Mobile Applications and Journalistic Work
Mobile Applications and Journalistic Work
- Allison J. SteinkeAllison J. SteinkeHubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
- and Valerie Belair-GagnonValerie Belair-GagnonHubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
In the early 2000s, along with the emergence of social media in journalism, mobile chat applications began to gain significant footing in journalistic work. Interdisciplinary research, particularly in journalism studies, has started to look at apps in journalistic work from producer and user perspectives. Still in its infancy, scholarly research on apps and journalistic work reflects larger trends explored in digital journalism studies, while expanding the understanding of mobile news.
- Journalism Studies
In a 1983 speech about the nascent software industry at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs foreshadowed a software distribution system, similar to that of a record store, where purchases could be made over phone lines. Two decades later, the first generation of the iPod was born; the iPhone was introduced to the commercial market; and the Apple App Store launched hundreds of apps for download by iPod and iPhone users. For non-iPhone users, the Android Market was launched in October 2008, and BlackBerry App World followed in April 2009. These commercial markets emerged following nearly two decades of increasing mobile phone sales and the development of global mobile networks that provided streaming audio and video capabilities for millions of users worldwide.
In response to the proliferation of mobile devices and networks in the early 21st century, news organizations and developers began to create apps for news production and consumption. With the launch of mobile applications, including chat apps like WhatsApp instant messaging in November 2009—whose political economy was ensured in 2014 when Facebook purchased it—mobile apps have become a component of the global mobile and social ecosystem in media work.
Living alongside browsers on mobile devices, apps are computer-generated software applications designed and developed to run on smartphones, tablets, watches, and other mobile devices. These apps can be used in reference to desktop or mobile apps, but this entry focuses on mobile apps and is limited to applications as opposed to browser versions of apps.
With their permanence and increasing complexity in social life and the global marketplace, mobile apps have become an important part of journalistic work. Located within the larger literature of mobile journalism, although mostly focused here on U.S. and Anglo-European contexts, apps in journalism is an emergent area of research inquiry. Current approaches to mobile applications in journalistic work fall within the context of digital journalism studies and are similar to discussions on the role of social media and user-generated content in media work. For these reasons, this entry focuses on mobile apps in journalistic work from producer and participatory perspectives by providing a historic overview of the development of apps in journalism, conceptualizing the role of apps in journalism, and identifying how apps have influenced journalistic norms and practices.
Historic Development of Apps in Journalism
With the boom in the mobile application market in the mid-2000s, news organizations started experimenting with apps in journalistic work. Since then, mobile apps have become enmeshed in news production and distribution and are a key way for consumers to access news on the go. As mobile apps became part of journalism’s socio-technical system, reporters considered how this technology would impact their reporting, and editors and publishers pondered how to produce news for consumers who have mobile devices with collaborative and interactivity features. In addition to deciding how they could use mobile technology to disseminate news, media organizations worldwide were also discerning how to monetize these efforts and whether their apps would be proprietary or nonproprietary.
Some of the first developments and uses of apps in journalistic work at legacy news organizations occurred in the early 2000s. News organizations around the world, including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), started experimenting with push alerts and mobile sites (Westlund, 2011). News outlets offered the possibility for users to choose what kind of news they would like sent to their mobile device (e.g., with personal preferences for general news, sports, or cultural alerts); others provided alerts on proprietary and nonproprietary applications; and others required their subscribers to pay to get the news via Short Message Service (SMS) alerts (Fidalgo, 2009). News organizations also created audio applications to provide news, health, and weather summaries for audience members (e.g., CNN, the BBC, Minnesota Public Radio, and Spiegel).
In rethinking their business models and realizing the potential of reaching audiences on mobile interfaces, legacy news organizations built their own apps. Some were native apps installed through the application store and included SMS news alerts (e.g., Mashable, La Presse, the New York Times, the Washington Post, SFR Presse, Rio Times, Sky News Australia, Figaro, Shanghai Daily, National Public Radio (NPR), or the Star Tribune).
