AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2008

Handheld Headlines   

News organizations are embracing content aimed at cell phones and other mobile devices as part of their survival strategy in the digital age.

By Arielle Emmett

Never mind that you risk walking into walls or oncoming traffic while trying to type m.nytimes.com on a cell phone keyboard. Never mind that your fingers are too big for the keys. Never mind that the type seems awfully small.

Welcome to the age of mobile news and entertainment. All your digitally hip friends will assure you that having news flashes and traffic alerts and the inevitable Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse updates pushed to your iPhone or BlackBerry is the natural extension of electronic life. Talking, texting and viewing the latest campaign trail dustup in full-color video on a screen the size of a lady's compact is just cool, a measure of personal freedom, shared intimacies, progress.

Besides, news organizations are beginning to embrace the idea of mobile news as a gift of renewal, a tiny fire portending – could it be? – a brighter future. Rather than replacing the traditional news outlet, cell phones may complement other media, becoming "smart," readable, visual, acoustic and connected, serving readers who access breaking news, sports scores, weather, blogs and stock quotes on the mobile Internet.

Already, large-scale mobile advertising networks are cropping up to serve media publishers seeking a mobile presence. The advertising networks leverage "anchor" technology vendors like Microsoft, Nokia or AOL Third Screen Media; these companies provide mobile expertise and software platforms to help advertisers, agencies and electronic publishers buy, sell and launch nationwide wireless advertising campaigns. According to Juniper Research, a telecom market research and analysis firm, total spending on mobile advertising will grow from $1.3 billion this year to $7.6 billion in 2013. Strategy Analytics, a research firm, predicts a less conservative $14.4 billion in mobile advertising by 2011. Spending on mobile advertising will be highest in the Far East, followed by Western Europe and North America, Juniper Research predicts.

"Mobile is an emerging platform, and people are watching," says Brian Storm, the founder of MediaStorm ( mediastorm.org), which produces Emmy- and Webby-award-winning multimedia narratives and slide shows. The mobile Web, he continues, "isn't about cellular and phones as we know them today. It's about wireless and third-generation broadband networks." The introduction of the Apple iPhone last June has also changed the dynamics of the mobile news marketplace, Storm contends. The new iPhone announced this June will be cheaper (from $199 to $299) and optimized to run more applications on wideband networks supporting digital video and faster connections.

M:Metrics, a mobile-data market-research company, announced in March that 85 percent of iPhone users browse the mobile Web for news and information (versus 58 percent for all smart phone users and 13 percent of the mobile phone market overall). Thirty-one percent of iPhone users also watch mobile TV and video on their phones compared with 4.6 percent of all mobile phone users.

With its bold, iconic touch screen and streamlined interface that even the technically challenged can operate, the iPhone is now the top device for accessing mobile news and information. "The iPhone doesn't have a FLASH plug-in [needed for many Web sites] yet, but it's the first phone that in my opinion is a multimedia device," says Storm. "The phone is shattering every expectation out there."

American news companies aren't waiting for the ultimate smart phone (one equipped with a microprocessor and storage capability) to jump into the mobile race. Consumers can use any of 500 different handheld devices and 20 different mobile Internet browsers to access breaking news from the Washington Post, New York Times, Gannett, Cox, Hearst, ESPN, CNN, Condι Nast, MSNBC, Fox Mobile, CBS Mobile and The Weather Channel, among many others. All of them are offering, at the very least, a slimmed-down mobile Web site featuring text-based news and links to stories, sports scores, restaurant and movie listings, maps and traffic alerts, celebrity gossip, tidbits like stainbuster guides, stock quotes and "dude decoders" for single women. Some sites feature simple (and very tiny) photographs, others offer mobile video, sports coverage and bilingual TV programming – all part of a wonderfully weird, not-quite-there multimedia outreach.

James Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, says that news companies are positioning themselves with mobile offerings because they anticipate audience growth in the next few years. "Right now [mobile traffic] is still a drop in the bucket," he says. "But looking at trends, and looking at the Apple iPhone, you'll see a major pick-up in mobile traffic in the next 12 to 18 months."

The idea for mobile news isn't exactly a field of dreams – build it and they will come – in Brady's view. "It's obvious to me the 'field of dreams' model doesn't work," he says flatly, referring to visions of mobile paradise and fat advertising revenues. "The idea is eventually – as connection speeds get better, as phones get bigger and more effective – we'll be able to build a decent-size audience for mobile applications."

Readers are picky, Brady adds. Besides the young and the restless, most mobile readers are sophisticated power-suit types carrying BlackBerrys, iPhones, Voyagers and Treos. These users won't bother with a site, no matter how mobile or spectacular, unless it offers content of real and immediate use. So the Post winnows its content for the mobile platform, offering breaking news headlines and stories (delivered paragraph by paragraph); text alerts you can activate by sending a message via SMS (Short Message Service, a common cell phone messaging protocol); interactive polls and blogs (e.g., "Answer 10 Questions"); sports scores; the ever-popular city guide, which offers D.C.-area restaurant listings to mobile users by location and price; and, of course, a News Tracker widget.

