News you can take with you

A few decades ago, “mobile news” was a clumsily folded newspaper on a commuter train. That era is far gone. A Pew study on cell internet use in 2013 found that 57 percent of all Americans go online with a cellphone. Further, 34 percent of cellphone users mostly use their phones to go online.

But what are they doing on their phones? Bite-sized apps—which provide the news in an easy-to-read, quick-hit format—are one of the latest experiments in news. Instead of forcing traditional newspaper content onto a phone screen, a number of companies are changing the way news is presented, focusing their efforts on reaching the younger, mobile-first generation. (An American Press Institute study of the news habits of millennials found that 69 percent seek out news once a day.) All of the most popular bite-sized news apps—AJ+, Circa, Economist Espresso, NYT Now, and Yahoo! News Digest—provide a snapshot look at the day’s most important news stories. Instead of delivering articles with an anecdotal lede and an engaging quote from a colorful character, these apps instead use a just-the-facts approach.

“The idea is what you need to know to start your day,” Clifford Levy, the associate managing editor for The New York Times and the editorial lead for NYT Now, said about the app’s Morning Briefing. “You don’t need 800 words. You just need to know what happened overnight and what are the things that are going to happen today.”

“We’re focusing on the top-level stuff,” Anthony De Rosa, editor in chief of Circa, said by phone. “We’re not going to get all the granular stuff you might find in something that’s more specialized. It’s not like we’re trying to write some clever lede and trying to draw somebody in. It’s trying to get across the bare-bones facts, in a very distinct type of way, without trying to add any type of flair.”

Is it our duty to only do the longform stuff? Or does journalism respond to this evolving behavior?

So far, this just-the-facts strategy has appeared to pay off. Yahoo! News Digest is in the top 40 of all free news apps on the Apple app store. As of April 29, The Economist Espresso, NYT Now, and Circa were all in the top 70. Circa has an impressive 47,000 followers on Twitter and just launched a Web version of its product.

Their popularity may be due to their targeting of what Dr. Ronald Yaros, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, calls “scanners.” Scanners, according to Yaros, are readers who don’t have the time or inclination to engage in a long article. They are different from “seekers,” who search out a particular story based on a specialized interest, nor are they what Yaros refers to as “engagers,” those who read stories based on a deeper, personal interest with the topic, not based on a clever headline. All three groups, however, want to get a sense of what’s going on in the world and to learn something new about it. For scanners, the quick-hit apps are tailor-made.

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“These small dosage apps work well for people who have a short amount of time and are looking to fill it,” Dr. Stephanie Edgerly, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, said. “And that works well with having your phone on you. When people are standing in line, riding the train, what can they get done in five minutes? The apps make a good use of [that time]. The person who says, ‘I have five minutes, perhaps I should read a couple sentences of this top story,’ is probably not going to say, ‘or, I could read the first page of a New Yorker article.’”

That distinction—between traditional forms of reported material and bite-sized content—suggests that mobile readers are short-form readers. All those interviewed for this piece agreed that longform content will never go away, and there remains a market for in-depth journalism. But for those on the go, longform has never been that appealing. This solution—in the form of a mobile news pamphlet—is a way of engaging readers with news, even for a moment. And over time, argued David Cohn, the executive producer of AJ+, a “bite-sized” news app affiliated with Al Jazeera, readers of these apps would end up being as informed, in less time, as the ones who read a newspaper from front to back.

“Thirty years ago, if I wanted to catch up with an old high school acquaintance, we would call, make dinner plans, we’d meet up, hang out, have dinner, catch up on both of our lives,” Cohn said. “And we’d spend three to four hours together catching up. Today, we don’t do that. We follow each other on Facebook. And although we don’t do the three- to four-hour hangout where we look each other in the eyes, and I will grant a value in that, we don’t have to do that every 10 years. I get the little updates.”

This model, Cohn argued, is similar to reading a stack of updates on AJ+. Instead of reading one long article about a given subject, users can read many short updates. According to Cohn, the person who follows bite-sized apps “ends up being just as aware, if not more aware” than someone who reads one long news story but fails to follow up.

Cohn’s point, however, lends itself to a larger question. Can a complicated news story, something with nuance and historical overlays like isis, be understood with a limited set of words? Tom Standage, the deputy editor for The Economist responsible for Espresso, believed that 150 words is the minimum length to be informed enough to sound intelligent at a cocktail party.

“We couldn’t do that with 100 words,” Standage said by phone. “It wasn’t possible.” At 200 to 250 words, “it started to be a bit long.” In his formulation, 150 words is the perfect size for an iPhone screen.

These apps are not necessarily for regular readers of the traditional newspaper, but finding a middle ground—between bite-sized, top-level news and longform content that could be found in a magazine—is imperative for news organizations. “Is it our duty to only do the longform stuff?” Yaros asked. “Or does journalism respond to this evolving behavior? We can now start to write news stories for all different types of users.”

For the scanners and those bored standing in line at Starbucks, bite-sized news apps are a welcome addition to their mobile phones. Without the time to engage with a long, deeply reported story, switching their attention to a shorter, top-level article is a solution that gets more readers involved with the news. Ironically, one of the models for this kind of content is precisely what it replaced: the free dailies that used to populate the subway system.

“We are hearing from readers that Espresso is just enough,” Standage said. “It’s the smallest thing you can do that tells you the really important stuff. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

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Jeremy Fuchs is a 23-year-old from Chappaqua, NY, who will be focusing on sports journalism after graduation. This story was published in the May/June 2015 issue of CJR with the same headline.