In their efforts to develop these apps, news organizations started hiring mobile editors (mostly since 2008–2009) and deployed distributed content endeavors. For example, BuzzFeed—a digital media company that produces news and entertainment—assigned a team of reporters to make original content solely for apps, including Tumblr, Imgur, Instagram, and messaging (e.g., Facebook Messenger). Similarly, the start-up NowThis created short videos exclusively designed for social platforms and other apps. Additional start-ups included the now defunct Circa (2012–2015), Flipboard, and Inside.com (2014–2016). In newsrooms, over time, similarly to when editors began to be hired to manage social media channels, many of these mobile positions, though not all, started to erode as their functionalities became institutionalized in everyday newswork (Nelson & Lei, 2018). Instead of dedicating full-time editorial positions to mobile media management, mobile responsibilities became an integral part of individual reporters’ toolkits.
Since 2009, there has been an a boom of mobile applications in journalistic work—available via the Apple App Store, Blackberry App World, and the Android Market—that provide news media organizations with the ability to connect with wider and younger audiences on the go. In addition to creating their own apps, during that period of time, news organizations started using apps for the following purposes:
Browsing and searching for information (e.g., Chrome, Safari, RSS feed’s NetNewsWire, QR Codes, Quora)
Editing, creating, and viewing documents (e.g., photos, camera, VoiceMemos, Documents to Go, Dropbox, Evernote, Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides)
Reaching out to sources and distributing news (e.g., with Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, Flipboard, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat’s Discover feature, YouTube)
Texting and sharing multimedia messages (e.g., on open and closed mobile chat applications like WeChat, Snapchat, Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp)
Blogging and sharing news stories (e.g., Tumblr, Blogger, Wordpress, YouTube)
Organizing newsroom communication (e.g., Slack)
Analyzing audience data (e.g., Hootsuite, Tweetdeck)
Using geolocation to identify and estimate the geographic location of users through mobile phones (e.g., weather apps)
Since the emergence of mobile social media chat applications in the mid-2000s and their rapid proliferation since 2011, news organizations began to exchange information with users in real time, using text messaging, voice messaging, and file sharing. At that time, a subsection of mobile social media apps and mobile chat applications, commonly called “chat apps” (e.g., WeChat or Snapchat), surpassed social network platforms in numbers and time spent by users, primarily in Asia and Latin America (Business Insider, 2016). These interactions with users ranged from one to one to many to many at scale. Occupying a role between public broadcast (e.g., WeChat and WhatsApp) and private communication (e.g., Facebook Messenger or Telegram), chat apps offered a range of functionalities and scale for news organizations (Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2017a). These functionalities included social interactions on open (e.g., WeChat), closed (e.g., Telegram), and hybrid (e.g., Todoist) online networks.
News organizations also developed and designed chatbots that functioned as interactive systems of human–machine conversation via text, image, or video. These chatbots operated as extensions of nonproprietary apps (e.g., as a news organization bot on Facebook Messenger) and proprietary apps (e.g., Politibot or Quartz). Messaging app companies, including Kik, Line, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Viber, also created bots that could be employed by news organizations within social networking platforms (Bradshaw, 2018). For example, in 2016, Quartz, a news website owned by Atlantic Media, released a chatbot app that sent photos, messages, GIFs, and links to incite several minutes of interactions between news content and audiences. As another example, created in June 2016 as an experiment for the Spanish election on the private encrypted app Telegram, Politibot followers received a daily digest (e.g., charts, audios, and links) about the electoral campaign. Using natural processing language, on the night of the election, readers could text information to the bot and ask for results from each constituency.
Mobile applications have allowed news organizations and journalists to consider new avenues for journalistic work. Building on this empirical reality, scholars have started looking at the role of mobile apps in journalistic work—including those not originally designed for media work—and their roles in news culture.
