News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Mobile

April 22, 2010

Three conferences beyond the news biz that newsies should check out

Too often, news professionals only attend conferences about journalism or about their beats. However, if you or your news organization is trying to expand your vision, network, and opportunities, it makes sense to start hanging out with some new crowds. Here are three conferences coming up soon that could help you make that leap…

1. ReadWriteWeb Mobile Summit: May 7, Mountain View, CA. Sooner than you think, mobile devices (such as cell phones, iPod Touches, and iPads) will overtake computers as the main way North Americans access digital media. This event has development and business tracks. Key themes include geolocation services; commerce and marketing; content, publishing, and recommendations; mobile social networking; using sensor and RFID data; augmented reality, and native app vs. browser-based development. Register online: $595.

Background reading: Top 10 mobile trends of 2010, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

2. Gov 2.0 Expo 2010, May 25-27, Washington DC. This O’Reilly Media event draws the leading minds in open, user-friendly government. If you’re thinking about doing more with civic engagements or government datasets, this is a good opportunity to make top-level connections with leaders in the Government 2.0 movement. Register online by May 5 for discount. See discounted non-government (“private sector”) pricing. Topic tracks:

  • Open data and web services
  • Social networks and collaboration
  • Agile government
  • Cloud computing and security
  • Emerging technology

3. Personal Democracy Forum, June 3-4, New York City. This popular, high-energy conference explores technology’s impact on politics. This year, speakers include Craig Newmark, Arianna Huffington, Howard Rheingold, Ethan Zuckerman, and other leading creative thinkers. Register online: $595.

July 06, 2010

Wooing more mobile users with interactive databases

Over the Independence Day weekend, (a hub for federal government info and resources) relaunched a more user-friendly version of its site. This includes a gallery of free mobile apps based on US government data, news, information, and services.

The interesting thing is, most of these “apps” aren’t really apps at all. They’re not separate programs that run on a smartphone operating system. Rather, they’re special-purpose web sites designed to work well within the limited microbrowsers that come with the vast majority of web-enabled cell phones in user today (feature phones, not smart phones). Examples include Alternative Fuel Locator, Find Your Embassy, and FEMA Mobile. (My list of WAP/platform options for all apps so far.)

From the perspective of engaging the largest possible mobile audience, this is a smart strategy—one that news organizations might emulate, especially for data-based interactive features…

Mobile has become a big deal for the news business. Gartner recently predicted that by 2013, mobile phones will overtake computers as the most common web access device worldwide. (This is already true in many parts of the developing world, but the US is likely to catch up soon.)

But so far, most US news organizations appear to be paying the least attention to the biggest part of the mobile news picture. At a time when every news org should be working hard to expand and retain their audience, most are devoting considerable resources on developing and promoting apps for smartphones (especially the iPhone). The problem is, the vast majority of handsets in use in the US are not smartphones, but less expensive, simpler “feature phones” that generally can’t run real apps.

Most major US news sites already offer mobile-friendly sites based on WAP (wireless application protocol) standards. Stripped-down, low-bandwidth WAP sites from news orgs such as CNN, the Denver Post, or ABC News, display fairly well on basic mobile browsers.

Such first-generation WAP news sites are a good first step—the lowest common denominator of mobile web access is a crucial base to cover. However, most WAP news sites typically fail to engage and reward mobile visitors. (This may, in part, explain why relatively few feature phone users frequent news sites so far.)

Here’s the problem: Most US news WAP sites are little more than shovelware: reformatted content that mostly mirrors the structure and purpose of the standard web site. This relatively thoughtless approach requires too much navigation, clicking, and inference to connect mobile users with value.

The main challenge with lean mobile news is not primarily A matter of design/usability, but of editorial approach. The traditional story approach to packaging news (headlines linking to full-text narrative stories) generally serves mobile users poorly.

That’s why the mobile “apps” caught my attention.

Most of the offerings are designed to help mobile users help themselves (make better choices, take action, find/use services, understand issues). Most of these tools don’t simply present information about government agencies—they make government info current, relevant, explorable and useful.

Increasingly, news organizations that publish interactive databases are finding that these are some of the most popular parts of their site. A good example of this is the Texas Tribune, which reports getting nearly three times as much traffic to its interactive databases compared to its news stories.

