“The future of journalism is visual” is an oft-repeated mantra in the media industry. Another common one is “This doesn’t work on mobile”. These statements form the base for this study: What visual storytelling works on mobile platform? The rise of the mobile phones as predominant device for news consume presents both possibilities and challenges for news media: today, the mobile internet IS the internet. This means news are mainly consumed on mobile phones.

Members of the Media Innovation Program of the Northeastern University School of Journalism interviewed 72 data journalists, web developers, an interactive graphics editor, and a project manager during the course of three years between 2014–2017. They collected “how-to’s and case studies in the practise of contemporary digital journalism, graphics, and interactives”. They discovered that there are three main ways in which newsrooms tackle the challenge of new mobile platforms: highly networked collaboration, ethos of open-source sharing of knowledge and tools within and among newsrooms; and mobile-driven story presentation.

The study concluded that understanding newsrooms adaptations to the ever-changing digital world requires more empirical research to determine how these three main strategies are utilized and how they evolve. A study (Nelson & Lei, 2018) of mobile news audience found that to appeal to the growing and loyal app user audience, newsrooms are producing more unique content to prove their value. This content also necessitates the creation of visual storytelling that stands out from the crowd. They suggested that more information is needed on how this shift is shaping newsroom practises: “How the pursuit of distinct, dedicated news audiences look like in practise, and how does it differ from the pursuit of a large, mass audience.”

Cases and study questions

This research takes a cue from Nelson and Lei, and my study attempts to fill the gap peaking into newsrooms and what is happening in practise of visual storytelling. I use the same kind of case study and interview based approach as Nelson and Lei, but will concentrate on visual journalists and teams that already live in collaborative newsrooms. Study concentrates on how different kind of visual teams have answered this challenge and what are the best practises of mobile visual storytelling. The aim is also look into how the visual team is integrated into the collaborative workflow of the newsroom, and what roles the visualists have adopted when producing content for mobile platform.

A case study approach is the most valuable tool for achieving answers, because I think the best view of journalistic practise can only be found in newsrooms, who solve problems of digital communication on a daily basis. Research findings draw straight from the practisers of the medium.

I conducted eight interviews with the BBC, the Guardian, he Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Quartz and The Pudding. Interviewees represent both broadcasting and press publishers with strong traditions from the UK and the US. I also wanted to add different and non-traditional news production points of view to my study by including two digital-born sites that have a strong emphasis on visual elements in their storytelling. The main questions of my study are:

  • What kind of visual storytelling works in mobile environment and why?
  • What kinds of roles, skills and tools do visual journalist have?
  • Does this conclude with people’s engagement and trust on news?

In the study of Digital animation of Literary Journalism [3] (2016), Jacobson et al. defined digital visual journalism to consist of following elements: “In addition to the presence of photos, video, and audio, we also coded for text, illustrations, photo slideshows, audio slideshows, animation, maps, interactive infographics, and data visualizations, as well as other kinds of interactive features and pull quotes.”

In this study, I consider the visuals in storytelling as broadly as Jacobson et al. The visuals act as narrative part of the story, all working together to make the content more understandable and more memorable. I also add elements like bots and personalised storytelling widgets embedded in the storytelling as well, as they visually structure the content and make people interact with it.

The definition is also similar to Carolyn Miller’s (2014) description of digital storytelling: “It’s the use of digital media platforms and interactivity for narrative purposes, either for fictional and non-fiction stories.” As my study concentrates on the news media I cover here true stories that are “told via multiple media, such as audio, text, video, and still images”. [4]

Mobile audience

  • Think mobile first, because audience is mobile
  • Know your reader: who, what, when, where, why and how
  • User experience is part of stortytelling
  • Time matters engage fast

“Your content, your journalism, fails if it doesn’t have an audience,
a market for the story you’re trying to tell.”

