Is anyone on staff actually reading the mobile version of your news website?

I’ve long complained about online news publications that automatically redirect all requests from mobile devices to their mobile home page. The practice kills deep-linking online, which is especially frustrating when the deep link comes from the news organization’s own Twitter feed.

But today, I’d like to highlight another frustrating practice by some news organizations – publishing incomplete articles to the mobile version of their websites or smartphone apps.

I’m illustrating two examples here today, but I’ve encountered so many on my iPhone over the past several weeks that I often wonder if many news organizations employ anyone to actually read their mobile publications, or if they merely entrusted their mobile versions and apps to automated processes.

With mobile news attracting a growing audience, news publishers simply can’t afford to take the Ron Popeil approach to their mobile publications – “set it and forget it.” They must devote some eyeballs toward a backread of all that they produce.

Unwatched content online inevitably becomes broken content – whether it be an automatically generated mobile app, a reader-driven forum or columnist’s comments page. Watch your content, and it might still break, but at least someone will catch the problem, allowing for a swift fix.

Earlier this week, I tried to read a story on USA Today’s otherwise delightful iPhone app about a survey questioning Americans about President Obama and his performance to date.

USA Today iPhone

That’s where the story on the iPhone app ended. You couldn’t scroll down to take that “closer look.” The story abruptly ended right there.

Now, here’s how the story looked in a laptop Web browser:

USA Today Web

You can see that USA Today had built a table-driven display, featuring an individual representing each of the several categories of respondents that USA Today had identified in its poll.

Now, here was the front page of the travel section on MSNBC’s mobile version last night:

MSNBC Travel

Hey, I love Hawaii! Let’s click and take a look at some of those tips for a cheap trip to Oahu:

MSNBC Travel Mobile Article

Uh…. huh? Yep, that’s it: a head, a deck and a shirttail. No article.

Let’s now fire up the laptop and see how the piece looks in the “normal” version of Safari:

MSNBC Web Article

Oh, it’s a photo gallery. It appears that MSNBC hasn’t yet devised a way to transfer content from online photo galleries into mobile pages. Indeed, MSNBC frequently uses this technique for travel articles, especially with tips and “best of” lists, and none of them ever comes up fully on its mobile site.

Neither of these were isolated examples, buried deep within their mobile versions. The USA Today article was on the “top stories” tab of its iPhone app, and the Oahu “non-article” was the lead piece on its Travel section.

Clearly, these omissions represent significant usability failures for these publishers, as well as any others guilty of the same errors. If you can’t port an article over to your mobile version in a useable format, better not to attempt to publish there at all.

But, better yet, news publishers should take the advice that many online journalists have been offering from years – quit encasing your content in a single, specific format. Store it XML, or some other format, that can easily adapt to multiple publishing formats for multiple devices. Then assign someone to look at the product, before or after publication, to ensure that it’s come through properly. If it hasn’t, hold that article until you can fix it. It’s time to show mobile readers some love, and not hope that they’ll remain content with whatever feed your tech crew wrote.

News organization’s desire to create impressive Web graphics and presentations becomes counter-productive when those presentations are not available to mobile users. It doesn’t matter how pretty your design team makes something if the fastest growing segment of your market can never see it.

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. Dead on, Robert!

    A coupla things to add:

    1) Often I hear news site managers excuse these major mobile gaffes by saying their news CMS can’t really handle mobile. Answer: Don’t use your crappy outdated print-focused CMS for mobile. Instead, pull full-content RSS feeds from your original CMS and use that to populate a more flexible CMS that can more easily create mobile friendly content.

    2) Re: making links go right to pages for mobile users, not to the mobile home page: this should be a top priority. Put a programmer on it now. It’s not always trivial, but it can *always* be fixed. Mobile is a key potential ad revenue source for any news org (especially metro & local venues), but only if you don’t annoy the crap out of mobile users. By routing people to your mobile home page you force them to search for the content they thought they were getting in the first place — and searching for anything on mobile, even when site search is really good, is more of a usability hassle than from a computer. I am surprised how many news orgs consider this a low priority to fix.

    – Amy Gahran

  2. says:

    And I tried to email this excellent article, but the email link doesn’t work on a mobile.


  3. says:

    It is possible to successfully deep link to mobile websites without affecting other linking conventions. But as you point out, people on staff aren’t even using their own mobile websites (and I bet even the web developers aren’t visiting their own mobile sites either).

    To deep link, you could really easily add a query string to the end of the URL for mobile formatted sites. For example the link:

    could have some javascript to detect that you’re on a mobile device and redirect you to the URL:

    This way, the link is preserved.

  4. says:

    Site managers are more concerned about the technology than journalism. They have a great handle on which button to push but not enough imagination for content. It is all about color and visuals, not prose and words.

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

  5. Couldn’t agree more with your article (and with some of the comments in thread)…and I work at

    In the past year-and-a-half or so, smart phones have rapidly changed the way people consume mobile content, and it’s essential mobile sites be treated with similar care as the primary websites.

    If our technology could move as fast as our journalists do, responding to these changes wouldn’t be a problem. The frustrating reality is that technology doesn’t always work that way.

    Moving away from legacy systems, for example, takes time even if the content is stored in XML (as’s articles are). The bigger the system is, the larger the time penalty.

    All of this is a long way of saying that at, we’ve been working to create a better mobile for a while. And very shortly, we’ll be releasing some foundational improvements to our story pages on both the mobile and traditional web which should help escalate mobile’s status in our world.