Content providers can use widgets (tiny chunks of programming users can download to their cell phones, PC Web sites or blogs to shortcut directly to items that interest them) to drive traffic back to their sites. "For example, we have a News Tracker widget on Facebook," Brady explains. "A [mobile or PC] user could input 'Obama' or 'McCain' on the widget, which would pull up news from the Post and other Web sites on those subjects." Brady says the increase in widget traffic has been "exponential," though he declines to provide exact numbers.

Rob Samuels, senior product manager for mobile at the New York Times, says the paper's electronic strategy is different. Instead of winnowing content, the Times squeezes "all the news that's fit to print" not only onto its full-text PC Web site but also its mobile site, which delivers complete stories (split into multiple pages), still photos and video. "We provide content free of charge, which includes the text of articles, audio, video and most of the features," Samuels says. "Still images look better on the larger phones, but the smaller phones can be used as well; the presentation is tailored to each device's capability."

When the Times conducted focus groups on what mobile readers wanted, "some of the people specifically said they liked the movies and Showtime applications. But most of the feedback we received is that users want to have access to everything – specifically what interests them, with the least amount of clicks."

During the last year, the Times added a list of the 10 most e-mailed articles on m.nytimes.com, as well as dozens of blogs. This year the site added a mobile page for each of the state primaries, where users could view election results as they came in. The traffic growth has been spectacular: the mobile site had more than half a million mobile page views per month in January 2007, 9.8 million page views a month by the end of the year. With mobile advertisers such as Microsoft, Cisco, AT&T, and Focus Features, the Times is confident about its strategy. "We get a lot of regular feedback" from mobile viewers, Samuels says. "I get feedback from people in the Middle East and Asia thanking us for making the Times available to them on a mobile phone, [since] a lot of people there don't have access to a PC."

Unlike the Times, though, most newspapers around the country do not count on making lots of money from the mobile Internet. "It's a nascent market," says Matt Jones, director of mobile strategy and operations for Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper company. "The numbers are growing and it will be a multibillion dollar market, but not anytime in the near future."

Gannett's strategy for mobile news has been aggressive nonetheless. Starting its first mobile project in 1998, the company now operates 106 mobile Web sites. Mobile customers exceed 2 million, Jones says. The banner mobile site, m.usatoday.com, is not so much a full-text translation of the newspaper as it is a set of interactive headlines, alerts and stories segmented along the traditional USA Today reader categories of interest: "News," "Money," "Sports," "Life," "Weather," "Entertainment," etc. One of the surprise mobile hits, Jones says, is Sudoku, which people like to play on their cell phones. "This makes sense, because often people bought the newspaper just to do the crossword puzzles." He adds: "USA Today was already a mobile product when it was [only] a newspaper. To [founder] Al Neuharth's credit, the newspaper was conceived as a mobile product for people who were traveling. The brand heritage [which includes lots of graphics, lots of color, shorter stories] leant itself very well to presentation on the phone."

One of Gannett's papers, the Arizona Republic, typifies the company's emphasis on 24–7 news updates and strong local coverage. The mobile site m.azcentral.com features a simplified format with only one or two national stories and a single, provocative picture on the tiny home page. Example: Female Indy driver Danica Patrick (headline: "Sex, athleticism melds into Danica Inc."). Other news is listed as a series of lists/links to full-text stories about a death in Winslow, Arizona; holiday weekend barbecues around Phoenix; Diamondback games and other goodies. John Leach, managing editor for the Republic's print and online operations, says content distribution between the PC and mobile Web sites is remarkably smooth, thanks to heavy tweaking of the paper's digital content management system. The mobile site emphasizes reader service and access to databases. "We pick up the NBA and sports scores, traffic alerts and restaurant listings," Leach says. The m.azcentral.com site doesn't have GPS as yet, but the mobile site is contributing to an overall 20 percent to 30 percent growth rate per year for page views. How much of that is from mobile? Leach won't say.

Mobile sportscasters and infotainment companies may be in a stronger position to capitalize on digital technologies. For example, in January, ESPN reported it had more hits for NFL content on its mobile Web site (4.9 million) than it did on its PC site (4.5 million), according to RCR Wireless News. Those numbers suggest the mobile jock market has legs, since sports fans will access their cell phones to get scores and inside information even while they're watching games on TV. Two mobile TV partnerships – AT&T's Mobile TV and Verizon's V Cast, both of which use Qualcomm's MediaFlo TV-enabling technology for cell phones – have been launched with the sports market in mind. Both mobile TV services bill themselves as providing full coverage of sporting events, along with some regular network programming in English and Spanish. Content partners include CBS Mobile, NBC 2Go, Fox Mobile, Comedy Central, ESPN Mobile TV, Viacom's MTV and Nickelodeon, among others.

