I'm the VP-Content at The World Company, in Lawrence, KS, where we're inventing the future of local news and information. I've spent 20 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies. You can read more about me here.
If you work at a news organization, what's your mobile strategy? You'd better have one. And it probably needs to be a lot better than it is.
Fifteen years after the Web forced newspapers to rethink the way they publish information and deal with readers and advertisers, mobile news is posing a similar challenge. The ability for readers to get news headlines, sports scores, traffic updates, search results for local entertainment venues and businesses, traffic and weather bulletins and so much more on their cellphones is changing news and information presentation and distribution almost as much as the Web did.
The numbers on mobile growth are explosive. Just about everybody's got a cellphone these days that will at least accept text messages; smartphones like Apple's iPhone, Palm's new Pre and the various flavor of Blackberries are proliferating, and offering many more ways to deliver information to people on the go. According to The Kelsey Group, 54 million Americans now access the Web on their smartphones; Nielsen estimates that about 40 percent of those regularly check their phones for news. And the vast majority of the news and information that people want on their phones is local: traffic, weather, local entertainment info, business searches, deals. "We believe that the mobile Web is a local medium," says Art Howe, CEO of Verve Wireless, one of the leading providers of mobile news services to newspapers.
Moreover, mobile usage numbers are going straight up. Howe says his business is increasing at a rate of about 50 percent a month, and he expects to be serving about 1 billion mobile pages monthly by the end of this year. That's "crazy growth," he says. Indeed. The New York Times alone is doing 60 million mobile page views a month (double the rate a year ago), and its iPhone app has been downloaded 2 million times. CNN has 11.6 million unique mobile users. These are serious numbers for what's a fairly new medium.
Most significantly, mobile advertising is increasing, too. Kelsey Group estimates that advertising on local mobile information services will hit $3.1 billion by 2013, a 20-fold increase over 2008. I'll bet that's a conservative guess. The CPMs for local mobile ads are particularly high, too. "Advertising is really starting to lift off on a local level," Howe says. And based on experiences with cell services in general and the iPhone App Store in particular, there are encouraging signs that consumers will actually pay for mobile content and services, because of its immediacy and value and because, unlike the Web, they haven't really been conditioned (yet) to get it for free. Ooh! A subscription model!
So news organizations, especially local news organizations, need to jump on the mobile bandwagon. But many haven't. Ask a gathering of newspaper people who's got a mobile strategy (I've heard that question posed at a couple of conferences recently) and you tend to get ... crickets. Or they've done a quickie "lite" version of their Web site to optimize it for a smaller smartphone screen, or they're blasting headlines indiscriminately via text messages, sans any advertising or business model. That's boring and dumb, and too reminiscent of the unsophisticated way that newspapers moved onto the Web 15 years ago. Mobile users, especially on smartphones, want much more, and the growth demands more sophisticated approaches.
Ironically, mobile is a particularly good fit for what newspapers have traditionally done best: covering local news. It wipes out one of online news' biggest perceived disadvantages—a lack of portability. For years I heard that digital news couldn't compete with printed newspapers because, well, you can't read news on a computer while sitting on the toilet. Well, the iPhone pretty much kills that argument. Indeed, portability is one of print's clear remaining advantages—but mobile devices match that, and add immediacy, interactivity, search and so much more.
But mobile is a very different medium than print or the Web, and consumers have very different expectations about the kinds of information they want delivered to their phones and how they want it delivered. In my next installment, I'll take a look at a few things that work—and a few things that don't. If you're going to be a player in mobile—and you'd better be, because it's primarily a local medium, particularly well-suited to newspapers and other local media—you'd better get it right. And fast.