Q & A Interview with Etan Horowitz,
Mobile Editor of CNN
While print news creeps higher on the watch list of endangered media species, mobile news consumption is propagating so fast that it’s spawning entirely new species of editors as it takes center stage at many news organizations.
Etan Horowitz holds one of those jobs at CNN, where he serves as mobile news editor and manages the company’s fast growing mobile news platform.
In August 2012, 27 percent of CNN Digital’s total domestic traffic came from phones and tablets, according to the CNN Press Room. In August 2013, that number rose to 44 percent.
Horowitz, 31, helps the network respond to this sharp growth. He took on the increasingly important job of mobile editor in November 2011, when CNN upgraded its previous position of mobile producer to mobile editor. He left his spot as a digital media producer for CNN International to became the newsroom’s “evangelist” for CNN’s mobile platforms, responsible for marshalling the network’s vast resources to serve the increasing number of people tuning into CNN on portable devices.
In a phone interview and by email, Horowitz opened up with AJR about the roles, daily processes, and emerging strategies of the mobile editor. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
What does a mobile editor do?
Mobile editor is someone that really thinks about the mobile user and what kind of stories, videos, photos are really going to serve that user, because it’s different. The way that people use a computer for news or information is different from the way they watch TV, and that’s different from the way they use a phone. And even among mobile, the way someone uses a phone is different from the way they use an iPad. So it’s really thinking about, if someone is coming to CNN on their phone, what are they looking for? What is the information [or] the experience that that person is really looking for? And then being focused on working with the massive resources and operation that is CNN to really serve that person.
You said the mobile editor “is someone that really thinks about the mobile user and what kind of stories, videos, photos are really going to serve that user, because it’s different.” How exactly do you make those decisions?
We rely on knowledge of the preferences of our mobile audience and metrics to make decisions about what to program on our mobile platforms. For instance, the peak usage hours for our desktop website during the week are between noon and about 2 p.m. ET. This is the same for many news websites as it is a time when people are at work and have some time during their lunch break to browse websites. But on our mobile platforms, the peak during the week is typically between 8 p.m. ET and 11 p.m. ET. We’ve seen when there is a major breaking news story at night, we will have more pageviews to that story on mobile than we do on desktop. It makes sense when you think about it because most people aren’t sitting at a computer at night. But they are holding a phone or a tablet, either while they are out or at home. We also know that many users are quickly checking in with the news on their phones, so we make sure to have specific mobile headlines that tell them what the story or video is all about. So we keep those audience habits in mind as we program stories and videos across our digital platforms.
We have two modes for programming the top stories section of our mobile web site and apps: an automated mode that displays the same set of stories as desktop, based on how they are ordered in our CMS, and a manual mode that lets us program a different set of top stories on mobile than desktop. This allows us to have more control to make sure that we have the very best stories and presentation for mobile users.
Another key difference between mobile and the desktop is the mobile app notifications we send. Notifications are very important because they interrupt whatever someone is doing to give them breaking news. On desktop or TV you actually have to go to CNN to seek out news. But with app notifications, the news comes to you. So the notifications are a very useful tool for us. But they also have the potential to annoy a lot of people. So we are constantly listening to our audience and trying to provide the best mobile alert experience that we can.
What are your specific roles and responsibilities as mobile editor for CNN?
I am the editorial lead for all of CNN’s mobile platforms. These include our mobile website and all of CNN’s mobile apps. As the editorial lead for mobile, I set both the day to day and long-term strategy for making sure we are providing the best stories, videos, photos and experience to our mobile users. I manage a mobile producer, who is heavily involved in the day to day programming of all of our digital platforms, with a specific focus on mobile.
I work with the other newsroom teams to ensure great mobile coverage on breaking news as well as projects and planned events like the Oscars, or the State of the Union address. I also serve as a sort of evangelist for mobile within the organization with the goal of raising awareness about the importance of mobile and empowering others to take action.
I also work closely with the mobile product team as we update our mobile apps and plot the future of CNN on mobile.
Although there is no average day in journalism, describe a typical day in your position.
For me, a typical day starts with our 8 a.m. digital editorial news meeting where we discuss the previous day’s performance and set the agenda for the day. At this meeting, we review not only desktop metrics, but also mobile metrics. We also show both our desktop website and our mobile website and apps on big screens at the meeting. And we talk about which stories and videos performed the best.
Often there are differences between which stories do well on mobile and which ones do well on desktop, so we will talk about those differences. For instance, a story offering some frequently asked questions about Apple’s new iOS 7 upgrade did better on mobile than it did on desktop. The story about the death of NFL player Adrian Peterson’s son also did better on mobile than desktop the weekend it broke. The Peterson story did so well on mobile for three reasons:
1. It happened on a Friday afternoon and developed through the weekend, a time when people are off of work and are using phones and tablets more.
2. It was a crime story involving a well-known person, a type of story that always does well with our mobile audience.
3. It was a popular story on social media and since so many people access Twitter or Facebook on a phone, that boosted the story on CNN mobile.