There’s some debate over whether interactive databases are “journalism”, but there’s no question that news audiences want, like, and use data-based services. Who cares whether interactive databases are “journalism” as long as they can be used to support the business model for digital news?

If your business model depends on either attracting large numbers of visitors, or keeping people engaged with your content and brand (repeat visits or longer visits), then you might want to consider not just offering interactive online databases, but making them useful to as many mobile users as possible via WAP sites or.

Once you’ve hooked these lean mobile users with fast, relevant information in response to their specific queries or curiosity, then you can deliver to them (also via WAP) links to your most recent relevant stories.

The overall strategy to experiment with here is: Try using mobile-friendly databases to engage visitors and lure them into your stories. Don’t expect your headlines to be sufficient to engage mobile visitors—at least, not the masses who are not using (and who may never use) smartphones.

If you try this experiment, here are some tips:

  • Promote your mobile web interactive features prominently via your print or broadcast channels.
  • Consider also promoting them via radio advertising, which seems to be quite effective for driving mobile traffic.
  • Give your interactive features short, simple URLs that are easy to remember, spell, and type on a cell phone. You don’t necessarily have to use your news org’s domain name; you can register a project-specific domain (like, say, Just make your branding obvious on the WAP pages served.
  • Use auto-detection so mobile users don’t have to remember to type in “m.” or “/mobile” to access the WAP version of your offering.
  • Make it easy for WAP users to share the results of their queries to your database via SMS text messaging, e-mail, and social media.
  • From your WAP database site, offer easy, obvious access to your news site (both full and WAP versions), as well as to the full web version of your database. And despite offering these options, expect some smartphone users to complain noisily that you subjected them to a WAP site. Don’t worry about these inevitable squawks; focus on your overall mobile traffic.
  • Use mobile analytics to monitor mobile web traffic and see how mobile visitors use and share your WAP pages.

There are many other ways to improve your lean mobile offerings, and I’ll be discussing them in future posts. But for now, assume that web shovelware isn’t good enough for this market—and that approach might even undermine your attempts to woo mobile traffic.

Mobile users tend to be action oriented, so giving them something to do (rather than merely read) on your mobile site could get them coming back for more. Right now, simply making any attempt to improve the lean mobile visitor experience is an easy way to stand out to this potentially huge and important audience.

July 15, 2010

Mobile: A Key Part of your Emergency News Strategy

It’s hurricane season—the perfect time for news organizations everywhere to consider how you’d keep reaching your community when facing the most dire communication challenges.

Most news organizations have a plan for their web site during natural disasters and other emergencies (i.e., posting frequent brief text updates; fewer stories, photos, and videos; and stripping out template graphics to make the site faster to load, etc.) But have you specifically considered the role that mobile media should play in your emergency news plan?...

In an emergency such as a hurricane, wildfire, flood, earthquake, or chemical plant explosion, three things can happen that can severely affect your digital publishing efforts:

  1. Your servers will get slammed. Expect your web traffic to shoot up far beyond normal levels soon after the disaster news breaks, and likely remain that way for the duration of the emergency (and possibly for a while beyond). Most news orgs have plans in place to increase bandwidth or to mirror or colocate their sites as needed in response to traffic surges. But even so, it’s likely that at times the public’s demand for your web site will exceed your ability to serve pages to browsers. Frustrated web users may turn to your mobile site.
  2. Mobile traffic will spike. And that surge could bear bigger than ever before. Mobile web access has gone mainstream. According to Pew’s recent Mobile Access 2010 report, in the past year 40% of US cell phone users accessed the internet from their phones—and more than half of them do so daily. This is a sharp jump: last year, only 25% of cell users reported mobile internet access. Since about 80% of cell phones currently in use in the US are not smartphones with full-featured browsers, it’s likely that in an emergency the vast majority of your mobile traffic will come from cheaper feature phones with simple browsers. So make sure your WAP site (wireless application protocol), which is optimized to display well on a small simple mobile browser, can deliver emergency news and information.
  3. Telecommunications can get unreliable. In many emergencies, phone service can get overwhelmed, or there can be physical damage to cell towers, phone lines, fiberoptic cables, or the electric grid. For mobile phones, signal availability generally gets spotty (rather than knocked out entirely for days). This means that usually some data or messaging traffic generally can still get through—at least intermittently. Text messages and WAP sites require less bandwidth and power than voice calls, so they’re often the channels of choice in an emergency.

