My quest: Lure in mobile audiences, keep them engaged

Jul 23 2012

Wit is the golden child of mobile-optimized news stories. But in traditional reporting, humor does not always come easy.

On mobile devices, readers need short and catchy writing to draw them in. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center report, 42 percent of cell phone owners use their phone as a means to fight boredom.

It’s hard to convince people that a mobile story on budget cuts should be their weapon of choice during a boring meeting or class. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

The line between clever and corny is thin. One too many pop culture references or play on words, and I sound like I’m doing exactly what I am doing – trying too hard.

When I thought of the headline “Snakes on a plane: redistricting in North Carolina,” I patted myself on the back a time or two. Then when a journalism school professor, an online news expert, came in to talk with us and used my headline as an example of what not to do, I retracted my self-proclaimed cleverness.

I realized that catching someone’s attention is only half the battle. And I began to sacrifice attempted wit to do what is most important – get a clear message across.

My next headline was “NC death row inmates may lose privileges.” Snooze.

I left my creative side to the “Daggumit” blog and hoped that somehow the topic itself would carry my hard news stories to readership.

It’s the chicken or the egg problem with gaining and interesting viewers. You have to interest readers to gain them; you can’t gain readers unless they’re interested.

And when you’re working under the motto “mobile first,” the problem is amplified.

I couldn’t give up on making my stories sound intriguing just because some would consider the topics dull at first glance.

So I started experimenting again – both with headlines and with the presentation of content.

This week, as WhichWayNC focused on higher education, I wrote a story on how academia defines the purpose of college.

I did research and conducted interviews as usual. But instead of writing my story in my normal “hard news” voice, I made things a little more colloquial.

I did quick-and-dirty content analysis by compiling the responses I got from interviews into a word cloud. Then I took various respondents’ answers to my interview questions and put together a comprehensive Q&A.

The purpose of college is probably a more “fun” topic than death row privileges or budget cuts, but it still doesn’t jump out from the page. My hopes were that this creative presentation would draw people in.

And the verdict is still out as to whether it did. Our viewership has been sky-rocketing since we launched a new vote-tracking tool called The Roll Call, and it’s hard to know who’s coming to my story out of interest and who’s coming because they stumbled upon it in the midst of exploring our site.

Regardless, I’m learning to push boundaries in the name of mobile, one less cheesy headline at a time.

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