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The Apple Watch: shrinking the news?

Excitement in the streets before the launch of the Apple Watch in Tokyo. Photo: AP/Press Association Images

We often talk about how the speed of news is increasing. But in a Guardian blog post published yesterday, Emily Bell, prompted by the launch of the Apple Watch, reminded us that technology is not just compressing journalism by making it faster – journalism itself is also getting smaller. “Not just in terms of revenue and jobs,” Bell writes. “It is literally arriving in even smaller pieces.”

Twitter’s 140 characters have been around for a while. Bell adds that BBC News is now posting 12-second videos on Instagram, while the Daily Mail, Cosmo and ESPN are using Snapchat to extend their reach. The Apple Watch and rival smartwatches present the latest frontier in news compression: they challenge news organisations to shrink the news to the size of a watch face. The New York Times and CNN are some of the first news organisations to launch on the device. Shrinking the news to fit on the 1.5 or 1.7-inch screen of the Apple Watch means “reshaping newsrooms to match,” writes Bell. “Even in digital newsrooms this is going to create legacy problems.”

Back in September 2014, Dan Shanoff wrote for Nieman Lab that smart watches might herald the era of ‘glance journalism’, which “makes tweets look like longform.” While many news organisations are still struggling to fit their reporting neatly onto a mobile screen, Shanoff wrote that journalists should start thinking about how to deliver their message in “a ‘neutron of news’, which – if done right – is enough for that moment.”

Jack Riley spent a month as a Visiting Nieman Fellow researching how news organisations should think about smartwatches. His findings give us some breathing space. Riley writes that it remains to be seen if the Apple Watch will be able to push the smartwatch into the mainstream, just like the iPhone did for smartphones. And while Riley insists that being ‘glanceable’ is one of the most important characteristics for “wearable content”, he reminds us that a smartwatch will never be a standalone device. They’re meant to give tidbits of information which, if relevant, can be expanded on later, on different devices. Delayed gratification comes into play here, as Robin Pembrooke of BBC puts it: “On a watch, it’s nice to get those kind of short updates, but you’re primarily getting into a ‘save for later’ or ‘share’ mentality… Your gratification to consume the rest of the content comes later.”

From that perspective, smartwatches look set to affect our attention spans more than they will reshape newsrooms. And let’s not forget about the issue of etiquette. Here’s how The Washington Post’s Joey Marburger experienced being an early adopter of the smartwatch, as recounted to Riley: “My logic was like: I can silence my phone and I’ll tailor notifications that come to my watch. I don’t have to use my phone in a meeting, or pull out my phone and be rude – I’ll just check my watch. What I learned very quickly is I was being more rude, because it looked like I was constantly checking the time.”

As for us, we will keep swimming against the tide for the time being: We can officially reveal that we have no plans to launch an Apple Watch app anytime soon.

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