Canada’s slow shift to mobile-first news

This feature was originally written as a final assignment for a fourth-year journalism course at Carleton University. Feedback and discussion is welcome on Twitter @arikligeti

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If it doesn’t work on mobile, it doesn’t work,” is a phrase echoed by so many and so often in the world of digital journalism that it almost sounds like a broken record. The desktop browser is becoming less relevant, with most major news organizations now seeing around half their digital traffic coming from mobile. And so, the race for mobile solutions is on.

But if you think the buzz about mobile is anything new, well you’d be wrong. Steve Buttry, most recently of Digital First Media, called on news organizations to implement a mobile-first strategy in 2009. Some still haven’t prioritized, and that’s dangerous for their financial well-being.

“Imagine being able to rewind to the 1990s and help your news organization make key strategic decisions — and create new habits — that would have helped the business thrive on the Internet. That’s the opportunity we have today with mobile,” Cory Bergman, the general manager of Breaking News, a mobile startup owned by NBC News, wrote on his personal website.

In the U.S., new media ventures like Circa, Quartz and NowThis News are radically changing the mobile news space. But they all have money behind them, too, in the form of venture funding or in Quartz’s case their parent company Atlantic Media. Without an injection and patience, or a startup path, how can Canadian media possibly make the shift? Well it is happening, albeit slowly.

For all that could be done, there’s still plenty of action in Canada’s mobile news space. CBC Hamilton was the first major news site to go with a responsive design back in May of 2012. Postmedia’s followed shortly thereafter. Global News underwent a major redesign that went live in March of last year. Montreal’s La Presse has made waves for it’s $40-million investment in a tablet product, La Presse +.

First and foremost, while both mobile technologies, smartphones and tablets have wildly different analytics and metrics. Smartphone ownership is more widespread, with 56 per cent of Canadians adults owning one, according to a Google study. Tablet numbers were placed at 26 per cent in a 2012 CBC study. Both numbers are surely much higher now.

People browse their smartphones constantly throughout the day, while tablets find usage peaking twice, in the morning before work and again in the evening before bedtime. It’s far from universal, but smartphone often equals socially-optimized, shareable content bites, while tablet can handle long-form better and is at less mercy to the 24-hour news cycle.

I spoke with three people heavily entrenched in Canadian mobile news: Matt Frehner, mobile editor at The Globe and Mail, Jordan Timm, senior producer for tablet at Postmedia, and Joe Ross, vice-president of content at theScore. Each explained strategy, successes and opinions on the mobile news space.

“So how do you do innovation in mobile in a country as disparate and as small as ours and how do you try and find the money?” Frehner told me (disclosure: I’ll be working at the Globe this summer). That’s a question we’ll explore throughout. And with that comes these important considerations: What is mobile-first content? Do you customize to each visitor, and how much? Who’s your audience? How do you create a mobile-first culture?

Know your audience

“It’s not like there was ever rabid pack of 18-year-olds subscribing to papers,” Timm says.

Before you can even approach design and content changes, there needs to be a clear understanding of “the people formerly known as the audience,” as media critic and professor Jay Rosen states. How do you be equal parts authoritative and inclusive? How much give is there compared to taking? How do you draw people in, keep them there, make them want to come back, turn that into a profitable business model? These concepts must be applied to where people are consuming news, and more and more that’s smartphones and tablets.

Extending the relevance of the newspaper brand to a digital age is the question mark Postmedia is trying to address. To do that, it’s helpful to look at industry successes like Buzzfeed as a way to tap into the zeitgeist of the millennial crowd. But it’s a fine line, and papers should understand the limitations of their brand. “There’s nothing more embarrassing than a 50-year-old dancing,” Timm says. “The [Ottawa] Citizen is absolutely a 50-year-old white man.”

And that’s exactly why it makes sense to enter the premium, higher-end tablet space.

People who can afford and — this is Postmedia’s bet — are willing to pay for news content are the people who own tablets. Educated, middle-upper class, from the young educated professionals to the public sector salaried employees working on the Hill.

Tablet experimentation

“There’s no paper in Canada that has the resources to create four newsrooms within itself. Nobody has the horses,” Timm says. What that results in is selective investment. Postmedia’s four-platform strategy (print, desktop, smartphone and tablet) will mean publishing a story that’s native to one of the platforms, but still works effectively on others.

The company is preparing to launch a new tablet product, starting at the Ottawa Citizen this spring. It’s the latest in a series of efforts by Canadian news media to adapt to the changing technology, and find a way to attract new revenues in the process. For newspapers, it’s no secret that print advertising profits are in decline. And television media aren’t immune either. While advertisers have been slow to shift interest away from 50-inch screens to a more dynamic, mobile environment, the switch is inevitable.

“I’m not an evangelist, I don’t know,” Timm says. “I do know that with tablet and iPad specifically you get a premium audience and people that use them have really good engagement metrics. It feels like an opportunity that nobody has properly seized.”

Postmedia knows its current tablet and web products simply aren’t good enough, Timm says, and that means missed audience, missed engagement and missed revenue. “There’s a lot more potential we’re not unlocking because we’re not giving people a halfway decent experience.”

“I think Canadian media companies have been very cautious about exploring this place.” While he doesn’t agree with everything its doing, Timm is excited about what La Presse has pushed with its tablet offering. Since it launched in September, the app has been downloaded more than 450,000 times, with 120,000 daily readers, according to J-Source.

Those numbers are nothing to scoff at. But a $40-million investment — which included research, development and hiring more staff — for a free app has turned many heads. La Presse is banking purely on advertising, and its ad technology, to support the effort. So far the organization says the move paid off, with close to 30 per cent of advertising revenue now coming from the tablet product.

