Give news in the smartwatch era a fleeting glance

Journalists may sigh, but the media can’t ignore its new content platform: the human wrist

My thoughts on the Apple Watch are not sophisticated. Mostly, the way the circular app icons cluster on the interface reminds me of those dottily cheerful Swatch watches that were essential pre-teen fashion items in 1992. Like a lot of journalists, I sometimes wish it was still 1992. It's an era when I suspect a term like "glance journalism", had someone dared to deploy it, would have been met only with confident derision. Oh, you mean news "at a glance", oh right, MTV generation, shortened attention spans, "dumbing down" and the end of civilisation, yes? Now back to work.

Use the phrase “glance journalism” in a newsroom today and it will elicit angry sighs – the sound of exhausted bafflement mixed with a deep sense of foreboding. Headlines such as “Apple Watch to boost ‘glance journalism’” (Agence France-Press) and “Wearables could make ‘glance’ a new subatomic particle of news” (Nieman Journalism Lab) seem less like predictions than they do threats.

News journalists not on the technology beat confess to glazing over when big snazzy product launches like those for the Apple Watch are reported. But by rights they should also be praying somebody in the organisation that pays them is giving wearables a lingering glance. They should hope someone knows that “glance journalism” isn’t merely a neologism for bite-sized micro-snippets, but a coinage derived from a specific design feature (“Glances”) of a potentially behaviour-shifting technology (that watch).

The joy of BBC comedy show W1A, back tonight, is that anybody who works in any trend-susceptible industry can identify with Ian Fletcher, Hugh Bonneville's put-upon BBC Head of Values. "Ian is at the BBC to think big thoughts and to clarify the purpose of the BBC in a digital age," reads the character bio.


Fletcher is the classic sitcom fool who finds himself trapped in a room with bigger fools – a trope that finds fertile ground when transplanted into a modern media institution. His bumbling unease springs from the fact he’s unable to fully dismiss the jargonistic meetings-culture spiel that surrounds him. Instead, he’s intimidated by it. I’ll admit the many “what does the Apple Watch mean for journalists” articles that have been written have the capacity to trigger in me the Fletcher-like response of “so that’s all good” – meaning the complete opposite.

I can't picture myself wearing a smartwatch, therefore I'm biased against learning a single thing about them. I'd much rather, to quote a 1990s media sitcom creation, Drop the Dead Donkey's Gus, "employ relaxation techniques to turn off stress river and mosey gently down contentment creek".

But it’s a common mistake to put real evolution in consumer technology in the same bin as dead-end management waffle simply because both are responsible for some choice verbiage. That’s like throwing the micro-human reproductive unit out with the calibrated hygiene solution.

Just because I might never voluntarily strap one of these expensive electronic monitors on my wrist doesn’t mean I can comfortably reject forecasts that others will eventually succumb.

So what will – might – happen next? In a world in which smartphones are a thing, the wearers, not wanting to pull out their phones in busy places, will likely form the very regular habit of “glancing” at ultra-concise notifications. If they’re feeling masochistic, they may even have alerts from news apps delivered via a vibrating “tap” on the wrist.

On the Apple Watch face, one swipe gives users summaries from frequently used apps – these are what Apple calls "Glances". Assuming a news provider even gets to the stage of developing an Apple Watch-optimised app – and the New York Times, Yahoo and CNN have done – the challenge then is to be sufficiently grabby for the user to tap on the "Glance" and properly launch their app.

In essence, while smartphone users already opt in to receive push notifications for breaking news, wearables could intensify the importance of these alerts.

And news organisations already know two things for sure: The economy of language required on such tiny screens will render smartwatch notifications closer to blurbs than they are to headlines, and, critically, if they send too many of them, users will merely turn them off.

Today, journalists compete to get their stories placed prominently within newspapers, bulletins, home pages and app landing pages. They should also increasingly fight to get their “subatomic particles of news” to be the ones promoted via push notifications. The chance of a fleeting, sidelong glance, even a tired one, has always been better than none at all.