Mark W. Smith is the Washington Post’s editor for mobile web. His focus is on traffic growth, especially among mobile web users. Before The Post, Mark led social media strategy for USA TODAY. Mark also teaches journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill School of Journalism.
1. What drew you to working in news media?
I started in journalism because of my interest in photography. I got my degree in photojournalism and graduated right as newspapers were trying to figure out the social web. I was able to set a path doing that at some really fantastic news organizations, including the Detroit Free Press and USA TODAY.
2. Tell me about your experience at The Washington Post.
I started at The Washington Post in 2014. The job — Editor, Mobile Web — was one we kind of conceived together through the interview process. There wasn’t a clear blueprint for the role, and that helped immensely. This is a newsroom that rewards experimentation and big ideas. Soon after I started, we pitched this idea that we’d train the entire newsroom to think about digital in a more deliberate way. I’m not sure I realized it was that ambitious of an idea, but in a newsroom of 700 or so people, it was a massive undertaking. We spent most of 2015 working with every journalist on their digital efforts through a specific training program, and the payoff in both traffic growth and shifting newsroom culture was significant. And now we have an important precedent for continued education internally.
3. What is the most exciting thing you are currently working on?
I’m spending lots of time this year focused on metrics and trying to understand what metrics are valuable, what they tell us about our readers, and which ones will help us define success going forward. It’s an exciting time to take stock of all of the data we have about our audience and its behavior and how we can use that to inform what we do every day.
4. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned about traffic growth for mobile web users?
It’s easy to believe some of the commonly used observations of mobile users: that they’re less engaged and spend less time on stories. We’ve found the opposite for each of those points. When you focus on building honest-to-the-platform experiences for these audiences, you start to see just how much people enjoy reading on mobile devices. They spend just as long with us, and often longer.
5. How do you see the future of news media?
Distributed platforms have shown to be increasingly important in reaching readers. These include things like Facebook Instant Articles, news bots and the Amazon Echo platform — a recent fascination of mine. It is vital that we build news and information experiences for lots of destinations — and it’s only going to accelerate. Try a new platform, work out the kinks of getting your content there and move on if it doesn’t work.
Five Answers is a series that features a member of the newspaper industry answering five questions. If you’d like to participate, email Kirsten Ballard.