Conceptualizing Apps in Journalistic Work
From an interdisciplinary perspective, journalism studies scholars have started conceptualizing apps in journalistic work when referring to the larger world of mobile devices—particularly the mobile phone—and social media. To do so, researchers have used quantitative and qualitative social science methods, including surveys, in-depth interviews, and direct observation. Existing literature on apps in journalistic work emphasizes the function of apps in news production and the role of users and their participation in mobile environments. To this end, a trend in research is to focus on how apps are affecting news production, distribution, and digital engagement with readers (Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2017a, 2017b; Ferrer, 2015). Along these lines, Nel and Westlund (2012) explored mobile developments at 66 metropolitan newspapers in Europe. They found that these early mobile developments were characterized by SMS news alerts, mobile news sites, solicitation of user-generated content, location-based customization of news content delivery, and the development of mobile apps. These changes fit into what Nel and Westlund call the four “C’s” of mobile journalism: channels, conversation, content, and commerce.
A related area of inquiry is central to the conception of apps in newswork: the definition of journalism as a profession. These analyses are related to 1970s–1980s news ethnographies by scholars including Gaye Tuchman and Herbert Gans and a second wave of news ethnographies that began in the mid-2000s. Moving from a conception of journalism as a professional occupation with established norms and practices, apps in journalistic work have played an integral role in introducing citizen and participatory journalism to the news production process. This has resulted in blurred lines between media workers and peripheral actors (e.g., “ordinary citizens,” web developers, engineers, designers, and platform companies)—boundaries that news media organizations now have to navigate (cf. Holton & Belair-Gagnon, 2018).
For example, Ananny and Crawford (2014) examined how engineers and designers from companies who create news apps perceive their work in relationship with journalists. Recognizing the role of “makers” in newswork, they found that news app design constitutes a new organizational field in “a complex mix of motivations and self-stated identities” (p. 13). This new communicative space is reflected in the relationship to journalism as a profession and process of organizing information, meeting user demands, deploying strategic transparency, or distancing from journalism. The creation of these apps also challenges designers to redefine their roles within newsrooms: Are app designers reinforcing norms and practices of mainstream media with the creation of mobile news apps or creating new news values? Are mobile apps employing curation or aggregation of content? And are app designers considering themselves to be designers or gatekeepers? In the work of Ananny and Crawford (2014) as well as in studies of hyperlocal apps (e.g., Goggin, Martin, & Dwyer, 2015), researchers have addressed definitional questions about the role of journalism in society.
The Production of Apps
As legacy and emerging media organizations utilize mobile apps in their news production processes, questions of identity, authority, gatekeeping, and gatecrashing come to the surface. As news media organizations produce content and distribute it via mobile apps for users to experience in a participatory, interactive, and sometimes collaborative way, journalists and developers are tasked with the challenge of maintaining traditional journalistic values, including accuracy. Whereas apps introduced the possibility of publishing content contributed by citizens, editors had to discern what amount of content—if any—would be feasible to manage while maintaining their traditional values of autonomy and accuracy and notions of knowledge and information control (cf. Shoemaker, 1991).
Forms of interactions on chat apps relate to wider debates in journalistic gatekeeping, the process by which journalists filter news information for dissemination, as opposed to gatecrashing, which refers to the ability of citizens to produce news by utilizing tools including social media. Reflecting these debates and studying the uses of mobile apps, Mortensen (2011) argued that news media lack editorial procedures for managing footage originating from the use of mobile devices among citizens. There is also evidence that news organizations are struggling with engagement and monetization of mobile apps. As an example, Nel and Westlund (2012) suggested that publishers initially did little to facilitate audience conversation as they struggled to monetize their mobile activities. And although newspapers may be expanding into mobile app territory, consumer and commercial success has yet to be found, as their expansion is “repurposing existing content and duplicating traditional commercial models” (p. 744).
As it relates to gatekeeping and gatecrashing, Westlund (2012) noted a tension between producer-centric—letting the news media organization control content on the app—versus participation-centric uses of apps, which allow users to contribute user-generated content to the app at will. For instance, the Associated Press (AP), CNN, Al Jazeera English, and other news agencies produced mobile apps that displayed content created by citizen journalists. Scholars have reached a consensus that, although some media organizations choose to allow users to participate in the news production process, journalists are typically reluctant to forego their professional authority and control; similarly to social media, traditional news organizations continue to guide their approaches to participation in mobile app spaces (Westlund, 2012b).