Sue Greenwood (Routledge, 2018, 39)

News media nowadays consider their reader analytics the most important tool to guide their storytelling. Everything starts with the audience in mind. In that picture of an audience, everyone holds a smartphone. Silicon Valley tech analyst Benedict Evans describes mobile breakthrough as follows: “mobile becomes the platform, and it’s a much richer and more powerful one. What happens when almost everyone on earth has a pocket supercomputer connected to the internet? It’s not a subset of the internet – it is the internet. “ [5]

There are more than four billion people worldwide using the internet. In January 2018 approximately 52 % of internet traffic came from mobile devices. The amount of mobile traffic grew four percent from previous year. At the same time desktop traffic decreased by three percent from 2016. The first time the majority of users accessed internet from mobile devices and not from desktop computers took place in October 2016 [6], when 51,2 percent of internet usage was mobile. Now most of mobile use comes especially from smartphones. [7]

According to ComScore, the number of hours spent online with mobile devices per day in the United States (in January 2018) was 620 million, rising from 555 million in 2017. The growth of the time spent from the year 2017 was almost twelve percent. The equivalent figure for the news consume with mobile phones rose from seven million to 7,56 million, an eight percent increase in the US.

One of the reasons for the rapid rise of mobile consume of news was that Google – with its amazing 92.2% average net share of searches from beginning of 2017 until April 2018 [8]  – started to favour mobile friendly websites for its mobile search results in the first half of 2016.

According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2016, [9] especially millennials, the first mobile generation, want to read their news digitally. “Most of that reading among younger adults is through digital text rather than print. About eight-in-ten (81%) of 18 to 29-year-olds who prefer to read news, also prefer to get their news online.”

It is not only young people that get their news on their phones. The Pew Research Center found out in July 2017 that most new mobile users come from older generations, and nowadays they add up to the raising mobile usage of news the most. The new mobile users being over 50 years old gives hope to news media, because there is a vast emerging audience with tradition of news consume and interest.

News audiences are not a homogenous mass. A study of news audience behaviour on digital platforms (Nelson & Lei, 2018) [11] found that there are two distinctive groups: mobile news browsers and mobile app users. The first and vast group of people access news sites frequently, but their reading is skimming and does not take long. But even though the group that bother to download a news app is smaller, their attention rates are significantly higher than those of news browsers: they spend over two hours (138 minutes) per month on individual news apps, whereas the average for mobile news site “grazer” was seven minutes per month and desktop news site twelve minutes.

The second group, app users, are more desirable for the news organisation’s point of view, as it leaves them less dependant on ad-supported revenue, says Nelson and Lei: “The shift of news audiences to a platform associated with higher levels of loyalty and attention increases the incentive for publishers to monetize these traits.” [12]

Mobile-first approach

In the light of these figures, having a mobile-optimised site is crucial for any actor in the digital world. The Guardian was among the first to adopt mobile-first thinking in news production. It started over five years ago, estimates Theresa Malone, the head of visuals. Now it is almost a natural way of thinking because of the constant growth of smartphone use, particularly the loyal app audience:

“If we are thinking of our audience, our readers and where they are – which every news organisation should be – we need to think everything from the mobile point of view first. — When you look at the way the audiences are consuming content now on Instagram and Snapchat, it always is primarily visual. There’s definitely more space for visual than there has been in the past.”

Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report (Newman et al. 2017) noted the rapid rise of visual content of news during 2017: “We’ve seen the emergence of new formats such as live pages (15%), and listicles (13%), as well as more visual formats such as picture stories (20%) and infographics (8%). These formats are integrated into news websites but also play well in social media.”

Reynolds Journalism Institute conducted a study (August, 2016) on the consumption of long-form digital journalism on mobile platforms. Study found out that mobile generation wants to read, and they read to learn. Millennials prefer their news non-linear, narrative and visual: a story that combines information and data (text and infographics), is visual, emotional and immersive (photos, audio and video) and enables interactivity (playability, interactivity). [13]

NBC News local news services have seen people’s interest in interactive storytelling, explains senior graphic editor Nelson Hsu.

“We’ve seen in our metrics that people spend more time on interactives. If there’s an interactive piece that accompanies a story, or in a story there’s an interactive piece, people generally will spend more time with it.”

Hsu’s graphics team serve NBC’s local news stations nationwide. Last autumn the company also gathered an innovative product team “Foundry” building web, native apps and social platform experiences. Their aim is to experiment with storytelling and content design with strong emphasis on user experience.