What can this mean for your mobile emergency news strategy?

David Herrold was online operations manager for the Houston Chronicle during Hurricane Ike in 2008—when that paper’s mobile site proved to be an information lifeline for many stranded people whose only media access was their phone.

“Having a mobile-friendly site during any emergency where a community’s utilities are affected (power, water, etc) can be an incredibly useful tool to get information to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the web,” he said. “You have to boil down the information of a WAP site to the bare essentials. It’s all nut-graph. Information such as which grocery stores are open, which gas stations have gas/power, which streets are flooded, etc, became pretty important info when the only device you have available is a mobile phone.”

Too often, mobile news sites provide little more than headline shovelware. In an emergency, that’s generally not very useful or usable. Instead Herrold recommends posting useful updates and information (rather than stories) on your mobile site during an emergency. “We also updated our mobile site with weather updates, important phone numbers, etc. during the storm.”

While you can put photos on your mobile site, Herrold cautions that your mobile site should use photos sparingly during an emergency. Make sure they’re cropped to display well on a small screen, and choose a lower resolution to yield a smaller file size for the default download.

It’s tempting to set up an SMS text-alert service for emergency mobile publishing, but Herrold cautions that this can get unexpectedly costly if you get slammed with sudden demand.

“SMS isn’t cheap. There are free SMS services out there, but usually they carry advertising,” said Herrold, noting that SMS ads can be especially inappropriate during an emergency. However, a news organization could publish phone numbers to which people can send text or photo messages to the news org (field reports, questions, or requests).

Twitter also can be a useful part of your emergency mobile news strategy—especially because it integrates nicely with text messaging for both sending and receiving tweets. It helps to set up a special Twitter account for occasional, high-priority alerts and resources. That way, people who may be stranded with no power can subscribe to get text alerts only from your emergency news Twitter account—thus making efficient use of their phone’s batteries, and avoiding a flood of texts.

Including Twitter in your emergency mobile news strategy does depend on Twitter being up and running—which is a risk. Also, keep in mind that text subscribers might not receive your emergency news tweets immediately. Put a time notation in each emergency news tweet, to clarify when it was sent. Be sure to tweet appropriate numbers where people can text for help. And make sure Twitter is not your sole mobile-friendly emergency news channel.

Herrold also notes that mobile can be an important part of your emergency newsgathering strategy. “Crowdsourcing information during and after a disaster is pretty effective,” he said. “After a disaster, people want to help. If that can be made simple and easy, they will help. For instance, they could entering their zip code into a database (via text message or mobile web site) and report whether they currently have power or water, or to share neighborhood resources. During Hurricane Ike, Houston Chronicle content director Dean Betz and his team used several databases to gather that type of info, and they filled up quickly.”

October 21, 2010

First-ever mobile hackathon for news, engagement

If going web-first means “fighting the last war” (as’s Steve Buttry says), then who will build the innovative mobile tools we’ll need to push journalism, news, and community engagement forward in the coming decades?

Several of these mobile pioneers gathered in Chicago on Oct. 9-10 for the first-ever Independent Media Mobile Hackathon. In 29 hours, a group of more than 50 journalists and programmers built six prototype mobile apps that combined news, interactivity, fun, and community-building…

By Amy Gahran

“The point of this event was to do a collaborative experiment, not just talk,” said Tracy Van Slyke, director of The Media Consortium, which co-organized the mobile hackathon with Hacks & Hackers.

“We wanted to go beyond creating a mobile app for your news organization,” she continued. “But one of our barriers has been: How do we start jumping in on mobile? Different communities have different needs and capacity levels, especially when it comes to mobile. It made sense to bring together journalists and programmers, because these groups don’t really know how to find each other.”

At the start of the hackathon, 12 ideas were pitched. These were boiled down to six project concepts, each of which got worked on by a small team of journalists and programmers. BigDoor Media (a Seattle company that powers game mechanics for mobile applications) provided the teams with its toolset for increasing user engagement and loyalty via points, badges, levels, leaderboards, and other popular techniques.

