Apple Watch
Credit: Image from Apple Press Office

How much news can you actually fit into one sentence?

"You'd be surprised," said Andrew Phelps, senior product manager at The New York Times, which has developed 'one-sentence stories' specifically for Apple Watch.

"You can fit a lot of storytelling into one sentence but, needless to say, it requires a lot of care and effort to do it well."

Rather than adapting web headlines for smartwatch screens or shrinking its existing app, The New York Times on Apple Watch will offer "just a slice of a story".

"They're not quite headlines or tweets", Phelps explained. "They're meant to be just as short and convey just as much information, but to be a little bit more personal and personable than I think readers are accustomed to hearing from the Times."

This "more personal" style is perhaps a result of writing for the smaller screen more than anything else.

There is no character limit for one-sentence stories as fonts and sizes may vary, but they must fit on one screen – six lines on Apple Watch.

"We wanted to create an experience that is so fast and easy that the reader doesn't even have to scroll to get the full story," explained Phelps.

But though users might spot the occasional emoji, don't expect the Times to descend into 'txt spk' anytime soon.

We've joked that we hope Arnold Schwarzenegger is not in the news anytime soonAndrew Phelps, New York Times
Journalists have been working closely with the Times's copy editors to suss out which abbreviations work best for one-sentence stories, although Phelps admitted "it's an ongoing experiment".

"Do we need to say President Obama or can we get away with Obama or Mr Obama?" he asked as an example.

"There's no rulebook, we're using our gut, we're using our tastes to determine what feels right and kind of inventing this as we go along."

However, Phelps is aware that even with the best New York Times editors on hand, some stories are going to prove trickier than others when it comes to getting the one-sentence treatment.

"We've joked that we hope Arnold Schwarzenegger is not in the news anytime soon," he said.

One of the main challenges of adapting the Times's current mobile app to the Apple Watch, said Phelps, was creating a product for a device that isn't on the market yet.

With the Apple Watch due for release on April 24, the Times development team built a simulator – a kind of web page that mimics the watch, pixel for pixel – for journalists to experiment with until they get their hands on the real thing.

For the moment, stories on Watch won't be updated as often as the Times homepage or regular app, with editors choosing five to seven "interesting and important" articles and re-fashioning them into a single sentence.

NYT Watch
How the NYT's one-sentence stories will appear on Apple Watch

Stories will appear as a stack of cards within the watch app, a format which makes them quick to swipe through and read, while some will offer more than just a single sentence, with photos and bullet-point summaries.

Readers can choose to save articles to read later, or use Apple's Handoff feature to read the full story on their iPhone or iPad if they wish.

Watch users can also receive breaking news push notifications in the same way as smartphone app users – an alert service which reaches almost 15 million devices, not just on iOS but on Android and other devices too.

Stories accessed from watch are also exempt from the Times's metered paywall, which currently offers 10 free articles a month.

In May last year a leaked internal report painted a dire picture of the New York Times newsroom, which was accused of "not moving with enough urgency" to keep up with its competitors in the digital media space.

When cellphones came out everyone said they were for emergencies only, remember? And now of course they're commonplaceAndrew Phelps, the New York Times
However, Phelps insisted that the organisation is now "moving towards a mobile-first approach to news production".

"Until now the core apps have been downstream of the homepage, essentially," he said. "We're really moving away from 'publish once and distribute everywhere' and slightly more towards more custom mobile first productions."

To achieve this, the way the Times newsroom operates has been restructured, with roles and responsibilities "adjusted to accommodate mobile".

When the outlet launched NYT Now a year ago, for example, it had its own editorial team, solely focused on creating and curating content for that app.

While Phelps said NYT Now had taught the outlet a lot about "how readers like to get their news on mobile" he added that it was not possible for the Times to assign full-time journalists to every app it makes.

"The system we're moving towards is having editors on our central newsdesk also treating mobile as a primary platform and it's their full-time jobs," he said.

Although smart watches are still something of a niche product, Phelps believes the industry could see a shift from mobile to smaller screens over the next few years, in the same way most outlets have now seen mobile web traffic overtake desktop.

"I think when cellphones came out everyone said they were for emergencies only, remember? And now of course they're commonplace.

"When these new devices come out... the way people use them changes in a way we can never predict.

"So I have to think that wearable technology will be another device in that category and it will become very common to be glancing at your wrist to get news."

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).