That's just the start. Besides sports, mobile video and music entertainment are exploding on the "hockey stick" trajectory, says Greg Clayman, MTV Networks' executive vice president for digital distribution and business development. "We screened 5 million video clips over [wireless] carriers last year, double the year before, and double the year before that," he says. Bill Joll, president of On2 Technologies, which specializes in mobile and wireless video, says that 50 percent of the billion cell phones shipped this year will be video-enabled. By 2010, that percentage will grow to 70 percent, but that could create huge technological problems.

"Because video assets are encoded into multiple standards and multiple screen types – some with mobile definition, some not – the complexity is starting to build," Joll says. Two major standards for wideband mobile displays, known as 3GPP and 3GPP2, are competing for market dominance. The mobile industry needs resolution of many technology issues, Joll contends. For example, wireless networks operate at variable data rates, producing very different user experiences. Handheld devices are enormously diverse – and troublesome to reach.

"Even the experience you get with the iPhone isn't ideal," says Eli Wendkos, product manager of social media and messaging at Cox's ajcmobile.com, part of the digital arm of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Many traditional media publishers are clearly not prepared to deal with the technological complexities of mobile, Wendkos adds. "If you think about where mobile is, it's where the Web was 10 years ago," he says. "For any publisher – anyone doing anything mobile right now, [the question is] whom do you want to serve? Do we serve the least common denominator..the majority of mobile users, but not the others?" Wendkos tries to serve every mobile customer who wants the news, he says. But he acknowledges that content and design for the mobile site will remain up for evaluation and will have to evolve right along with the industry.

Ironically, the most successful publishers of mobile content may also be the most focused – channelized, in industry jargon. Hearst, which has had a mobile presence since 1999, now boasts nine mobile sites, including m.cosmopolitan.com and m.goodhousekeeping.com, with more than 5 million page views per month. All of the mobile sites are aimed almost exclusively at women. But just targeting women in general may not be focused enough, suggests Sophia Stuart, director of mobile for Hearst Digital. "We've followed women around and noticed the gaps in their day," she says. "And we've discovered there's a new type of consumer, a woman who is out on the go and needs a lot of very different information to make her life easier, such as parenting information, or if she's nursing a new baby, or wants her stainbuster's guide – we've tested every single stain on every single fabric."

Hearst compiles the information into a series of easy-to-use lists, links and databases accessible to cell phones on its magazines' mobile sites. Instead of relying on actual articles, Hearst readers get fashion news, recipes, blog snippets and dating tips on the fly. The mobile Web sites are designed to do just a few things very well. "You need to know a hell of a lot of technology to make this seamless," Stuart says. Hearst does technology by outsourcing to many different mobile software vendors, although its digital media group contributes wireless expertise and knowledge of content and branding. In addition, Stuart and her group have cut deals with major U.S. wireless carriers, including Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. "We want everyone to use our sites, so our sites are relatively light to download," she says. "We've done a lot of work in digital compression, a lot of simple [wireless] markup language for Sprint..to make sure the sites work on some of the oldest Nextel handsets out there."

Perhaps most intriguing, Hearst has availed itself of Nokia Media Network, one of several mobile advertising networks. It allows large corporate advertisers to reach multiple publishers and consumers through nationwide wireless campaigns. It's not as easy as it sounds; technology, software, networking, scheduling, video and devices have to be connected. Gannett, for example, belongs to the AOL Third Screen Media ad network. Hearst joined the Nokia consortium, whose corporate advertisers also include Ford, Bank of America, Procter & Gamble, Disney and Sony Pictures. "Before joining Nokia [and its ad network], it was impossible for any advertiser to buy a cohesive campaign irrespective of carrier technology or devices, so when we joined, we went back to the wireless carriers and negotiated an amendment to our contracts so we could tag our pages and allow Nokia to serve the ads to mobile consumers irrespective of the carriers," Stuart says.

The bottom line for Hearst is that mobile has actually made the print business stronger, Stuart contends. That's odd and wonderful news in a "print is nearly dead" media environment. "Through digital, so many women have been experiencing our brand; we're selling lots and lots of subscriptions to printed magazines on our Web site. It's a whole new subscription generator." Mobile has reached out to women to "surround them with content" in both time and space, she adds.

And what of newspapers? The challenge is finding a unique, creative identity in the mobile world, one that builds reader "stickiness," brand loyalty and strong advertising support. It may be that traditional journalistic storytelling won't work on a tiny screen; newspapers will have to adopt a "multisensory" mind-set, in which less text is more (and functions differently, more as a "captivator," less as an explicator), where headlines, sound and video snippets speak volumes, and readers are in constant active control of their experience.

As for the question of whether improvements in mobile access, networks, devices and content can help offset the losses in print circulation and ad revenue, editors like washingtonpost.com's James Brady are cautious. "That's the $64 million question," Brady says. "We're not filling that gap yet with either Web or mobile, which is leading to financial turmoil. But my own opinion is that we'll come out on the other side in five to seven years, and we'll probably get pretty close to filling the gap."

Arielle Emmett (arielleemmett@rcn.com), a former Temple University journalism professor, is studying for a Ph.D. at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She wrote about a multimedia reporting boot camp in Northern Ireland in AJR's December/January issue.