Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mobilizing for mobile before it's too late

This column originally appeared in Editor & Publisher Magazine. Click here to subscribe for timely delivery of the magazine.

Amazingly, newspapers are making the same self-defeating mistakes with their mobile initiatives that they did with the Internet.

If they don't do better this time, publishers will blow a major opportunity to preserve the value of their franchises as the power of print continues to wane.

Here's why mobile matters: Mary Meeker, a former securities analyst at Morgan Stanley with a better than average track record of envisioning the future, believes that more page views will be consumed on mobile screens by 2014 than on conventional PCs and laptops.

Meeker left Wall Street at the end of last year to become a partner in a major Silicon Valley venture firm where she will specialize in investing in mobile start-ups.

Although publishers are properly focused on mobile, most of them are fumbling this opportunity the same way they fumbled the Web. Here's how that went:

When publishers no longer could deny the gathering importance of the Internet in the 1990s, all but a handful of them shoveled the content from their print products onto their websites and gave it away for free. Seeing little point in Internet advertising, most publishers gave print advertisers "bonus" online ads that they essentially trained advertisers not to value.

Publishers didn't make much money doing this, but the strategy, if you can call it that, made them feel good about themselves at industry functions.

Publishers didn't get serious about the Net until print advertising began the five-year swoon that so far has carved some 50 percent off the record $49 billion in sales the industry notched in 2005. The faster print unraveled, the more feverishly publishers sought to build traffic and sell ads on their websites.

But they continued freely giving away the same expensive-to-produce content they put in their newspapers, resulting in two unintended consequences:

1. They shifted a growing number of formerly paying print readers to the Web, while barely attracting any new consumers to their online platforms. Although you won't see this on anyone's rate card, every savvy publisher knows that some 90% of the traffic on her website comes from current or former print subscribers.

2. Because they failed to differentiate their print and Web offerings, publishers almost certainly hastened the erosion of their circulation and, thus, the print advertising that is the mainstay of their business. Weekday circulation has slid 37% in the last two decades to a point that only one out of every three households today takes a newspaper, compared to an average national penetration of more than 100% in 1970.

In other words, the online efforts undertaken by most publishers probably hurt them more than they helped them. If nothing else, it cost newspapers decades of time, giving a world of digital competitors a handsome head start.

Now that the move to mobile is giving publishers their last, best chance for a do-over, they are doing exactly the same un-strategic things they did on the Web in hopes of achieving a different outcome. No less a figure than Albert Einstein considered this sort of thinking to be a form of insanity.

With few notable exceptions, the mobile apps released by newspapers to date do little more than faithfully reproduce the same content already carried in print and on their websites. In addition to typically being free for consumers, the apps carry little, if any, advertising.

Worst of all, the apps are doing nothing to attract the two-thirds of the people who do not happen to read a newspaper or visit its website. And a great number of those people are in the under-55 generation coveted most by advertisers.

What to do? Instead of replicating the same old - and I do mean old - products on Android or the iPad, publishers need to develop apps that take advantage of the characteristics that make these powerful computing platforms so damn compelling:

1. People use mobile devices to find information, get directions, check prices, play games, listen to music, and, yes, sometimes even surf the news. Because consumers are not passive, successful apps must be engaging and transactional.

2. Mobile devices don't just put the user in control; they also enrich the experience by knowing exactly where consumers are - and, in the case of many apps, exactly who they are. Accordingly, successful apps must be customizable and geographically aware.

3. Community and self-expression are as elemental to the digital experience as the information the media dispense or the transactions they enable. Successful apps foster community and enable user control.

Static apps filled with yesterday's news just won't cut it. This time, newspapers really, really can't afford to get this wrong. Really.

(c) 2011 Editor & Publisher


Blogger Mike Donatello said...

I love most of the post, but this stinker caught my eye:

"Although you won't see this on anyone's rate card, every savvy publisher knows that some 90% of the traffic on her website comes from current or former print subscribers."

Do you have a source to support this figure, or is it more of the "common knowledge" that got publishers in this mess to start with?

11:47 AM  
Blogger rplothow said...


5:59 PM  
Blogger Jameson Hayes said...

Good post as usual. I hope the "amazing" was sarcastic though. We both know it is no suprise that the newspaper industry would fail to adopt innovation early. That's why it is in this mess.

By the way, my colleague and I have cited you in our academic article set to run in the International Journal on Media Management. We'd love to share it with you.

Mike, the Pew Internet & American Life Project is a good source for these stats. They have several studies that indicate this.

Jameson Hayes

7:16 PM  
Blogger Christopher J Feola said...

Hi Alan,

Interesting post. At least one news organization, however, plans to do some fairly innovative things this year. Belo just sponsored a Digital Storytelling Conference at the Snowbird Resort in Utah; a collection of journalists, theoretical physicists, folklorists, novelists and other interesting folks can up with some very original strategies and products. (Full Feola disclosure-I moderated and put together the guest list.) A story by Jack Lail and HD video of the final presentations can be found here:
Hope you find that interesting.
Chris Feola

11:39 PM  
Blogger Alessandro Sisti said...

Working for a Media Company in Italy, I have data that demonstrate that the overlap between print readers and web readers is around 10 to 12%. The web sites of the group (that owns 2 sports newspaper and several magazines) tripled the number of print readers....

11:55 PM  
Blogger MrMediaPro said...

Alan, again you've nailed it and then some. Hard to believe the industry will allow themselves to again repeat the history that has destroyed them. The 2014 reference is right on, this "mobile" thing ain't going away. No need to rehash the past; Craig's List, Real Estate downturn and Automotive, it's time to finally wake up and embrace the technology.
Funny, I still get great e-mails from newspaper reps about "no charge for color" or of course about the early space/material closings due to an upcoming holiday. Would be nice to actually hear how their newspaper has something to offer advertisers beyond fire sales on a distressed product.

4:32 AM  
Blogger Francois Nel said...

UK Research I'm writing up at the moment confirms your point about newspapers going down the 'shovelware' route that characterized first-stage Web offerings. And, like you, I can only scratch my head in amazement that lessons have not been learned.
- @francoisnel

5:38 AM  
Blogger Mike Donatello said...


I'm quite familiar with the Pew numbers, and I know that they do not provide market- or title-specific figures of the type Alan mentioned.

It may be the case that 90% of some sites' audiences comprise former print subscribers. But I have zero reason to believe that is consistent across all newspapers in the country.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My problem with this piece isn't its observations about how an app should work. It's that it takes apps as a given. I have a real live web browser on my phone, so the *last* thing I want is an app. I don't want to install another app any more than I want to sign up for *another* ID service or site account just to make a comment on a blog or news site. Publishers, just give me a website that works on a mobile browser, and forget about clogging up my device with your app.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Kim Garretson said...

Good morning Alan,

Good post about the needed innovation in the user-experience via mobile. You mentioned "who they are" and I think this is equally important. Publishers must look at the emerging platforms and tools for one-to-one addressability, allowing advertisers & publishers to combine their customer databases for opt-in relevance with whatever commercial offers and messages appear in the mobile experience.


5:21 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

Ocean Beach - a mobile browser is great, but it does not hold a candle to an app that is well designed to display and interact your site. I use both, but usually the app is superior. I suspect you just don't want to admit your blackberry is outdated.

Local newspapers are valuable in that they should provide a forum for discussing local issues. I have never found one that has. The forums they provide are awful. I can discuss my local sports team on wonderful blogs largely free of trolls and whatnot, but there are no constructive forums for discussing local issues. Newspaper can provide this and need to if they want to survive.

12:17 PM  

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