Mobile: The Future for Newspapers?

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By: Art Howe

When William Dean Singleton was recently asked how newspapers can escape their current malaise, he offered one word: wireless. Over the next five years, said Singleton, CEO of MediaNews and chairman of the Associated Press, “I think that the single biggest category that offers the biggest growth opportunity is wireless.” Wireless and the newspaper are “tailor-made” for each other, he added.

A newspaper’s core strength is its institutional knowledge of the community. Moving that information onto a mobile platform gives

users a device with the intelligence of a PC, the power of pinpoint location, and the ability to transmit data at near-broadband speed. It gives newspapers the ability to transmit information, tailored to users’ interest, to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

There are now 3.3 billion active cell phones on the planet. That’s three times the number of people hooked into the regular Internet. And, for a vast majority of young people ? the ones whom newspapers desperately need to reach ? mobile is the primary communication device.

The world’s cell phone carriers see their future primarily as a provider of data services ? exactly the kind of news, reviews, photos, social guidance, and advertising that newspapers happen to have available. Preparing for the day when they would transmit the world’s knowledge, U.S. carriers in recent years invested more than $40 billion in retooling networks to handle data, including images and video, at broadband speeds. They’ve named this high-speed data transmission “3G” for Third Generation.

While all this investing was going on, newspapers were watching circulation decline in market after market, as people turned in huge numbers to the Internet for news and information. They want immediacy and convenience, and now they want to reach into their pockets and access the world around them easily and quickly. They want to search news, sports scores, music listings, classifieds, compare restaurants. Some people even want to access a newspaper’s vast archives.

Sharing their information in this fashion, newspapers can evolve into “local information and connection utilities.” That’s a phrase created by the folks at the American Press Institute (API), who recently completed a compelling vision of what newspapers must transform into.

A decade ago, many publishers missed the opportunity of the Web. Papers have tried to catch up by launching Web sites that are basically extensions of their core print products. Publishers now need vastly different thinking to maintain their place in their communities. They need to view themselves as lifestyle enablers ? utilizing their unmatched local knowledge, large databases, extensive newsgathering ability, and social networking capacity to help people “know or do whatever it takes to live here,” as the API puts it.

Ironically, not much publishers’ content has been repurposed for mobile, especially local mobile content. And despite the iPhone’s Web-surfing promotions, content on the fixed Internet needs to be reformatted for mobile browsing. But that also puts newspapers in the catbird seat: They have an opportunity to steal momentum from major national and international brands that are now rushing into mobile. The paradox of mobile content is that the more local information is (and that’s what newspapers can do best), the more valuable it is.

Mobile search isn’t useful if it involves vast databases or even queries. The best search on mobile involves little typing with the result easily sorted into relevant content. Easily searchable restaurant reviews ? delivered with descriptive targeted ads, useful coupons, and the like ? would prove invaluable, for example, to people who are out and about, looking for a place to dine.

That kind of usefulness will drive dramatic growth in mobile advertising. The head of Omnicom’s BBDO, the world’s biggest ad agency, predicts mobile will surpass television as the most important medium. The reason: Done well, micro-targeting thousands of advertising messages to mobile users ultimately returns far better results than television campaigns, newspaper ads, or even paid search advertising.

As the volume of local content grows, so will consumer usage of the mobile Internet. Studies show that slightly more than 30% of phone users have recently searched for content on the mobile Web. That number will grow quickly, since half of new phone buyers look for phones with Web-browsing functionality. The studies also point out that 84% of the mobile Web users want their mobile sites to be optimized for cell phones ? meaning local publishers need to commit quickly to mobile quickly to grab this growing market opportunity.

The answer to escaping “malaise” is not so far in the future as Singleton imagines. In fact, the answer is mobile ? and it’s right in your pocket.

Art Howe is the CEO of Verve Wireless. He has more than 30 years of experience in publishing, and won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while working at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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