How to approach mobile storytelling: Keep it simple

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Reprinted from GateHouse Newsroom

When you have a tiny screen – and a mobile phone is diminutive compared to desktop – you have a bit of a challenge when it comes to storytelling. Namely, you've got to keep things simple.

Our goal as writers is the same as it's ever been: engage readers in your stories. If you have a powerful story, readers will stick with it.

But what if you have a complicated story, one that is heavy with numbers that cry out for some data visualization? The key is still simplicity. Take this example from Vox.com that explains the gender wage gap. It has some friendly graphics that translate nicely on mobile.

This Vox.com graphic on the gender wage gap is perfect for mobile viewing.

This Vox.com graphic on the gender wage gap is perfect for mobile viewing.

Instead of creating a monster interactive graphic that would be difficult to read on mobile, Vox sprinkles fun stick-figure graphics throughout the story.

Note: The writer didn't try to tell the story with no graphics. When you have a story with a ton of numbers, you need to give your readers visuals. But gone are the days of graphics that take forever to load and read poorly on your phone.

Here's another example that works well for mobile, this one from the New York Times on climate change.

The visuals indicate the number of days with 100-plus temperatures, and even if you scroll quickly, you get the gist – it's getting hotter. (On mobile, these display vertically.)

Here are three tips to help your newsroom put mobile storytelling first:

  1. Make sure you have a mobile advocate who sits in on planning meetings. This person will keep you from attempting overly complicated visualizations, and your mobile readers will thank you.
  2. Test graphics on mobile before you post for all to see. If you don't have a way of testing, bury the post deep on your site to ensure it renders well before it goes live on your homepage.
  3. Take your ad placements into account when determining mobile layers. When I'm reading a story, sometimes there's a single line of text between an ad and a graphic element. And I'll miss that line of text, which is confusing until I back up and find it. Your ad placements are probably fixed, so work around them when you can. You don't want readers to have to work to read a story.

I keep thinking that mobile is the great equalizer. Smaller newsrooms could never execute some of the fancy interactives that newsrooms produced as recently as four years ago, such as the New York Times "Snowfall." But as the number of mobile readers has overtaken desktop readers, we know we can't spend weeks developing graphics that don't work on mobile. Now, our efforts are best spent maximizing the experience for our mobile readers.

In the words of Henry David Thoreau: "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity."

As senior director of content, Jean Hodges develops strategy and works with newsroom leaders on digital transformation, from newsroom structure to using analytics to inform news decisions. As journalists face myriad challenges, the best are experimenting with new ways to draw readers in, while fearlessly tackling watchdog reporting and sticking up for the underdog. Hey, there's hope for us yet. 

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