Forty-six per cent of people now access news on their phones on a weekly basis as smartphones are changing the way news is consumed by audiences, influencing formats and business models, according to the Reuters Institute 2015 Digital News Report, published today.
Speaking on the panel at the launch of the report in London, the Guardian’s executive editor of digital Aron Pilhofer said "mobile has snuck up" on publishers and it is a platform that they "have only recently started to take seriously."
News organisations are now trying to catch up, he said, citing The New York Times' recent experiment of banning employees’ access to the desktop homepage for a week in order to get them to think ‘mobile first'.We’re seeing a mobile battleground - this isn’t just a rush to mobile, this is a rush to own mobileJoanna Geary, head of news and government partnernships, Twitter UK
The survey conducted by the Reuters Institute also showed people in most countries were more likely to access news via a mobile browser, rather than an app.
In the UK 46 per cent preferred mobile apps over mobile browsers and it was revealed that a third of respondents used a mobile news app in a given week, even if 70 per cent had one installed on their phones.
Pilhofer said most journalists "immediately jump to apps" when thinking about mobile and sometimes this is a mistake. At the Guardian, most of mobile traffic and growth is happening in mobile browsers.
Robert Shrimsley, managing editor of the Financial Times, said publishers have been slower to react to mobile because it gives them fewer options to "play with index pages and formats," particularly at homepage level.
"I don’t think people reacted quickly enough to 3G – mobiles were not very good and then, suddenly, they were very good."
In the UK, 51 per cent of those surveyed regularly used the BBC news app on their device. The BBC’s deputy director of news and current affairs, Fran Unsworth, said smartphones are "a massive opportunity" for the BBC.
"Smartphones are right at the centre of what we want to do – our objective is reaching 5 million people and this is the way in which countries around the world are accessing their information."
Although the report showed significant growth in online news video – 23 per cent across all twelve countries consume it weekly – Unsworth said one of the challenges for publishers is "marrying the international symbol of bad connectivity with video delivery."
She also mentioned that in other countries where BBC has a large audience, such as Nigeria, a significant amount of people cannot afford to pay for a comprehensive data package and the BBC is looking for ways to "give people more than just a headline service" through its news app.
Joanna Geary, head of news and government partnerships at Twitter UK, pointed out that news organisations also have to deal with the complex distribution route both for mobile and for online news.
"We’re seeing a mobile battleground – this isn’t just a rush to mobile, this is a rush to own mobile."
On a similar note, there has been much debate around what the Facebook Instant Articles initiative could mean for publishers in the long run.If you look at Apple News, Snapchat Discover, Facebook Instant Articles - this is entirely where the world is headed and news organisations have to grapple with thatAron Pilhofer, executive editor of digital, The Guardian
The Guardian released their first Instant Article last week, portraying a Syrian refugee's journey across the Mediterranean and Pilhofer said the story did "incredibly well".
"If you look at Apple News, Snapchat Discover, Facebook Instant Articles – this is entirely where the world is headed and news organisations have to grapple with that."
He added that mobile changes the way journalists think about the editing process and "thinking of every page as your homepage is becoming more and more important."
Shrimsley said that publishers shouldn’t think of "the death of the homepage", but rather remember that people are making "marginal decisions every few seconds” on whether they should keep reading a story or stay on a certain website.
"It’s about how you keep people with you. Some of this is done algorithmically, some manually, but the key point is knowing what to put in front of people when they reach that 'what do I do' moment."
It was also revealed in the study that although mobile news access is increasing, tablets also have a presence and 57 per cent of people still see desktop computers and laptops as the most important device for news.
According to Unsworth, this shows that "we live in an 'and' world, rather than an 'or' world" and people tend to consume news across different mediums and platforms.
"TV is still a pretty powerful medium, but most of our audiences want everything," she said.
"People still want the passive experience of having something in the corner that can be turned on, but also want the active one, where they can personalise news on the move."
Geary argued that while news organisations are quite good at predicting the rise and fall of publishing trends, that is not always the full story.
“Something we have yet to do as a news industry is understanding the relationship between different platforms and the fact that they provide different things, rather than see them as individual,” she said.
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