Norms and Practices
Related to challenges to journalistic self-definition, research has also focused on how mobile news reporting influences the practice of journalism—particularly on how the flow of information on and through mobile apps creates challenges to the practices of newsgathering and sourcing, and to traditional news values including accuracy (Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2016, 2017a; Nyre, 2010; Thurman, 2017). These explorations point to the vast array of information, disinformation, and misinformation available online and within mobile networks. This research also highlights the integral role of media organizations in navigating this sea of information by affirming the increasing role of traditional journalistic norms and values, including verification and accuracy, in producing news in and through these mobile applications.
From an optimistic and prescriptive standpoint, Nyre (2010) suggested that with a large financial investment in GPS-assisted information gathering, journalists could gain greater accuracy. Additionally, mobile chat applications provide a set of private and increasingly encrypted alternatives to open, public-facing social media platforms. Chat apps have been found to play an important role in communicating with journalistic sources, and their use has also raised questions about the role of trust between journalists and sources (Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2017b). These new communicative spaces allow for privacy and multimediality, and reach into reporting practices.
Research discussing journalistic norms also points to questions of resource mobilization and alternative uses of apps, particularly in contexts of political unrest (Barot & Oren, 2015; Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2017b; Fuchs, 2012). In their work on chat apps in political unrest, Belair-Gagnon, Agur, and Frisch (2017a) argued that these chat apps are hybrid interactions of news production embedded in social practices, rather than preexisting physical and digital spaces. For example, they found that journalists often used QR Code apps in protests to gain sources. Thurman’s (2017) study also suggests that journalists who used apps that could help with verification found warning signs that an overreliance on the technology could develop. Ultimately and implicitly, these studies point to the changes in power relations in journalistic work: as new technology develops, editors and publishers are faced with decisions about whether to collaborate with users and to what extent.
An emerging area of scholarly interest evaluates the impact of team collaboration tools and services, such as Slack, on journalistic workflow and immediacy in news production. Scholars have argued that workflow changes afforded by team collaboration apps, including organization around topics of interests with hashtags on Slack, have affected the quantity, news length, output format, and organization of news production (Scott, Bunce, & Wright, 2017; Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2016). Collaboration, scholars have noted, occurs within newsrooms and across news organizations, with apps like WhatsApp or WeChat. For example, Belair-Gagnon, Agur, and Frisch (2017a) found that on the hashtag “#Editorial” on Slack, reporters from one news organization added comments about topics of interest to share with the news team. When there was sufficient information, including URLs, quotes, or sources on a topic within a hashtag channel, journalists could write up a story based on that information. Similarly to how scholars have looked at social media and citizen journalism, these political-economic, institutional, organizational, cultural, and technological perspectives reflect the work that has been done in the sociology of news.
Overall, scholarly explorations of audience–journalist interactions on mobile applications have highlighted three modes of interactions: compliant, conversational, and personalized. Compliant interactions involve direct interaction, with messages sent from the news organizations to readers (e.g., push notifications), which allows for little active audience response or resistance. Jomini Stroud, Peacock, and Curry (2016) found that push notifications prompt readers to access news applications and read stories, as well as enhance users’ knowledge gain.
Conversational interactions involve a back and forth on these mobile apps between news organizations and readers. These interactions can take multiple forms, from a chatbot discussion to direct messaging between journalists and sources (Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2017a). With regard to chatbots in news production, Lokot and Diakopoulos (2016) suggested four elements in bot designs: input, output, algorithms that automate input/output, and function/intent.
In terms of personalized interactions, mobile news can provide users with personalization and customization options as well as repurposed print content and original mobile-first content (Nel & Westlund, 2012). These forms of interactions have impacted the format of news consumed. Ferrer (2015) wrote that when combined with augmented reality, locative news transforms digital storytelling by virtually merging media and place. Bounded with an assumption of engagement and reshaping the places where news is consumed, locative journalism has also emerged as a source of news services that deliver hyperlocal and context-aware news based on users’ geolocations (Ferrer, 2015; Goggin, Martin, & Dwyer, 2015).