The Guardian had similar a team from 2016 in their US newsroom. Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab’s [14] aim was to “explore storytelling and delivering news on small screens”. For two years from 2016 to spring 2018 it concentrated a lot in better user experiences in news following by examining e.g. news notifications, offline news reading experiences, live polling, and article formats that automatically adjust to readers’ past reading. They also made a piece that combined podcast and visual mobile story.

The Times’ interactive editor Sam Joiner has noticed audience’s appetite for visual content:

“People’s mobile habits are now their web habits, I think people read long-reads on their phone without too much difficulty. — People’s expectations on mobile are getting higher because [news producers] are doing increasingly good job presenting complex things well on mobile.”

Who, what, when, where, why and how?

Once a news story was defined by five W’s: Who, what, when, where and why. A story was not complete if it did not answer those questions. Later, a ‘how’ was added to find out what led to the events in the story. By answering those questions, a reporter constructed a perfect piece of information on a newspaper. Once this formula worked for news websites as well, but nowadays publishers ask these questions about the It is the audience that defines the focus of news production, not the producer.

In order to gain an audience, we need to know who our readers are, what they are reading, when they are reading the story, where they are and, most importantly, why they want to read that particular story. Asking how is even more important in the digital world: in what ways do the readers interact with their device, the platform and the individual story. [15]

In order to know their consumers, every newsroom have audience analytics teams and tools, where they survey their audience constantly. Theresa Malone praises the Guardian’s in-house-built analytics tool OPHAN:

“I think that most editors in here couldn’t imagine working without it now. It really brought data into our newsroom in a really powerful way, and people really take notice of it. It’s not only about reach and page views, it’s about seeing how much people are spending [time] in our content and seeing how many regular readers are looking at particular subjects.”

News media nowadays consider analytics of their readers the most important tool to guide their storytelling: the user experience, their journey through the story and, most importantly, the content.

User experience in the center of development

Audience-centered approach is believed to be the result of mobile age. Solutions architect Phil Dutson [16] frames the audience and the possible gain from gaining their attention in the mobile world: “The people want information as soon as possible, and having it fit on the device that they happen to have at the moment, you can gain an appreciation for making sure that they get what they want in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible.”

User experience (UX) means both being able to deliver fast, but also to make people feel that their experience was worthwhile and pleasing. According to my interviews, UX design has become an integral part of newsrooms’ digital architecture and also mobile news design. UX designers define what is the overall look and feel of apps and mobile sites, which creates the canvas that the editorial designers work on.

UX designers are increasingly taking part in also the process of editorial design. There are UX experts working in visual teams, or they are consulted in the different stages of storytelling. Editorial staff is also trained to think from the user point of view and test their project with the audience all the way through the design process. The Pudding’s Matt Daniels talks about understanding the reader’s point of view:

“I think we’re always looking for understanding of telling stories and having good empathy for how a reader understands the story.”

User experience means empathy towards the reader, who wants the content to be intuitive to consume. That means a good flow of the story that does not irritate the user, because any distraction may cost you a reader.

This has also lead to more and more linear and smooth storytelling, where the interaction is done by only swiping. The transitions in the story is called parallax scrolling where different parts of the story moves over another at a different speed and creates smooth and linear movement in the storytelling.

To create user experience that is not harassing engagement is crucial, because mobile environment is easily distracted. A first real challenge with the user experience is not actually even within the storytelling and the interaction with the story. It’s in how to get the people to notice the story in first place.

Time matters in digital world

According to Google, 53% of mobile site visits leave a page if loading takes longer than three seconds. By analysing data from 11 million mobile landing pages from 213 different countries they found that 70% of the mobile landing pages took more than five seconds for the visual content to display on the screen. [17] In research by Ericsson Labs (Mobility Report, 2016), it was found that the stress levels when waiting for slow pages to load is equivalent to the stress of watching a horror film or doing a math test. [18]

In February 2017, Google measured people’s willingness to click away from a page when waiting for it to load. Even five seconds download time increased a user’s probability to bounce from a page by 90 percent. With six minutes download, the probability to leave the place rose to 106 percent. In another test by Google (March, 2016), 53 % of users abandoned a mobile site if it took more than three seconds to load.

