‘A very blunt instrument’: The potential and power of mobile notifications

Imagine, for just a moment, that you do not compulsively visit nytimes.com every morning on your desktop to read the Morning Briefing.

Imagine you do not watch Rachel Maddow daily on the cable TV you would never part with, or even that you stop subscribing to CJR’s daily newsletter, which we know all our readers avidly consume. Imagine, less plausibly, that you don’t even get news from Facebook. But you did download someone’s news app long ago, and every once in awhile, you get a breaking news alert on your homescreen. What would your sense of the news be?

With reports of fake news on the rise, the industry is becoming painfully aware that we know little about our readers’ news diets. While any outlet can cite traffic numbers or confirm Facebook is its greatest source of readers, the reading habits of any given individual remain obscure. What pieces of information do people weave together to form narratives of current events?

As we begin to build this picture, one thing is clear: Smartphones are becoming ever more central to people’s contact with the media. Two-thirds of weekend news reading is now done on smartphones and tablets, according to research from Parse.ly, an analytics company. And push notifications—the alerts that show up on the lockscreen—are a major draw for readers. A third of Americans receive news alerts, according to News Alerts and the Battle for the Lockscreen, a Reuters Institute Digital News Report by Nic Newman, and click through on them “about half the time.” A user with mobile notifications enabled will engage with the app more than a user without notifications enabled, a recent report from Talia Stroud at the Engaging News Project says.

But push notifications are not news stories. They are snippets often written on deadline, akin to headlines that deliver the gist of a complicated event but little more. Yet there’s growing anecdotal evidence to suggest that readers may view news alerts as standalone stories, taking them at face value without clicking through to read more. “I would bet money that most users read most alerts to get general awareness of what’s going on in news, but open and tap on only a handful of them,” says Sasha Koren, editor of the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, which experiments with delivering news on mobile. “I have no data to back this up, but if true, it suggests that the alert may often be the sum total of what those users know about a topic.”

Publishers must grapple with a related problem: what to do when a notification gets the story wrong, or otherwise needs updating? When FBI Director James Comey announced 11 days before the election that his agency would examine a new trove of Hillary Clinton’s emails, many news organizations pushed out alerts stating that Clinton’s email “case” had been “reopened.” This was not accurate: Comey cited new, “potentially pertinent” emails, but never said the investigation had been reopened. (In fact, it never closed.)

Providing too much detail in an alert can also obscure the significance of its content. CNN sent an initial notification clearing Clinton: “FBI director tells Congress that the agency is still of the opinion that Hillary Clinton should not face criminal charges.” But a follow-up notification was much less clear: “FBI’s fast-paced probe in Clinton matter found mostly duplicates of messages already seen and personal emails, law enforcement sources said.” There’s a lot of detail in this alert, but it doesn’t get the takeaway across quite as clearly as, say, “Breaking: FBI Director: Agency won’t recommend charges over new batch of Clinton emails” (AOL) or “No evidence of criminality in newly discovered Clinton emails, FBI Director Comey says in letter to lawmakers” (NBC News).

In addition, when news organizations send out notifications, a lot can go wrong technically—and the outlets may not even know about it. Fox News sent out four mobile alerts about the new Clinton emails, but because of a technical malfunction, some readers did not receive a notification from Fox that Comey would not pursue the Clinton investigation further.

Ongoing research at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism has seen the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal send corrections via push, but it remains rare. Last week, Felix Salmon of Fusion pointed out a notification The New York Times sent too soon. A correction never surfaced:

While their power to convey complex details is growing, notifications are as yet “a very blunt instrument,” writes Alastair Coote of the Guardian lab, and newsrooms know little about the life of a notification after it is sent into the world. When the Times, for instance, sends out a push alert to its entire subscriber base, it knows that it is attempting to send a message to 10 million iPhones, but it does not know how many devices actually receive it. The alert could go to someone’s old iPhone sitting in a drawer somewhere, says Eric Bishop, the Times’ mobile editor.

Newsrooms do receive numbers on the traffic that notifications drive to the app—the “tap-through”—also called “click-through”—rate, but that is not a reliable number, either. Bishop told me tap-through rates on push notifications vary widely by story and time of day. One of the highest click-through rates the Times experienced was after the paper sent an alert on El Chapo’s meeting with Sean Penn. The notification, Bishop says, drove around 60 percent of the traffic to the story on the app. (Previous reports have stated that the alert drove 60 percent of total traffic to that story on the app and online; Bishop corrected this number).

The alert’s success was largely due to the fact that the news broke on a Saturday night, when no one was sitting at a computer, Bishop says. But notifications can also serve as a flag that drives users to check the news on other platforms. People may see an alert on their phones and seek out more information on the computer, thereby circumventing the counting mechanism that specifically tracks how many users clicked through from the notification.

The lack of informative numbers can be frustrating, but the upside is that notifications remain more editorially- than traffic-driven. Bishop’s team at the Times is embedded in the news desk, which also arranges the homepage. They make two types of decisions, he says: whether to send a push notification, and how to word it. While the team doesn’t want to overload users with too many notifications (and as a rule, tries not to send more than one non-news notification per day), there is never much disagreement about what warrants a notification.

When it comes to writing the notification text, Bishop says their strategy has changed over the past couple of years. They used to write in “headline-ese,” but shifted about a year ago toward more engaging and descriptive language. Bishop says he errs on the side of giving more information rather than simply aiming to pique reader interest. Also, he says, they’d rather be accurate than be first—while in an earlier era, they put more emphasis on getting the notification out quickly.

It could be that in the future, we will each get news notifications tailored to our knowledge. Savvy readers know they can opt into one of the Times’ four topic-specific channels for Business & Tech, New York, Politics, and Sports, but most users just stick with the defaults: Top Stories and Breaking News. Personalization is useful not only because it allows users to track topics they’re interested in, but because those sending alerts can assume higher general  knowledge on the part of readers. For instance, the Times recently sent a push notification about Pizzagate to users who had read a Pizzagate story on their app. If the paper had sent it to everyone, Bishop said, it would have had to explain #Pizzagate. But knowing readers were already familiar with the term gave the notification more room to add details.

As in many areas of the news industry, the technology of mobile notifications is outpacing users’ comfort with and ability to use them. Mobile notifications themselves are also becoming more complex and malleable. Apps now have the option of sending multimedia push notifications, such as videos, right to the home screen on your phone. The Times doesn’t expect to have that capability until the spring.

There is no doubt notifications are increasingly prominent as a way of delivering news, informing the public, and forming narratives. “Come back to me in a year,” Bishop says, and notifications might be part of the daily front page meeting.

Pete Brown, a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, contributed content analysis to this piece.

This article has been clarified to state that the Times tries not to send more than one non-news notification per day, not one notification total.

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Nausicaa Renner is editor of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism's vertical at Columbia Journalism Review. She tweets at @nausjcaa.