From a consumer perspective, mobile apps afford users with increased access to information and the ability to interact with news content in a collaborative way on a global scale. Along with this accessibility comes the ability to coordinate, mobilize, and contribute to news production in ways sometimes unwelcomed by journalistic and editorial gatekeepers.
While user-generated content is embraced by some editorial boards, other newsroom managers are hesitant to involve citizens in news production, especially on mobile apps (participation-centric model), because of risks of a decrease in the volume of content, quality of content, and/or ethical implications that may arise from citizens posting content that could potentially harm the brand or reputation of a media organization (Westlund, 2012). Additional reasons to not include user-generated content include the amount of editorial supervision and resources needed to manage the user-generated content before publication (Westlund, 2012). These studies show how reluctant news organizations are to let go of their gatekeeping role to audiences participating on mobile applications.
Many mobile applications allow blurring news production boundaries and creating new journalist–audience interactional formations. Examples include apps for collective intelligence and crowdsourcing. Legacy media and start-ups have created mobile news apps that aggregate and curate content based on users’ preferences into one large, personalized “newsfeed” of sorts. Scholars have found that news aggregation has become one of the most widely practiced forms of newswork in the 21st century, characterized by gathering information that’s already been published and disseminating it in a synthesized, abbreviated format (Isbell, 2010; Coddington, 2015). Apps also allow for multimediality, for example, when content can be consumed outside and in conjunction with these apps (e.g., external URL links vs. embedded video) (Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2017a). Theoretically, these independent yet overlapping interactive features of mobile applications contribute to the personalization of news and allow for different levels of audience participation in journalistic work.
Scholars have also been interested in how the nature of apps in journalistic work serve different functions in various parts of the world. In Hong Kong and China, for example, apps like WeChat can serve as a way to circumvent censorship to hide in plain sight or develop private interactions (Belair-Gagnon et al., 2017b).
In summary, mobile apps have been adopted by media organizations worldwide, and the utilization of mobile apps in newswork has influenced journalistic norms and practices for over a decade. Their use continues to shape news media production and news consumption into the future as mobile technology evolves.
Challenges and Future Research
The scholarly and practical questions about mobile apps in journalistic work (e.g., what are these apps, why they are important, what makes them different from any other type of media, and how are they different from each other) are complex. One reason stems from changing reporting spaces (i.e., fragmented audiences and frequent use of multimedia), which raises complex methodological questions. Unlike more traditional media, where content could be archived on one platform, content on mobile apps is difficult to capture and archive (Broussard, 2015). Mobile spaces are quickly changing, and so are the hybrid representations of face-to-face and online spaces. Consider Snapchat: How can researchers consistently and rigorously capture all of the ephemeral pictures and videos taken on these apps, especially when most of the information is owned by the company that developed the app and is kept under a privacy seal? The extent to which scholars are able to consistently capture mobile interactions are limited, whether we consider aspects of locative media, times of use, or complex open/closed networks in journalistic work (Alper, 2014; Belair-Gagnon, Agur, & Frisch, 2017a).
Scholars encounter challenges with social platform companies such as Facebook or Twitter that also function as mobile apps; similarly, they are facing challenges in understanding particular mobile app experiences when information about the algorithms that underlie the functionality of these apps is mostly opaque and remains proprietary to the social media companies. Snapchat offers a useful illustration: How can researchers account for the different user experiences on an app that are often the result of algorithmic data processing? And how can research account for the quickly changing and diverse user experiences on these apps from journalistic or consumer perspectives?
In journalistic work, mobile apps shape how news is produced, sourced, distributed, and organized. Apps also help news organizations negotiate contemporary power relations between editors, journalists, developers, and consumers, as well as expose how these new social configurations affect political and social change in public spheres. Beyond the scope of this entry is how these apps relate to larger theoretical and practical questions posed in the field of digital journalism.
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