When the audience is easily distracted and have limited amount of time to engage, visuals form a powerful tool for catching people’s attention and interest. Pictures are quick to understand: It only takes 13 milliseconds to recognise content in a picture. [21] In addition, people spend more time with photos with faces and pictures that are highly informative in content than with reading text only stories [22]. Visualising your story does not mean having any picture. Stock photos – e.g. woman laughing insanely with her morning porridge – are ignored quickly. [23]

The good news for news producers is that people also use their phones when they have more time and are less distracted. The mobile usage peaks for news are normally mornings from 7 to 9am, in the afternoon from 5 to 7pm and increasingly during bedtime. Reuters Digital Report 2017 found that 46 percent of smartphone users accessed news in bed. The number is  even higher  than the number of those using the phone while commuting (42%). There are also other spaces with few distractions where people take their phones: 32 percent read the news in toilet

Success in mobile world

  • Success is more than numbers
  • Worthwhileness as a measure of success
  • Interaction not worth it?

The New York Times is now considered a model of success in the digital world. In October 2017, the company had almost 3 million print and digital subscribers, and it was receiving more revenue from digital subscribers than from print advertising.

The company define their approach to news business as subscription-first model. The New York Times’ latest strategy paper called 2020 Report[25] defines their model as follows: “Our focus on subscribers sets us apart in crucial ways from many other media organizations. We are not trying to maximize clicks and sell low-margin advertising against them. We are not trying to win a pageviews arms race. We believe that the more sound business strategy for The Times is to provide journalism so strong that several million people around the world are willing to pay for it.”

The New York Times holds a firm belief that highly visualised stories help the newspaper grow digitally. Their senior vice president of consumer revenue Clay Fisher talked to [26] about their take on engaging readers with their content. It includes promoting service journalism and interactive stories. “The more people read those, the more likely they are to subscribe. It really helps people understand the value of the Times. It does the persuasion for us.”

Service journalism and interactive stories tend to be more visual. To meet the need for more multimedia content, the New York Times employed about 25 people to its newsroom with focus on visual journalism.[27]

Other newspapers, too, have recruited new visual people to meet the demand for richer visual journalism. All the people I talked with said that their media has employed or will employ people in the near future. That means new positions especially in data journalism and interactive design, but also creative producer positions that act like bridge roles between editorial, development and visual teams. These roles result from a more collaborative and multitasking newsroom environment, where one needs to know where to focus one’s resources. There are also more devices and platforms that need to be taken into consideration so visual editors and producers work on to find best talents, storytelling formats and platforms to tell the stories.

Success is more than numbers

The BBC’s head of visuals, Amanda Farnsworth, believes that knowing the audience is crucial in building trust and engagement. Measuring reach of the news like clicks or amount of readers is not the only way to measure success:

“It’s about having a deeper relationship rather than a more superficial relationship. We probably rather people looked at three things in depth on BBC than five things just the first couple of paragraphs. I think it’s important to think about who the audience is as well as just big numbers.”

For commercial media, too, devoting more time and effort in making one’s site mobile-friendly translates into higher conversion rates, more engagement and, in the end, more profit. The audience shift using more apps as news source also emphasises the need to please the reader. Director of emerging products at the Washington Post, Chris Meighan, explains the correlation:

“For me it’s really about the audience and subscriptions. Because if we can get the reader to take that next step, to pay for our content.”

Nelson Hsu from the NBC explains that they also look at the impact of the story:

“The ultimate measure is if something we’ve done has affected change, if it’s changed a law or if it has someone realize that something needs to be changed and gets that changing motion.”

The classical ethos of journalism is also one of the criteria for success for The Pudding’s Matt Daniels:

“The mission that we have right now is to have a high impact on culture through visual essays and produce work that we think has an impact.”

In addition to knowing mobile audience behaviour and using it as a tool to help create the content, media also needs more traditional measures, thinks the New York Times’ graphic editor Larry Buchanan. Feedback is crucial:

“Page views and time spend on page are good basic metrics, and the ones we look at first. But then there are other things like: Did someone email you to say that they liked this thing, did someone email you to say they understand, did you read some stuff on Twitter about people saying ‘this was good, I haven’t thought that in this way’.”