On Sunday, the grand prize went to a mobile app called RiotStartr—which enables users to organize their own events, track attendance via an GPS-powered mashup, and report on what happened. This team walked away with $1000 and Xbox 360 gaming consoles.

“There was some pushback on the name, ‘RiotStartr,’ but the judges liked it. It’s catchy,” said Van Slyke.

The RiotStartr team describes this service: “A participant (‘riot starter’) can plan an event, then push it out to those in their social networks on Twitter, Facebook, and via other contacts. Those who want to join can just say ‘I’m in!’ Then, up to two hours before the event, GPS-enabled devices allow for real-time tracking of other ‘rioters,’ which can help reporters better estimate crowd size. Rioters can see each other converging on a location for the event. A reward system encourages rioters to invite more rioters and make the event bigger. Eventually, the app will allow for rioters to ‘report’ on the event by integrating tweets tagged with an event ID and ‘reporters’ will also earn badges.”

The hackathon runners-up were:

  • “Sound bites for sound arguments.” This mobile-friendly tool provides on-the-spot one-line rebuttals to misinformation. “All zin.grs are sourced by reporting and news content. In addition, the community would be able to vote ‘zings’ up and down, comment on their quality, and earn rewards for participation.”
  • BeatBox. Developed with help from students from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, this SMS text messaging-based “switchboard” enables people to easily report public safety issues in their communities. “Community members can text public safety issues to a neighborhood moderator, who can then forward valid reports to the rest of the community—and local beat reporters.”

Other mobile prototypes from this event included iBreakNews, “a hands-on tool for citizen journalists to break and share news using augmented reality”; and I Can Has Newz?, which merges news photography and the language of the popular site LOLcats to engage users in the news cycle via parody (á la The Daily Show).

All code developed at the mobile hackathon has been open sourced.

According to Van Slyke, the value of the hackathon approach is that it’s a fast way to create tools that you can experiment with and grow. “You don’t hire a bunch of developers to spend six months trying to develop the perfect mobile offering in isolation,” she said.

There’s a lot of creativity and energy at hackathons, spurred by friendly competition. It helps to have really good judges, and prizes—but the prizes don’t have to be big or expensive to be valuable. In addition to the cash prized for this mobile hackathon, other prizes included XKCD comic books and O’Reilly technical books.

Sponsor participation was key to this event, which was co-sponsored by the Knight News Challenge, the Chicago Instructional Telecommunications Foundation, BigDoor Media, O’Reilly Media, and the Illinois Technology Association.

Van Slyke strongly urges news organizations to sponsor mobile hackthon events in their communities. “This is a great way to build relationships. Your people will get the best kind of experience working closely and intensely with programmers. It’s creatively stimulating. Best of all, there’s no room for dithering. You have to knuckle down and build something.”

In addition to sponsorship, another big way news organizations can help is to offer space, internet access, and refreshments. “You need enough room where teams can work, really good wifi, and people need to be able to stay there overnight. Some of the best work happens in the wee hours. Provide meals, soft drinks, and snacks.”

March 07, 2011

Workshop: Mobile mecca can be tapped by local media

By A. Adam Glenn
The mobile phone is the new mouse - and local media companies have a chance to grab a chunk of the cheese. That was the consensus of a mobile marketing workshop in New York March 2 that outlined the myriad ways users now engage with mobile campaigns, and drove home the vast near-term growth (much of it local) expected in mobile advertising.

The mobile marketing experts, gathered as part of a local online advertising conference organized by Williamsburg, VA, consulting firm Borrell Associates, made the case that the overall growth potential for mobile advertising is enormous, with tallies into the many billions of dollars.

Local mobile advertising, for instance, is expected to grow from $500 million in 2010 to a remarkable $12.5 billion in 2015, while national mobile advertising will go from $5.8 billion to $28.25 billion, per Peter Conti, an executive VP at Borrell. Similarly, mobile SMS (text) advertising is to skyrocket on the local level from $238 million to $6.85 billion, and on a national level from $1.7 billion to $10.2 billion. Mobile app advertising is also expected to explode - on a local level from $35 million in 2010 to $1.2 billion in 2015, and on a national level from $271 million to $6.9 billion.