Throughout the day I constantly have my eyes on our mobile website and our mobile apps to make sure we are presenting the best and most relevant news and information to our mobile users. I’m in contact with the rest of the digital news team as stories develop and news breaks. If necessary I suggest headline changes, photo changes, story placement, etc. We get hourly reports for our mobile website telling us if we are hitting our traffic goals, and we will use those reports to guide our programming decisions.
Typically, the mobile producer on my team does most of the editorial programming on a day to day basis, but I am doing more of it now because that position is vacant and we are working to fill it .
Besides the editorial programming, I spend a good part of my day being a sort of evangelist for mobile within my newsroom. I’ll stop by people’s desks and share some mobile numbers with them or explain how they can better serve our mobile audience in their day to day job. The goal is really the “teach a man to fish” model to spread awareness about mobile and give people the tools to make a difference.
I also spend a good part of my day working with our mobile product team on updates to our mobile apps. So I’m giving input about what editorial features or enhancements we should add, reviewing builds of our apps as we develop them, etc.
What part of the resources of the massive company that is CNN do you specifically use to do your job?
We use everything! All of the storytelling from all of the CNN networks and platforms flows into CNN mobile products. So I may talk with producers from “Piers Morgan Live” about the section for their show in our apps, or I might talk with the newsgathering desk coordinating coverage of the typhoon in the Philippines to make sure we are telling that story effectively on mobile. Besides editorial folks, I also work with people in development, product management, project management, advertising, analytics, public relations and marketing – not just in inside of CNN, but also inside of Turner Broadcasting.
Are you playing any part in the replatforming and new responsive redesign?
Yes, I’m using my knowledge of what stories, videos and other content resonate with the mobile audience to help inform the construction of our new responsive website.
What skills are required of a mobile editor?
People skills. . . Because you are going to be dealing with a lot of groups that journalists traditionally may not have worked with–I talk with product people… developers…advertising people…executives. So you really have to be comfortable working with a lot of different groups of people, some of whom may not have an editorial background.
Having a spirit of experimentation is important because mobile has been around for a while, but in terms of some of the capabilities, they’re still fairly new. So you need to be experimenting and trying things.
So you really need to be able to understand content production and be able to do all of that. Journalism has really changed where it is not so much single focused roles anymore… somebody that’s a writer or producer at CNN or anywhere else may do any one of those things- writing editing, choosing photography, writing headline….
Also really for me…people need to be plugged into what’s going on in journalism and digital journalism, but also in the mobile industry in general, so somebody that knows about things like Google Wallet or new technologies around location or new apps… because our competitors, as we know, are more than just news organizations. There’s Facebook and Twitter and others. . .
The other one that I think is important to mention is to be able to look at metrics. …unlike a computer, mobile is something you have with you at all times, so there’s a lot of really interesting things that we learn by looking at our metrics on mobile specifically to help us decide what to cover, how to cover it, how to write it. So someone that is comfortable using a metrics tool like Omniture to really learn insights and then put those into action.
What is the toughest thing about your job?
I think the toughest thing is that — and this is not just true at CNN — mobile and technology and innovation really requires moving quickly, and I think at any large company that can be tough. So I sometimes think I wish we could move a little faster. The technology is changing so fast that it’s hard for any person or business or company to not only keep up [but] stay ahead of it. So…a constant challenge is how to do that. .. it’s something that we strive for and continue to keep in mind.
The other thing …we’re also working on sort of a replatforming, basically moving to responsive design… A big huge part of that is recognizing the mobile audience and the growth of the mobile audiences and ..that there’s phones… tablets…but [also] seven-inch phones…Nooks… Kindles… CNN [is] on something like 20 or so platforms and apps….
-Hometown: I grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Merion, Pa.
-Degree and year earned: I graduated from the University of Maryland in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
-First job out of college: Reporter at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida
-Job prior to CNN: I worked at the Orlando Sentinel from 2004 until 2009. During that time I held several reporting jobs[,] including local reporter in suburban Orlando bureaus and technology reporter, columnist, blogger and social media coordinator. I covered all kinds of stories including hurricanes, state government, NASCAR races, crime, Shuttle launches and the death of Terri Schiavo. I first started working at CNN in January 2010.
-Current city, state of residence: Atlanta, Ga.
-Family: My wife Daphne Sashin also works at CNN. She is a producer for CNN iReport. We have a 2-year-old son named Jack. We met at the Orlando Sentinel. I had been working there for about a year when she started working there. She was also a local reporter.
-What other positions did you have at CNN before mobile editor? I started working at CNN in January 2010 as a digital media producer for CNN International TV. It’s the CNN channel that you see primarily outside of the United States. In this role I was responsible for producing content for TV that originated on digital or social platforms. My second day of work was the Haiti earthquake, so I was immediately put into action finding photos and sources on Facebook and other social media platforms and turning them into TV content. I played a key role in CNN International’s coverage of other big events, including the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Arab Spring and the Royal Wedding.
-How long have you been in your position as mobile editor? I’ve been mobile editor since November 2011.