News Leadership 3.0

August 24, 2009

Mobilizing for mobile: Are news organizations lagging?

In a guest post, Chris O’Brien analyzes key components to consider in any move to mobile content

By Chris O’Brien

The mobile computing revolution is clearly upon us, thanks to the growth of Web-friendly smartphones. It’s an area rich with opportunity for news organizations, but one that’s also vastly more complicated than the Web. Figuring out how and where to get started can quickly get overwhelming.

So let’s break down some of the issues involved and look at some ways to get started: 

1. Optimize the current site.
It’s amazing how many news sites are unnecessarily slow to load, or look broken or clunky. To look at two sites that have done this well, grab a standard smartphone and visit The New York Times or The Washington Post on the phone’s browser.

The Post just launched their re-designed site in early August. The new site was designed specifically for mobile platforms, around five basic content categories, and with more simple navigation. This last point is particularly important, because people will consume news and information on the phone in ways that are different than the Web. I use my BlackBerry to get quick updates during those in-between moments, like standing in a line. So clicking right into content is critical.

According to MediaPost, the company is also assigning two full-time editors to managing mobile Web content. The new site also was built in-house, according to MediaPost. But there are third-parties, such as MobileTech of Norway (which is working with some Cox Newspapers).

2. Buttons and Bookmarks. Several news organizations, including the Washington Post and The New York Times, have created buttons that I can put right on my BlackBerry. They are just links that open up the phone’s browser. But it’s still ultra-convenient.

3. Applications. This is the next step up the ladder, and where things start to get quite a bit more complex. There are six major mobile platforms for smartphones:

- Apple’s iPhone
- Google’s Android
- BlackBerry
- Nokia’s Symbian
- Windows Mobile
- Palm Pre

Except for the iPhone and Pre, each system appears on numerous different devices. Each platform requires separate development, and the gadgets it runs on may require further tweaks. So, already your head is pounding.

The best advice is to pick one and get started. Of course, for most folks, the starting point lately is the iPhone, given all the buzz. Don’t kid yourself that there will be huge bucks in selling an iPhone app. The App store already has more than 40,000 apps and counting.

But despite the complexity, the advantages of building an app on any platform are huge, in terms of creating additional features, functionality and engagement.

Let me point to one example that’s become my favorite mobile news application: The Wall Street Journal’s BlackBerry application. I have a BlackBerry Curve.  The Journal’s application continuously downloads summaries of every article being published. When I’m ready to read, all the headlines are there are my phone where I can scan them quickly. When I click in the headline, a summary opens. At that point, I can click to read the full article, which takes a moment to read. But by then, I know that really want to read it. The beauty of this is that when I’m ready to consume the Journal, it’s ready for me. In the mobile news experience, these few seconds I save on every click make a huge difference.

Different news organizations are also taking different approaches to developing these. The New York Times has an in-house team that built their iPhone app. The Toronto Globe and Mail worked with a Toronto-based firm Spreed to develop its iPhone app. 

4. Location-based applications.
As mobile is evolving, the real opportunity is to leverage the power of knowing where the consumer is located. More and more phones have some kind of location-aware capability, either through GPS, through accessing the cell phone towers, or using wi-fi networks (the iPhone uses all three). For users of these devices, the issue of “where” they are is crucial to the questions they are asking, the news they’re seeking, and the information they need.

I haven’t found too many news organizations that have explored this yet, with the exception of the Associated Press. When I was using the AP’s iPhone app, it would recognize my location and then served up stories from the closest publications.

But hunt around the iTunes app store and check out location-based apps from folks like Yelp. When I searched for a coffee shop, it gave me a list of results ranked by distance from where I stood.

That sort of things remains far down the road for most news organizations. But that should be a sign of how badly we’re lagging, and why every newsroom should be getting started today. 


There are a lot of tools for some of the more advanced phones. Unfortunately though, for the basic phones, there still isn’t a lot of features when it comes to the news organizations. All my phone has is a shortcut to CNN.

Justin, creator of:

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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