A primer for journalism students: What is digital-first strategy?

“Digital first” strategy is in comparison with the “platform first” practice of legacy media platforms (print, TV, radio). Web and mobile platforms demand us to adopt a platform-neutral mindset for an all-inclusive production approach – create the (digital) contents first, then distribute via appropriate platforms.

Digital-first strategy has been the buzzword lately as big-name media such as Financial Times announced that they are going digital-first. However, many people, including many journalism students, are not clear how a digital-first strategy differs from traditional media operation and what it takes to go digital-first – many have the misconception that it’s web-first or web-only.

From “platform only” to “platform first”: Legacy media focus on one platform

Legacy media used to operate in a “platform only” way. In the pre-Internet era, a TV reporter would not bother to take much photo and audio; that’s a TV-only practice. A radio reporter would not take video and photos; that’s a radio-only practice. A newspaper reporter would not take audio and video; that’s a print-only practice.

The recent practice can be called “platform first” operation – traditional media extend their contents to an accompanying website, but their focus is still on the primary platform. Take “TV first” as an example: a TV station posts transcript and screen shots of a TV news story on its website, after the news was aired on the newscast. So the news piece was produced first and foremost for TV, then “re-purposed” for the web.

In a platform-first operation, journalists will not create contents that best suit the “secondary platform.” A TV reporter will not work hard on an in-depth article to be posted on the station website; similarly, a newspaper reporter will not strive to produce a polished video for the newspaper website.

“Digital first” demands a platform-neutral mindset; “digital first” is not “web only”

We are seeing the accelerating shift in media consumption from legacy media to digital media. In a time when TV, radio and newspaper are no longer the primary platforms for people to acquire information, media professionals need a “platform-neutral mindset.”

A platform-neutral operation requires an all-inclusive approach in content production. When planning a reporting project, we need to consider all forms of content: video, audio, article, photo, interactive features (data/map), etc. Get all these contents equally well-produced, then push them through appropriate platforms.

In this process, legacy media are no longer the focus. In 2012, student media at Texas Christian University switched to a “digital first” operation – they consolidated previously separate, independent media (newspaper, TV, radio, magazine, website) into a new organization, with a new organizational chart and a new workflow. Digital contents are produced first and pushed through appropriate platforms – usually web/mobile first and broadcast/paper later.

However, “digital first” does not mean “web only,” and it does not mean killing the print. In describing the digital switch of University of Oregon’s student newspaper, publisher Ryan Frank says:

We say that the “what happened” goes on online and “how and why” explanations go in print. Online is about news. Print is about context and meaning.

And that’s why they decided to reduce print publication schedule from five days to two days (Monday and Thursday) and model the new publication after weeklies such as Willamette Week in Portland and The Stranger in Seattle. This also reflects a general trend in the digital shift of legacy media – beef up digital, retain a re-focused print. For instance, Daily Variety, the venerable Hollywood trade magazine, recently ended its 80-year daily publication, and switched to a beefed-up website and a weekly Variety magazine. The magazine is focused on “in-depth, analytical stories aimed squarely at entertainment industry professionals.”

A digital-first strategy needs to incorporate the emerging mobile platform

The proliferation of mobile devices (smartphone and tablet) is another reason for saying “digital first” is not “web only.” As more and more people are consuming contents on mobile devices, news media need to consider how to best serve up mobile contents.
With its foreseeable growth, mobile platform should not be treated as secondary – mobile platform will be as important as, if not more important than, the web.

Mobile platforms present some challenges for content presentation, as a desktop-version website may not produce a satisfactory user experience on mobile devices. Here’s some notable differences of mobile reading:

  • People “click” to explore interactive elements on a desktop website, but they need to tap and touch on mobile devices; this poses challenges to the design of interactive elements such as map, chart or slideshow
  • People use mouse to scroll up and down on a desktop website, but they usually use their fingers to swipe left and right on a mobile device
  • Mobile users don’t devote prolonged time reading on mobile devices, so headlines and contents need to be shorter
  • A print-style information graphic may not be readable on a smaller smartphone screen

A recent study shows that even on the larger screen of a tablet, people still prefer a mobile-friendly layout. Look at the two screen shots below showing two versions of the same website on a tablet screen – guess which one was preferred by participants in that study?

traditional layouttablet layout





Comparing these two designs – The left one is a traditional desktop layout, typical of an online newspaper: it has a dominant photograph, a lead headline and headlines for each of the 20 stories in the publication; content categories are news, sports, business and life. The right one is a “carousel design” with images and headlines for each of the 20 stories.

Participants preferred the carousel design over the traditional design: 50% vs 35%.

In a final note, if you want to know how “mobile ready” a news operation is, check out a list of mobile-first journalism top 10 list:

  1. Your website is responsively designed with smartphones as the core case.
  2. Your executive editor/general manager/publisher uses your mobile site daily.
  3. Staffers have smartphones and both consume and report news with them.
  4. Special project planning starts with a discussion of mobile elements and presentation.
  5. Mobile performance is included in staff goals.
  6. You have newsroom and business leaders with ‘mobile’ in their title.
  7. When the mobile site/app breaks at 2 a.m. phone calls are made to get it fixed.
  8. Your advertising team is selling mobile-first and ads are targeted to devices and locations.
  9. Your CMS has multiple content channels allowing different headlines and summary text (etc.) on mobile and web.
  10. You have an API that allows ‘data first’ development for current and future devices and partners.
  11. “User Experience” and “User Centered Design” are key concepts in your product development process.
  12. Fifty percent of your traffic comes via touchscreen devices.

Want to learn more about digital journalism? Check out these popular books at Amazon:

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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