Breaking news doesn't work best on broken mobile sites

How did you find out about Osama bin Laden last night?

I found out checking my Twitter feed on my iPhone. I suspect that many people first heard the same way, though tweets, mobile alerts, text messages and Facebook posts. The news was 15 minutes old on Twitter before I saw the first TV network break in to report that President Obama was about to make a statement, then soon after confirming that bin Laden, the man behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was dead.

(And if you’d really been paying attention, you might have read earlier in the day this Twitter user live-blogging the attack in Pakistan that killed bin Laden.)

I hadn’t planned, obviously, to write about bin Laden for today. (Nor had any of the journalists around the world who were tearing up old budgets and remaking their pages late last night.) But I had planned to write what I fear will become a recurring nag to online journalists to pay closer attention to how their work comes across on mobile devices.

Given how I – and millions others, I suspect – first heard the news last night, that advice seems all the more relevant to me now. So now we join our regularly scheduled post. Mobile must not be left an afterthought in a news organization; it must become the first thought. It’s the first thought already for our audience – the way that more and more people are first hearing about breaking news, or even non-breaking viral news, online.

And yet, news organizations continue to make the mistakes I complained about last year, and the year before that.

If there’s one item of advice I wish that all news organizations would be embrace, it would be this: Please, if you tweet a link to a story on your website, and I click that link on my mobile device, do not then redirect me to your mobile home page, instead of sending me to the article you tweeted.

Home page redirection is the lazy programmer’s way of ensuring that mobile users see your optimized site. Stop it, please. Stop it now. Any programmer worth employing ought to be able to create a device-sniffing script that redirects readers to the mobile version of the specific article instead.

Beyond that, most of the frustrations I have as a mobile user stem from an apparent belief in some news organizations that “mobile = text.” While I encourage news organizations to remember the millions of would-be readers out there with feature phones, we’re long past the era when anyone could assume that “mobile = ” any one thing. Mobile’s as diverse as the Internet itself now, and designers and editors must be ready to craft presentations that meet individual readers’ needs, regardless of the device that they are using.

With no visuals available as the news broke, the bin Laden story could be told to mobile users using nothing but text. (That lack of visuals put television at a disadvantage as it waited nearly an hour for the President to speak Sunday night. My children started timing the loop of stock bin Laden footage one network played in between its various talking heads.)

That’s hardly the case with all news stories of course. Consider Friday’s royal wedding in England. And before anyone sneers that the wedding wasn’t ‘news,’ lemme say that if a billion people around the world are watching a live event at the same time, that event is worth covering. Just put the event in appropriate context – in this case, as a cultural celebration that will might end up having a significant effect on the global fashion industry, the wedding industry and the tourism industry. And that millions of people around the world enjoyed as at an excuse for some fun parties.

That now said, if you’re going to tweet a story about a photo of someone’s dress, and I get a mobile version of that story, the story better include the photo of the dress. Yet many websites, as a formatting matter, automatically strip photos and video embeds from their mobile stories.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter wether the photo is of an evening gown or a battle scene, images are a part of journalism and ought to be a part of journalism on the mobile Web, as well. Even the cheapest feature phones today have the ability to show a photo. Employ smart programming that gives your editors the ability to deliver newsworthy photos to feature phone users, more liberal use of photos to smart phone users and photo-rich displays to tablet users.

At the same time, let’s also use the need to better optimize the news reading experience for mobile users as an excuse to kill some of the bad design habits that have infected some news organizations. My current pet peeve is stories that present lists as multi-page galleries when the items in the lists don’t need a visual presentation.

Galleries for a list of the top 10 news photos of year use that format well. Galleries of the 10 most useless college majors, not so much.

It’s annoying enough to click through all those panels (with the interstitial ads) on a laptop Web browser. Try doing it on a phone. Yuck.

Let’s fess up. Those types of presentations are designed more to pad page views and ad impressions than to effectively communicate information to an audience. That’s not journalism. It’s spamming.

I asked on my personal Twitter feed if anyone knew of an ombudsman or readers’ rep who had addressed online design issues in defense of readers’ interests. I didn’t get any responses. If you have a link to one such piece, send it my way, or drop it into the comments.

Let’s quit hiding behind the excuse that we need to make money with our news websites. Instead, let’s recognize that the way to make money, in news or any other industry, is to find and meet the needs of audience and customers. It’s not to annoy them, harass them or frustrate them. Pageview-inflating galleries, lazy mobile “optimization” and one-size-fits-all design might help the bottom line in the short-term by inflating revenue or cutting costs. But ours is an industry that’s too long put off long-term thinking in favor of real and imagined short-term crises.

At some point, if you fail to meet your audience and customers’ needs, you fail. We don’t have to end up that way. But we will if we don’t start doing a better job of doing things such as creating better mobile news designs.

Here’s hoping more of us learn this lesson, so I don’t have to write this piece again next year.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Great post. Your conclusion is sad, true and somewhat baffling. That big news will one day break, and that consumers of information are increasingly turning to where that breaking news is both first and best covered, surely shouldn’t be a surprise to any semi-sentient observer. Not to account for this inevitability with a strategy for how to handle breaking news and a suitable infrastructure to contain it verges on incompetence.

    In a lot of ways the digitally-delivered news has not been treated with the same respect as radio and television – mediums that have long ago understood and adjusted the value of immediately updated and reliably accessible news. The digital realm has been thought of as being an ancillary location to augment a news organization’s print, TV, radio, magazine or even wire presence. As your piece indicates, there’s still a long way to go in changing this mind set.

  2. says:

    Hi Robert, try our free Breaking News apps for iPhone, Android and Win7. Our team published over 100 updates on Osama bin Laden last night — linked to their sources — which appeared in Twitter-like short form in our apps.

    Cory Bergman

  3. says:

    I thought UX designers and W3C covered all that.