In just one market, Louisville, KY, for instance, SMS mobile advertising by businesses was forecast to grow from $1.2 million in 2010 to $33.7 million by 2015, a 3,000 percent growth rate.

Part of the potential for mobile is that almost everyone with a device can send and receive text messages, meaning a U.S. market of 200 million, pointed out Konny Zsigo of Michigan-based mobile marketing firm Wireless Developer Agency. Of those, 20 million use text alerts, 16 million have received a mobile coupon and 8 million have redeemed one. In addition, there are 100 million U.S. mobile web users (in fact, he said some 20 million use only their phones to access the web). He also counted 50 million email and free app users, and 25 million mobile video users.

Local media companies have great potential to leverage this mobile boom
, providing the database and other tools for mobile campaigns, and tapping into the reality that much of mobile users’ focus is local. Sandy Martin of Borrell said fully a third of mobile searches on Google have local intent, while the number for Microsoft is as high as 53 percent. And while only 15 percent of small businesses have tried mobile marketing in last 12 months. Borrell’s Bill Caudill says a survey shows 44 percent are at least somewhat likely to try mobile marketing in 2011.

Among the biggest opportunities are the fast-growing businesses in SMS ad delivery and in online coupons. Conti said for local media websites, for instance, coupons can be a great way to enhance directory listings, and can be customized, for example by using birthdays from user site registration forms to issue celebratory meal coupon offers. Restaurant promotions in general are a strong mobile category, as are other high-margin retailers like car services, salons/spas, cosmetic services, events and tourist attractions, while contests can drive great results. And the potential isn’t just SMS and coupons - Martin noted that Cisco predicts video will be 65 percent of mobile traffic by 2015.

Not that the mobile market is without its challenges. Zsigo suggested that while many national firms want to advertise and providers have lots of inventory, buyers and sellers often have difficulty finding each other. In addition, device fragmentation is a real reality - carriers are constantly looking for ways to segment audiences by making a wide variety of mobile devices, which greatly complicates standardized ad delivery.

The silver lining of that device diversity, however, added Zsigo, is that it also allows you to target campaigns directly to those different devices, pinpointing specific demographics of their users more readily. In addition, a great deal of information can be captured when someone engages with a text message or a mobile site, including knowing their device make and model, carrier, referring sites and whether the person is a repeat visit.

Among the advice the panelists offered was that campaigns are best “in media” - Zsigo suggested that a much higher response rate can be expected if you ask users to do something directly on the device they’re using to access the campaign (a mobile message seeking a response on mobile, for instance), rather than to go to another medium to act (a display ad asking someone to dial a mobile code). Caudill suggested keeping discounts simple (two-for-ones or “dollars off” work best), creating urgency with new offers and expiration dates, offering all details upfront to avoid customer frustration, and freely testing out different offers. Martin also advised owning your own customer lists, collecting consumers no one else has in as granular a way as possible.

Presentations are available free for download from the workshop - and other parts of the three-day Borrell Associates conference.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

March 24, 2011

Wireless duopoly coming: What news organizations have at stake

AT&T’s recent bid to buy T-Mobile could radically transform the US mobile landscape by creating a virtual duopoly. This means the mostly-mobile future of digital media would be primarily in the hands of Verizon and AT&T.

This situation, coupled with gaping loopholes in FCC regulations that largely exempt wireless carriers from net neutrality requirements, offers potential good news and bad news for the news business…

By Amy Gahran

There’s ample debate about whether the FCC or Dept. of Justice will eventually approve this particular merger. But in the long run the wireless industry will almost certainly consolidate further. Ultimately, a duopoly of some kind is the most likely outcome, since that would provide at least a pretense of competition.

Here’s why that might be good news for the media/news business:

High-speed wireless broadband rollouts would probably accelerate. In order to continue to meet booming consumer demand for data-intensive mobile services (such as streaming video to cell phones and tablets), carriers need to upgrade their networks to faster “4G” technologies (LTE, Wimax, HSPA+, etc.).

This is a costly undertaking, but it’s likely to happen faster and more comprehensively if carriers can leverage economies of scale. Bigger carriers with more customers are in the best position to get this job done.

