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What the New York Times CIO is doing to make the newspaper a mobile-first company
In the early days of the web, almost all brick-and-mortar companies woefully under-invested in digital technology and product development. These days everyone has a website and even a mobile app or two. But the shift to mobile is so rapid that many companies are in danger of repeating the same mistake and under-investing in mobile.
At The New York Times, we are determined not to fall into that trap. Not only are we focusing more technology resources on mobile development, we are also rethinking how our newsroom and product development teams operate so that we can become a mobile-first company. And when we say mobile, we mean smartphone. That doesn’t mean we abandon the web or the print newspaper, which remain vital to our business. But it does mean we now look at mobile as a platform with its own unique rules for journalism, product development, marketing, advertising and technology. And we are repositioning our entire company to take advantage of mobile as the primary platform for consumption of digital media.
As recently as two years ago, mobile was only 30 percent of our traffic across all our products and devices. Last year it topped 50 percent for the first time. As little as two or three years from now, we may see mobile become the dominant platform with as much as 75 percent of our audience.
Now that doesn’t mean that we'll be changing our slogan to read: “All the news that fits in your pocket.” But we are taking steps to make mobile top of mind for our journalists and technologists. The first step was to make our content production as platform-agnostic as possible. We’ve engineered the technology so that the articles and the videos and the photographs we produce and the interactive tools we create work fairly seamlessly on all devices. But there is no question that we need to do more.
What is mobile journalism?
The next phase is to create content, tools, technology and advertising tailored specifically for mobile. That’s because we know people read and interact with content differently on mobile than they do on the web. So we are rethinking in many respects how our journalism is reported and presented. For example, notifications or alerts are crucial on mobile for driving traffic and encouraging loyalty. But where does a news alert take you after you click on it — to a 1,000 word article or a bulleted list of important facts? It’s going to take some time to figure out the right combination of storytelling tools for mobile. That’s why it’s so important that we build testing capabilities into our apps and mobile website. This is a time for experimenting with form and content, since no one knows exactly what works best for serious journalism on the smartphone.
Our technology organization is changing rapidly to take advantage of the shift to mobile. Last year we moved the entire digital tech team to continuous delivery, and that’s had a profound impact on our ability to move quickly. We’re also starting to build microservices so that we can have teams work more independently of one another, which will enable us to build products faster and to experiment more. As part of this effort we're beginning to use container technologies such as Docker.
We are also retooling our content management system and our apps to be as flexible, in terms of presentation, as our website, nytimes.com. The mobile apps started as a news feed from the web. It wasn’t until our NYT Now app that we were able to give our editors full control of the editorial presentation on mobile. That’s going to be the model for all future apps.
Finally, we are expanding our successful native advertising initiative with a series of new advertising experiences geared specifically for mobile.
There is no question we're entering a period of rapid experimentation on mobile devices. Many of the first and second generation apps are nearing their end of life as far as user interface and navigation are concerned. We are going to see a whole new generation of apps, both native and web, in the next year or two, as mobile becomes the dominant platform.
A few words of mobile advice
Is your IT group just starting out in mobile? Here's one way to look at it. If you’ve got 30 engineers on the web and three on mobile, you’ve got to even that balance out quite a bit. If you’re spending 80 percent of your money on desktop and 20 percent on mobile, it should probably be 50/50 at least, if not tilting the balance toward mobile just in terms of playing catchup.
Remember that mobile is a push medium, that notifications have become crucial for driving traffic – reminding people that you’re there, stimulating awareness and encouraging usage.
Also focus on personalization. This can be tricky for news apps. We want to give people what will engage them most, but we don’t want to narrow the focus of the product so much that they're missing out on things.
We are in the midst of several experiments around content recommendation engines. Most of that work is happening on our website at the moment, but I expect it to shift to mobile in the next few months. In our case it might be serendipitous, like someone landing on an article that is really interesting to them. A lot of people come to The New York Times because it’s The New York Times, but a lot of people just want to know about our tech coverage or our fashion coverage. So we’re trying to tailor our product to many different types of users, recognizing that there are cohorts of customers out there who expect very different things from our product. We want to be able to answer to both without creating chaos or fragmenting things so much that we lose our own identity.
Marc Frons is the senior vice president and chief information officer of The New York Times, where he is responsible for all technology strategy and operations atthe company. Prior to being named CIO in 2012, he served as chief technology officer of digital operations for The New York Times Media Group, where he was in charge of technology and product development for digital platforms.