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So What Do You Do, David Ho, Mobile and Tablets Editor at The Wall Street Journal?

'Technology is easy. Journalism is hard.'

By Janelle Harris - October 10, 2012
Back in 2010, the powers-that-be at The Wall Street Journal herded a small group of tech masterminds into a windowless room in a crash, six-week project to create its iPad app. For David Ho, that time and the months of 16-hour days that followed as first editor was the hardest thing he had ever done professionally. "It was improving and holding the thing together when it was all new and wobbly," he remembers. "It was more than a news-journalism-tech challenge. It felt like some crazy endurance race."

Still, that's not the biggest trial he's faced. The father of a son with autism, Ho and his wife have navigated the emotional and sometimes exhausting dichotomy of questioning and understanding at the same time. When he weighs the task of shaping and molding readable -- even enjoyable -- material for WSJ's tablet and iPad edition against that kind of challenge, the former seems a lot less daunting.


Name: David Ho
Position: Editor of mobile, tablets and emerging technology at The Wall Street Journal and lead editor of its iPad and tablet edition
Resume: Went from college editor to producer/programmer on the original WSJ.com production team. Joined national staff at the AP Washington bureau and cited by the Supreme Court in the 2000 presidential election decision. Served as AP's national consumer affairs and telecom reporter. Returned to New York to cover tech, telecom and terrorism for Cox Newspapers; was laid off. Rejoined WSJ in 2009.
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Education: BA in journalism/BFA in creative writing, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Marital status: Married
Media idol: Benjamin Franklin
Favorite TV shows: "Months ago, it was Game of Thrones. At the moment, my favorite TV time is revisiting Star Blazers with my 8-year-old son."
Guilty pleasure: Trader Joe's baked onion rings
Last book read: Moby Dick
Twitter handle: @davidho


The WSJ was one of the first major newspapers to develop an iPad app, and it was met with both cheers and jeers. What did that process teach you about what people want in a technology?
The best technology is invisible. It doesn't call attention to itself. It doesn't get in the way of the experience. It just works. That's why books and newspapers are great tech. I like to think of a newspaper -- the actual paper kind -- as a highly refined and still very effective mobile news technology. And that has lessons for mobile today if you think about where and when and how people consume news. People like technology that's clean, simple and intuitive.

Not everyone agrees with this, but I also think people should have options. One of the reasons people like our app is that there are many ways to navigate and explore the news. There are distinct styles for reading news and a good app allows for that. But my number one rule for mobile and tablets is do not annoy. It's so easy to piss people off on a mobile device, and the threshold for what people will put up with before they move on is very low. You know all the technology that's supposed to make our lives easier, but winds up making things more complicated and frustrating? That's what you have to fight against.

"My number one rule for mobile and tablets is do not annoy."

Besides photos, which types of stories would you say translate particularly well on a tablet?
You mean other than people with iPads wanting to read news about iPads? Tablets are great for video, like streaming breaking news. They shine when it comes to interactive storytelling. Touch screens allow for a very intimate experience, exploring the news with your fingers and tapping things like 360-degree photos with gyro control. Those can be pretty cool.

A quote from you: "Technology is easy. Journalism is hard." Explain.
This one gets me in trouble with my developer friends. To be clear, this is not some death match between writing code and writing news. And, to be really clear, the Journal has a kick-ass mobile tech team that works super hard. OK, I should be safe now. That line is something I've said to journalists worried what new technology is doing to their jobs and how they can keep up. My take is if you can bang out 200 words in 10 minutes, learning to shoot and share video with your iPhone isn't going to kill you. All this blogging, Twitter, multimedia reporting with smartphones, none of it is harder than the bread and butter skills reporters already have: interviewing, accuracy, clarity, speed, news judgment. But here's my tip: Technology is painful when it's mandatory, when skills are pushed on people. You beat that by getting in front of it, by making it fun, like a part of your life. Edit together video of family and pets first, and post it somewhere. Do it for yourself. Then when you have to do it for work, it's not all stressful.

Rupert Murdoch's The Daily seems to be struggling a bit with some of the initial star reporters and editors already leaving. How closely have you been watching what The Daily is doing? What do you think they’ve done correctly and possibly missed the mark on?
I think everyone involved in tablet and mobile news watches The Daily. It's this bold experiment: a brand new news organization created from scratch. How often do you see that these days? The Daily pioneered a lot of ways to deliver news on tablets. They've been brave and pretty aggressive in embracing the technology, especially when it comes to graphics and layout and design. And they've done great things with touch control. I'm not sitting in their office, so hard for me to talk about how're they're doing or what works or doesn't work for them.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Jessica Bennett, Executive Editor of Tumblr's Storyboard?

From the outside, I do see one challenge for everyone doing this is knowing tablet audiences well, because they're changing so fast. We've gone from early adopter to mainstream consumer electronics in no time. It does look like The Daily is trying to make their production process easier. They dropped their landscape view not long ago. That I get. Supporting two tablet rotations all the time is a lot of work. It's tough to put out a tablet issue every day. It's hard when you're actually building and editing and curating and designing the thing, and not just regurgitating news feeds into randomized templates. There are so many variables: behavior on WiFi, behavior on 3G, offline, online, making it work in portrait, making it work in landscape, making it fit different size screens.

"The mouse is dead. It just doesn't know it's been caught in a better mousetrap."

What type of training does a journalist need to snag a job like yours? And, because the field is still emerging, how does one even go about finding these job openings?
Not sure what training I need to snag a job like mine. I'm the first one in this job here and it's kind of evolved around me. But I've hired a few mobile editors since this all started, so I can tell you what helps. I can teach someone HTML basics in an hour but a lot of news skills only come with experience. I love it when folks can do Photoshop and the like, but more than any one kind of expertise, it's important to have a general and deep technology comfort level and interest. This is all moving so fast, you have to adapt daily, hourly. It's as much about making news decisions as it is troubleshooting tech problems. You need to be able to talk to developers as much as you talk to reporters and editors. You need a foot in each world, editorial and technology. And there's the business side too, so I guess you need a third foot. A big thing: Gather up a few smartphones and tablets and use them, use them, use them until your fingers hurt.

What do you think will be the next big product or phenomenon to impact the media business?
The mouse is dead. It just doesn't know it's been caught in a better mousetrap. I've been waiting for a chance to say that. Technology is becoming much more intimate, much more an extension of ourselves. There's less hardware in between us and what we experience. Touch screens are just the beginning. The seeds are out there now: voice control, motion gesture control, eye tracking. I think there's a lot of potential in augmented reality. Combine that with the Google glasses project and some other prototypes and you can see this future where interacting with media will be constant, literally in your face.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Jessica Bennett, Executive Editor of Tumblr's Storyboard?


Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at www.thewriteordiechick.com.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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