst desktop access to guardian.co.uk had increased by 400%, tablet access had increased by 800%. This is “by far and away the fastest growing access to Guardian content”, and he said that 90% of those tablet views were on iPad.

Raising a very interesting question about whether tablets should be classified as a mobile device at all, he said that 93% of the tablet activity they saw came over wifi rather than 3G/4G, and a lot of it was in the evening. “People have probably got other devices running and the television on” whilst using the Guardian on their iPad. On the hard numbers to do with the Guardian’s iPad edition, Anthony said that the people using it “tended to be people who had been print subscribers in the past” and that they had around 22,000 subscribers, which made it “quite a profitable product for us”.

Chris Ellis, Managing Director for Digtial at Trinity Mirror, was also representing a newspaper group. Whilst saying that digital was undoubtedly the future, the question for organisations was whether you “work from the future backwards”, which can cause a lot of tension on existing production processes and copy deadlines for a daily newspaper. He said there had been a significant shift at Trinity Mirror, and it was no longer a question of “if” we do this, but “how we do” this massive digital transformation.

But Chris also made a significant point, which was that actually, during their market research, people preferred Trinity Mirror products that looked more traditionally close to the tabloid print design. In fact, there seemed to be a correlation between how similar a product looked to print, and people’s propensity to pay. If it looked like a website, he said, people expected it free, but if it looked more like a print product, people expected to pay.

Lee Wilkinson, Product Director at Hearst UK, also spoke about tensions in the production process. He argued that the old model of mainly desktop consumption was often a synonym for “office-based consumption”, and that is why publishers saw the typical peaks and troughs during the day around arriving at work, having lunch at your desk, and slacking off towards the end of the afternoon. The consumption pattern of tablets is very different, and before work and the evening feature much more prominently. That has a knock-on effect on when you should be publishing. Lee said journalists now have to think about how they can find “their moment” — producing the right, entertaining package, that works at the right time for the audience.

Alex Watson, Director of Product for tablets and apps at Dennis Publishing, said that the industry had a habit of lurching from one thing to the next that is “going to save publishing”, but that the nice thing about tablet devices was that they had enabled a whole new range of consumers to get content. He argues that there is a significant audience who are turned off by the “river of news” presentation that prioritises chronology over significance, and that at Dennis they’ve stuck with what some people think is the “quaint notion” of putting out a product and asking people to pay for it. I think he may have meant the Guardian…

Talking about “The Week”, he said that doing proper audience research had allowed them to avoid the trap of “reinventing the product for the digital era” because they’d discovered that it was fundamentally sound. If you put the print and digital editions side-by-side though, they aren’t the same. What they’d done is retain the essence of the print product, and then put the effort into making it a quick painless download, rather than having what he described as an “incredibly reductive argument about retaining fonts and kerning and tracking.”

Lee also spoke about some of the tensions in the design process. Editorial design, he said, will rightly have a view on how the article will be laid out. But they will also have a view about every other layer of interaction within the digital presentation of their content, when they may not be best placed to make it. Those interactions are crucial to the success of a digital magazine. “Your experience with the customer starts at the point when they discover you in the app store,” he said, “and the biggest button on the iPad is the exit button.”

Earlier I published my notes on Anthony Noguera’s session at the event, and in two respects, about advertising and about PDF page-turners, there was some contrast between what he said and what this panel said. On advertising, in his talk Anthony Noguera said there wasn’t much innovation in the space because publishers treated it as an afterthought, but the Guardian’s Anthony Sullivan said that one of the key things when developing their digital products was including agencies and advertisers amongst the stakeholder group.

As for PDF page-turners, as much as Anthony Noguera said they did not use the full potential of the machines they were on, Hearst’s Lee Wilkinson argued that by getting all of their titles cheaply onto all platforms, they could then see which titles “rose to the top.” The different demographics using the different platforms meant that some titles did better on iOS, some better on Android. Getting real sales data, even with a product that wasn’t particularly polished, enabled them to prioritise future efforts.

I think in the end the thing I most loved on this panel was a statement from Alex Watson. He said that if you are doing digital media, and you know what you are doing, that is great. But you do have to put up with a lot of people who don’t understand what you are doing, telling you that you are wrong. I probably loved it as I’m fairly sure that I am frequently on both sides of that fence…

Full disclosure: I used to work with Anthony Sullivan at both the BBC and the Guardian, and I currently do some consultancy work with Chris Ellis at Trinity Mirror. Also, I really, really, really hate PDF page-turner products…