You’ve Got a Lotta Verve

By: Jennifer Saba

Not often quick to adapt to new modes of communication, the newspaper industry seems determined not to get caught flat-footed when it comes to mobile. One of the most interesting announcements to come out of the giant Washington, D.C., publishers/editors confab in April was the Associated Press’ Mobile News Network. Thanks to the AP, the industry can now cohesively reach readers through smart phones.

“We had an opportunity as the Internet emerged to take a leadership position as an industry, but we were not able to do it because of the internal dynamics of companies,” says Jon K. Rust, co-president of Rust Communications and AP board member. “This is a second chance.”

This new initiative could be considered the mobile version of an earlier online flameout, the New Century Network (which arguably was abandoned too early).

Says Jane Seagrave, the AP’s senior vice president for global product development: “The aim is to provide users with a single place to get local, national, and international news branded by the content provider themselves. The intent is to let newspapers promote their best content.” Since the April announcement, 107 newspapers have joined the network ? and the AP has captured a wide variety, from the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle to the Billings (Mont.) Gazette and the Herald & Review in Decatur, Ill.

AP members that sign up with the digital cooperative ? the Mobile News Network is the first initiative ? can receive up to a 5% cut in their annual assessment, depending on the tier of service.

The mobile network works like this: Members feed the AP stories into a common database, hosted by Verve Wireless. The content is then organized and pushed out to consumers depending on their location, and, if they choose, brand preference.

A consumer can tailor the content delivery in several ways. The user can type in a ZIP code (or multiple ZIP codes), rely on a news button (like on the iPhone), or depend on “geo-syncing” possibilities through which the network tracks the device at all times and delivers content depending on the location of the person. Someone in, say, Billings, can get the latest goings-on from San Francisco, if they wish.

“We are creating a cooperative that lets members contribute their own branded stories unedited alongside AP edited stories,” adds Seagrave. “The strength is that we bring this all together in a single point.”

The revolutionary thing about the Verve platform is that it knows what kind of device a person is carrying, and can deliver the content accordingly. With the iPhone, for example, because the screen is relatively big, people tend to read full articles. Some smart phones aren’t good for reading longer stories and some still have black-and-white displays, notes Tom Kenney, Verve Wireless’ president: “If it’s a small device, we may deliver one paragraph or a snack-size bite of content. If they want more, they can read more.”

The other big selling point is the revenue possibilities the network can bring to newspapers. Right now, only AP member newspapers are part of the network ? but eventually that will change, says Seagrave.

A newspaper can sell against its own mobile content (and receive 100% of the revenue) or sell against other newspapers’ content for a 50/50 split. Papers pay the AP a small fee to maintain the network. For national advertisers interested in placing buys, the mobile network is working with groups such as quadrantONE.

Down the line, newspapers would be able to offer advertisers geo-targeting capabilities that track the whereabouts of people who opt in.

The AP board had been kicking ideas around for three years before they alighted on mobile ? right around the time the iPhone was introduced.

The organization leapt into action around October of last year, leading to an extensive study of young consumers and their media usage in six different cities around the world. Jim Kennedy, AP’s vice president and director of strategic planning, recalls it was a major undertaking where researchers shadowed individuals.

“We learned quite a bit about their consumption habits,” Kennedy says. “The bottom line is that they don’t have any. They don’t subscribe to newspapers or bookmark where they go every day. They ran into the news ? across six cities, across the board.”

Typically their entry point was through e-mail or a text message, both of which Kennedy describes as “dead ends.” The prospect is to aggregate a lot of content with one button for easy access through a mobile device.

“It was really unprecedented ,” says Seagrave. “I would say we hit the right moment for mobile and for members’ willingness to participate. We also launched with an application which has been optimized with the iPhone. The combination is very appealing.”

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