How publishers try to build mobile-first cultures

Publishers are turning their attention to the cultural issue of getting their reporters and other staff to think mobile-first.

On Friday, The New York Times said that it would temporarily bar employees, both inside and outside editorial, from accessing its desktop homepage while at the newspaper’s New York City headquarters. The thinking: With 47 percent of time spent with NYT’s digital content coming from mobile, staffers should be more sensitive to the needs of mobile readers.

“There’s a disconnect between the creation of our journalism and the consumption of it,” said assistant masthead editor Clifford Levy, who spearheaded the experiment. “This is vitally important for us.”

That thinking has become increasingly commonplace among publishers, which have seen mobile traffic overtake that of desktop. The result: Publishers are ginning up new ways to infuse mobile-first thinking into their content-creation strategies and overall organizations.

For many publishers, the most popular solution is to offer writers mobile previews of their stories both before and after publishing. This gives them a clearer idea of how their stories will look on mobile screens and reminds them of what the primary content-consumption experience actually is.

“That’s crucial,” said USA Today Sports content director Jamie Mottram, adding that the feature was a result of a mobile-only experiment For The Win ran in mid-2013.

But building mobile-specific tech can only do so much if there isn’t a mobile-focused culture around it. Quartz, which also built mobile-specific tools into its CMS, has also gone as far as to build mobile into its overall editorial strategy. Its stories are written “to be sucked off the screen of a smartphone in a swaying subway train,” according to its style guide.

BuzzFeed’s CMS lets reporters send mobile article previews to their phones.

“The result, I think, is that when writers picture their audience, they’re picturing people on phones, and that mental shift alone makes a big difference,” said Quartz vp of product Zach Seward.

It’s not easy, however, for legacy media companies to make this kind of shifts, particularly at a place like the Times, where many reporters are more interested in getting their stories on the front page of the newspaper than how they look on a smartphone screen.


CNN, which got 73 percent of its traffic from mobile readers last weekend, has also gone a long way toward putting mobile front and center by starting each day with an 8 a.m. mobile news meeting and pushing editorial staff to think less about homepage placement and more about how well their stories spread on social networks, which are dominated by mobile consumption.

“People might hang onto desktop the same way they hang onto print, so they might need something more severe than a suggestion,” said CNN digital editor-in-chief Meredith Artley.

The move to block desktop access to the homepage has already borne fruit. Levy said that even before the experiment officially began, a Times reporter noticed some discrepancies in how a series of articles looked on desktop and mobile screens.

“The more people looking at our site on their phones, the more things like that we can spot,” he said.