Nieman Lab Look at How News Organisations Manage Mobile Alerts

Joseph Lichterman has written a series of five articles for Nieman Lab on how major news organisations use push notifications. Each organisation has subtle differences in the way it engages with users, and reading the articles together reveals that push can be more than just a blunt (and annoying) tool.

The first article goes behind the scenes at the New York Times. NYT editor Karron Skog explains that the Times quickly found that alerting readers to breaking news without giving them a link to an article was very frustrating for users. However, it can also take time to put together an article to link to, and so they try to ensure that there is an early ‘stub’ of a story, which can expand and grow as the article is written and further news emerges.

We wrestle with ourselves about this on the news desk. We may feel like we’re late on an alert, or maybe we’re not even late, maybe we just waited longer than other news organizations because we had an extra detail that we wanted to add. We’ll have this debate: Should we alert it now? It seems late, but readers aren’t staring at their phones and checking their alerts constantly the way we are. People might come to it an hour from now, or it might be three hours from now. If they do, they’ll find an updated story. That stub of an article keeps refreshing with everything new. So we feel that it’s worth it, even if we’re going to be a little late.

The second article looks at Breaking News which uses a system of alerts to differentiate between different news stories including proximity alerts and breaking news alerts. Cory Bergman, co-founder and general manager told Lichterman;

We’re unabashedly hard news. We do not care about driving open rate. We care about getting important news to people who need it and want it. Our alerts are very straightforward; we tend to pack as much information into them as we possibly can. It’s a win for us if you can just glance at your phone or your watch and get the information you need. We just want to tell you and save you time and send you on your way.

CNN however use push alerts to unify multiple platforms. Senior mobile editor Etan Horowitz says;

When something happens, we evaluate which of the alerting tools we will use. Is it a banner on the website? Is it a breaking news email? Is it a @cnnbrk tweet? Is it an app push alert? Sometimes it’s such big news — Obamacare, the Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling — that it’s clearly all of those things right away. Other times, we’ll do an email and a banner, but not an alert, or we’ll wait and see what happens before sending an alert.

The Wall Street Journal are currently broadening their audience by including more general interest stories, and executive mobile editor David Ho says they are looking to change the tone of their alerts from financial bulletin to a more personal approach.

There’s a fine line between relevance and annoyance, and finding that balance is really a challenge for all news organizations. How do you get people the news that they need without bothering them with unnecessary news, so that they don’t tune it all out? Like everything in mobile journalism, it’s this balance between curation and automation — using really effective human news judgment combined with really good algorithms and other automation as well.

For Ashley C. Woods, director of consumer experience at the Detroit Free Press however, the push alert is part of telling the story, rather than a pointer towards a story.

“We think the push alert now it isn’t just about giving you breaking news, it’s giving you content that we’re really proud of.”