The strategy is much different than the Globe and Postmedia models, which are both pushing digital subscriptions as a big part of their new revenue strategies.

Tech edge

thescorePart and parcel of mobile innovation — or any innovation for that matter — is financial investment. It’s easy for a news organization to say they’re going to be digital- or mobile-first, to cite traffic numbers, but to practice that culturally is another thing entirely. This is where a company like theScore is well positioned: selling off their television assets in 2012 has allowed them to turn all attention and resources on their mobile products.

theScore’s sports coverage now reaches more than 5.2 million unique monthly mobile users. More than 3 million, or about 60 per cent, of those people are American. That’s a wildly different market than your typical Canadian media outlet. The benefit of professional and college sports coverage is that it’s market mainly exists outside of Canada, which means a much larger pool of people to sell advertising against.

“Before the web reflected what the brand of the TV network was,” Ross says. This meant TV content packaged and uploaded onto the website — not content that was made of the web and for the web. Now some web writers are freed up to blog about their interests instead of regurgitating television clips. Says Ross: “Our writers are focused on helping users understand.”

One of the challenges for legacy organizations trying to adapt is an out-of-date content management system. It’s what Ezra Klein has pointed to as a key reason he left the Washington Post to join Vox Media, which labels itself as both a media company and a technology company.

“At our first meeting, we knew we were going here,” Klein told the New York Times. “They had the technology we thought we were inventing.”

This technology advantage is something that theScore believes it has in the sports news space. “We were given an awesome, really unique opportunity in that we had brand recognition, a lot of users and money after the sale to say ‘Okay, if we could start this from scratch, how would we build this?’” Ross says.

Mobile, money, traffic

Not everyone can start from scratch, and there are always small steps a news organization can take to adjust to mobile-first storytelling. Take the Globe. They’ve started experimenting with an image-list maker, combining photos with brief bursts of text to tell stories: “Twenty-six must-know things from the throne speech” is the example of choice plastered around the walls of the offices on 444 Front St. It serves as a reminder for Globe staffers that mobile should be a priority, and how that story was built for social sharing.

“I think the thing is in the U.S. the market is so much bigger, there’s the ability to invest,” Frehner says. “We think of the Globe as being a big institution. In terms of the sheer size of the newsroom and development team it’s not even close.”

While the New York Times can throw money and resources at a problem, most other legacy newsrooms don’t have that luxury. It also means that the Times avoids the “necessary culture change,” says Frehner, one of two mobile editors at the Globe. “I think it’s helping people understand. Not everyone reads blogs and mobile metrics. You tell people 40 per cent of traffic is mobile and they’re surprised. It’s not because they’re not paying attention; they’re busy with their jobs.”


The Globe’s Olympics site is another example of mobile-first thinking. Frehner and co-worker Stuart Thompson built the responsively-designed site from scratch using a WordPress template. The only costs were for the site’s hosting fee. Features included customization depending on what sports you were interested in, a heavy dose of graphics and photos coupled with brief paragraphs of text.

Almost all traffic to the site came via social media, including 40 per cent from Facebook. That’s in stark contrast to the Globe’s main website, which still gets lots of desktop hits from the homepage. The results of the experiment worked well enough that they’ve repurposed the basic design of the Olympics site for politics coverage, including the Quebec elections. Many of the elections posts contain simple charts that help explain everything from poll results to the province’s unemployment rate.


Having mobile devices means personalization is a part of our day-to-day lives. The Google Now feature on my Android phone tells me if the Blue Jays won last night because it knows I’m a fan; it tells me the temperature outside because it knows where I am; it gives me a Nieman Lab story to read because it knows I like to visit that website. Customization is tracking a user’s interests and tailoring their experience based on that. That can still present challenges though, since a user’s interests can change on a day-to-day basis.

Take the Malaysian plane crash, Frehner says. People that might not usually follow breaking news or plane stories are consuming every piece of Globe content on the plane story. “How do you build that into an algorithm?”

One tool on the back-end of theScore’s mobile app allows staff to geographically target users to best serve their needs. A game of soccer between the U.S. and Mexico was only posted to the main index page of the app for American users. theScore knew that Canadians didn’t care about the game, so there was no need to inundate them with that information. “Phones are extremely personal devices,” Ross says. “The product you have on someone’s phone really has to reflect personalization.”

Each person also has their favourite teams and players and they’ll continue to come back for news about them. So when it comes time to send a push alert (notifications that ping you on your smartphone), theScore knows not to send news about Derek Jeter to a Boston Red Sox fan. Breaking news can be a lot more tricky: “There’s no way to say sign me up for wars or invasions. I think it’s a lot easier with sports because sports is so tribal,” Ross says.

Looking forward

“It’s easy if you’re writing an academic paper of what newsrooms should do. Of course I’m so happy because it’s personalized to me. Of course it’s easy to say that. The people working on those problems won’t be in newsrooms. They’re at Google making millions,” Frehner says. “How do you as a newsroom poach those people?”

That problem is universal for news organizations. As they cope with the clash of the technology industry with the journalism industry, trying to find suitable, qualified employees is just one piece of the larger puzzle. The Globe has turned to Pivotal Labs to develop its mobile applications, and many other outlets are outsourcing this work too.

Ultimately the slow pace of mobile news innovation in Canada echoes the minimal journalism-startup culture in Canada. But that doesn’t mean mobile-first success is impossible, and theScore is one Canadian case-in-point. “For us the mobile screen is the primary screen,” Ross says. “It’s the whole business.”