Having personal relationship with the readers via feedback seems to be of value for the Washington Post as well. It is always an indication of the readers’ commitment:

“There’s a lot more ways to audience to interact with  us now, so we’re getting a lot more better feedback, so that helps us to inform what we do, what’s the next thing.”

The Times has a slightly different approach to success than my other interviewees: The Times gives out three editions per day and one during the night behind paywall. They do not go after breaking news on digital platform that much, and they can still rely on revenue from print papers. They concentrate on investigative journalism and data based content that will keep the subscribers happy while also wanting to attract new digital subscriptions. Interactive editor Sam Joiner says that the loyal reader’s in the app give them valuable information about the kinds of stories that attract people:

“If you get a certain amount of readers who feel that they really gained something from this piece, there are certain amount of readers that are less likely to unsubscribe. So, even if that’s a small number, they are genuine numbers, they are people, who are pleased with their subscription based on what you’ve created.”

Worthwhileness as a measure of success

What emerged from many of my interviews as an extremely important measure of success is worthwhileness. When launching a highly visual project, the As visual production tends to be quite expensive, the newsrooms carefully select the projects to which they invest time and people.” At first hand Theresa Malone’s job in the Guardian is to ensure that the graphic department’s resources are rightly used.

“We are relatively small team (18) compared to size of the teams that some organisations have, New York Times and Washington Post have much bigger visual teams than us, so we need to be very focused in what we do and how we use our resource.”

The Times’ Sam Joiner has an interactive digital team of five people, so they concentrate mostly on investigative and data journalism pieces:

“If we want to spend a lot of time working on something, make sure it’s the right story. We think carefully about we want to work on now and what stories we want to spend a lot of time on. We also have an expectation level based on the reporter who is doing it, the section who pitched it to us, and we circle around it: If you want to do this, where it’s going to end on your section, is it gonna be the lead story of the section?”

One can look at success from the production point of view as well: Did the people involved learn something during the process? Can it be used as a format or a template for future projects? Was it even worth failing at? Amanda Farnsworth has an example of a production for which the company had had high expectations but that was a flop from the audience’s point of view:

“We made our own interactive video player on bespoke stories and although in fact they won awards and that all was marvellous, the audience was never that huge for them. And for us the amount of effort and resources that it took to make them, it felt like we were ahead of you know any audience curve there was. But it was good to try it and we learned a lot from it. — it sent a message to the team that we’re going to try things out and it’s good to try and if it ends up being something that’s we are not going to do again, that’s fine too.”

The Washington Post’s Chris Meighan also sees possibilities in taking the time to experiment and not being afraid to fail. His appreciates the fact that his department of emerging news products has been given a role as a start-up within the newsroom:

“I would hope that companies that are aiming at new products or new storytelling ideas or just new creative visions, let that play out for a while before starting to panic. — I know not every company has that luxury, but I think more often than not by giving that runway you learn things along the way. You can then tweak, turn dials, tweak on your current product, design, that will have a much better end result. It’s then a sort of a case study, where you can learn and what you learn you can put towards the next product you work on, too.”

One way to measure worthwhileness is to see whether people invest their money in a product or a story; the number of subscriptions is a comprehensive and quite straightforward way to measure worthwhileness. The Times’ Sam Joiner considers this a major reason for investing time and effort in special and crafted digital content:

“If you want people to pay for your product you need to give them stuff they think ‘Oh wow, this is why I subscribe’. People want to come out with a sense that they learned something, that the time that they invested on the page was beneficial.”

Interactive visuals not worth it?

There is evidence of projects that have suffered because of the pace of production, lack of resources and readers’ ability to consume complex pieces of information with their phones. The debate bursted 2016 after Archie Tse, the deputy graphics editor of the New York Times gave a talk in a graphic design conference in Malofiej [28] about the ‘ readerslack of interest to play with the New York Times’ articles that had interactives containing more information or revealing more data: only 15 percent of the features were touched by the readers. Tse stated laconically: “Readers just want to scroll.” Tse suggested three rules for visual storytelling:

  1. If you make the reader click or do anything other than scroll, something spectacular has to happen.
  2. If you make a tooltip or a rollover, assume that no one will ever see it. If the content is important for the reader to see, don’t hide it.
  3. When deciding whether to make something interactive, remember that getting it to work on all platforms is expensive.

