Q & A with Steve Hill

Steve Hill, co-author of Mobile-First Journalism, answers some questions… 

How did you come up with the idea for the textbook Mobile-First Journalism?

The idea can be traced back to March 2016 when I was taking students from Westminster University around the BBC newsroom in London.
We met Steve Herrmann, who was then Editor of BBC News Online. He referred to mobile and social as being “two sides of the same coin.” That is to say he regarded mobile and social as being heavily interlinked. Around this time it was becoming clear exactly how powerful social media had become in driving traffic to news sites. But BBC News Online was doing much more than merely promoting its content on social media.

Mobile devices were rapidly becoming the main ways that people engage and share news content. However, I felt journalism courses were not really representing this trend very well.

There are other textbooks on mobile journalism, what’s Mobile-First’s USP?

When we started researching and writing the book there were a few books on mobile journalism, but they were all written from a broadcast journalism perspective. So they focused on just one aspect of MoJo i.e using smartphones to shoot video. So you will find lots of advice about framing, mics, tripods and sound quality, but not much else.

Since then some better books on MoJo have been published which look at wider issues. But our book takes a much broader definition of MoJo and social media. It takes into account the use of mobile devices and social media throughout the journalism production process. It also combines theory and practice. We look at fake news and app development. It will appeal to journalist students and those studying journalism at university.

What has been the reaction to its publication? 

There is a real demand for the book. Most journalism academics are keen to embed mobile and social into their courses. They understand that things are moving away from desktop. To date there hasn’t been one core textbook that covers this kind of stuff.

Why is social media so interlinked with mobile?

People consume and interact with news on the go. There are obviously dedicated news apps, like the excellent BBC News app. However, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat provide more personalised news feeds. These take into account location as well.

How did you team up with Paul Bradshaw?

Paul has so much knowledge in this area. He runs the influential website, Online Journalism Blog, which has been around at least for all the time I’ve been in academia (over 10 years). Most journalism academics read his site. He’s also written many textbooks and a superb ebook – Snapchat for Journalists. He runs the  MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism at Birmingham City University. If I wasn’t busy running my own MA at Westminster, I would be a student on his course.

Who is Mobile-First Journalism aimed at?

Journalists and journalism students all around the world! My last textbook was distributed far and wide. It was great to read reviews published in India, Australia, USA and Nigeria. It was even translated into Mandarin. Paul and I are based in the UK, but we aimed to make the book relevant to all journalists wherever they are. If you have comments about the book, get in touch!

Why is mobile so important for the future of journalism?

Mobile really is ‘eating the world’ (as we say in the book). Tech giants such as Samsung, Apple and Huawei understand this. Anyone who uses social media knows how important it is. In the UK we are in the middle of ‘scroll free September’ (a campaign to encourage people to give up using social media apps). Has anyone managed to give up using social media for a month? Of course the big problem is how do you make money from mobile and social content. Monetising online content remains challenging, to say the least.

The book took 18 months to write, how did the mobile scene develop during that time? 

I found that verification tools come and go with alarming regularity! Journalists are demanding better online tools and software to verify content, but developers are really struggling to make money. It is yet another area where Google dominates and is able to push out rivals. We thought long and hard about the tools we recommend in the book. We hope that most of them will stick around.

Another big development was that Snapchat grew in popularity. Sky News in the UK are all over social media and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting its dedicated Snap team. Snap has vastly improved the quality and depth of analytics data it provides publishers, so content producers know how their stories are doing. Sadly, Twitter appears to be taking the reverse trajectory, despite its heavy use by Trump. I’m a big Twitter fan, but it is hard to see how it can grow. The online abuse and trolling has become a massive issue on Twitter.

Facebook got stuck with the Cambridge Analytics scandal and vote rigging. We all knew that state-sponsored actors have been responsible for the spreading of fake news and we talk about this in the chapter on fake news. Despite all the privacy issues, as a journalists you really have to be on Facebook. It is the number one social media site in nearly every country it operates in. For many people Facebook IS the Internet.

What is your view on the future for VR and AR? 

Mobile-First Journalism Steve Hill Paul BradshawBoth VR and AR have their supporters. Apple is positive about AR, but more dismissive of VR. I am in line with this thinking. However, Facebook has taken the reverse position. The fact that the wrap around VR goggles are heavy and you look a bit silly wearing them is a big problem. VR technology must become lighter. It needs to be projected on to our eyeballs.

Drones are getting cheaper all the time. You would get a lot of bang for, say, around £500 ($700) for a Parrot drone. They are still handy for covering floods, fires and natural disasters. However, laws on drone flying are incredibly restrictive at least in the UK. In the 18 months it took to write the book smart watches just plodded along. They haven’t really gone ‘mainstream’.

AI is the big one. We don’t mention it much in the book. One for the update!

What challenges do academics face when teaching mobile and social journalism?

Moore’s Law still applies to mobile. Many universities are under budgetary pressure and it can be hard to get them to invest in mobile technology, which can be worthless in a few years time. Universities tend to think in cycles of five years, but things move faster than this. Students tend to have better kit than the university. The aim of the book is to encourage all course leaders to embed mobile and social media as much as possible in the curriculum and to think mobile and social ‘first’ rather than desktop or laptop. It pays to take an experimental approach. It doesn’t have to be expensive.

Entry level jobs on national newspapers tend to be in the areas of social media, live blogging and mobile. So journalism graduates need to be on top of user analytics and data analysis.