Those rules resulted in the New York Times doing more static visuals. If animation and motion is needed, it is triggered with scrolling, not by making people do it. Larry Buchanan from the New York Times’ graphics team confirmed in our interview that there is now more stand alone visual storytelling and less interactives, but they have not stopped doing interactives, either. The bar is just very high:

“Part of the trouble is, if we are gonna put in the time to make this thing good and work in all these different devices, the pay-off for the reader has to be really good and really high, so if we want to make you click a button or we wanna make you do an interaction, draw a line, or circle something or scroll away as it happens, the interaction has to act to the storytelling.”

Newsrooms I talked with are mostly concentrating on simpler storytelling and try not to make people work too much for their content. But David Yanofsky from Quartz is not willing to give up on all interaction:

“Interactivity in the way in which people have thought about in the desktop way, sure, people aren’t doing that as much on their phones. And that’s fine, because there are all these other opportunities for interactivity that people have shown lots of interest in doing. Whether it would be taking a quiz and using that quiz to also to tell you that linear story, whether is taking a selfie on your phone, and then the story being linear around the image that you’ve just taken.”

Today interaction is used more in the personified and adapting stories that change according to readers’ choices. Sam Joiner from The Times is a big believer in interactivity through personification:

“If you tap in your postcode or something to do with you and it brings up a set of results that is personalised for you, we feel that it’s a really good use of interactivity. It allows readers to see beyond the headline and the main story and to actually find story localised to them. — We tend to get the best reaction when you personalise the stuff for readers.”

By allowing some interaction with the story and data, newsrooms find they can be more valuable to their audience. Allowing people to explore the data — that is, making the journalistic process more transparent — is ever more important in the times of misinformation. The Guardian’s Theresa Malone says that interaction still plays an important role by offering people meaningful content and building trust:

“It feels like that there has been a trend towards straightforward and static away from moving graphics recently. But again, I think it’s about the story you’re going to tell and if a reader is going to get more out of story by interacting with it, then that‘s still very valuable.”

There are so many more ways that mobile can be understood interactive than mere pushing buttons. Sam Joiner from The Times, for example, thinks that localisation of the story could be understood as interaction because the story changes according to it:

“There’s other things you can tap into on mobile phone because you have people’s location. That’s something we’re quite interested in. Can we get the story to be relevant to you depending on your location automatically, so maybe you find out more information on the story based on where you are.”

All the reader needs to do is to allow location tracking in their phone’s settings. David Yanofsky sees that you can make storytelling take advantage of mobile phone’s features and the ways it is  used it in everyday life:

“This is device that is in someone’s hand, they are in a location, it has various sensors, all other things that we can do or take advantage of that. Whether it would be shaking your phone, or taking a selfie, or performing an activity that you want to do in a specific place.”


[2] Jacob L. Nelson & Ryan F. Lei (2017). The Effect of Digital Platforms on News Audience Behavior, Digital Journalism, 6:5, 619-633, DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1394202

[3Susan Jacobson, Jacqueline Marino, Robert E. Gutsche (2016). The digital animation of literary journalism. Journalism 2016, Vol. 17(4) 527–546. DOI: 10.1177/1464884914568079

[4Miller, Carolyn (2014). Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment. Third edition. | Burlington, MA : Focal Press





[9] Pew Research Center, July, 2016, “The Modern News Consumer”


[11] Jacob L. Nelson & Ryan F. Lei (2017) The Effect of Digital Platforms on News Audience Behavior, Digital Journalism, 6:5, 619-633, DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1394202



[15] Steane, J. (2014). The principles & processes of interactive design (Required reading range). London.

[16] Responsive Mobile Design – designing for every device, Dutson, Phil. Addisson-Wesley, 2014, p. xv.