US carriers have no choice but to massively upgrade their networks. Their existing systems are already creaking under the weight of current demand—and that situation will only get worse. Overburdened wireless networks hurt the quality and speed of service for all mobile customers, not just the data hogs. So it’s good news for consumers if 4G networks can be rolled out more quickly across the US.

This, in turn, is good news for organizations (including news organizations) that provide content and services to mobile users. Serving your mobile audience is becoming paramount, since in the next few years most US web access is expected to happen from mobile devices, according to Gartner. Ultimately, media is only as good as its delivery. If wireless networks can manage to keep pace with consumer demand, that opens more markets and opportunities for media companies and advertisers.

Then, there’s the bad news…

Wireless carriers effectively can control what your mobile audience can access. The FCC’s Open Internet Order passed last December exempted wireless broadband providers from most net neutrality requirements.

The rules prohibit “paid prioritization” (carriers requiring content providers to pay a fee to ensure that their content gets delivered at an acceptable speed). But the rules do leave the door open for carriers to charge their customers (mobile users) to receive acceptable network speed—either for all content, or perhaps to access specific types of services, or for specific sites.

Which means that if your news organization is offering a rich digital media experience, carrier decisions could effectively render your content unappealing, or even unusable.

This wouldn’t even necessarily just affect smartphones and tablets. Over the coming years, as next-generation wireless broadband technology gets rolled out, it’s possible that many consumers might decide to ditch their wired cable modem and DSL home broadband connections with all-wireless service. So a company like AT&T could, and probably will, be streaming movies over the air that people will watch on their TVs, not just on their iPads. And increasingly wireless carriers will also be providing internet/web access to laptop computers. (They already are, via Mifi devices, USB sticks, and tethering plans.)

Think it can’t happen? Look at what’s been happening to landline phones.

If consumers could save money by going with one wireless provider, rather than a wireless phone service plus a wired broadband connection, they’d probably do it—if the service was reliable and good enough, and if today’s TV channels morph into tomorrow’s wireless channels, which seems likely.

Furthermore, Verizon is already suing the FCC to get the new “net neutrality lite” rules overturned in court. So it’s possible that the current scant requirements for wireless carriers—including the ban on paid prioritization—might evaporate.

In this case, carriers would almost certainly implement new fees to content providers. And, based on how hard AT&T was pushing for paid prioritization last summer, they’d probably be leading that charge.

These issues are all moving targets, but it’s important for news organizations to follow the interplay between wireless industry consolidation, 4G network rollouts, and the effects of net neutrality rules.

Like it or not, wireless carriers wield increasing power over the media business. Knowledge of that shifting landscape should inform your strategy for what kinds of content and experiences you offer in the coming years.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

April 07, 2011

Motivating the mobile transition: Will Sullivan’s advice for news orgs

Want your news organization to adapt faster to mobile media? Try gearing up from the top down—and kick in to pay for reporters’ and editors’ smartphones. Those are some recommendations from Will Sullivan, interactive director for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a speaker at the upcoming KDMC Mobile Symposium.

“When the editors get smartphones and tablets, and start using them, that can really affect their priorities around mobile,” he said…

By Amy Gahran

“Two years ago I started pitching ideas for how our paper could go mobile, but it mostly fell on deaf ears,” said Sullivan. “Then the company shifted how it provided mobile phones. They used to issue everyone a Windows Mobile phone—but then they switched it to a subsidy for a personal phone, so people could get the device they wanted. That’s when the editors started getting iPhones and Android phones—and that really drove their interests.”

“It’s a simple thing: Make sure the people who are directing the organization really understand and use mobile devices—including tablets.”

Improving the personal economics can be a significant way to motivate people learn. Sullivan notes that many reporters and editors have learned, and are using, social media—but social media generally doesn’t entail any out-of-pocket costs. In contrast, with smartphones, you need to buy a device that can cost at least up to a few hundred dollars up front. And the really pricey part is the two-year contract that’s required with most smartphones.

The paper offered a subsidy of $100 toward the purchase price of a personal phone, plus reporters got $60/month toward the cost of their smartphone plan. Feature phone users got a $30/month subsidy. Later, the parent company started offering a similar deal to its smaller papers.

How to justify this expense? Sullivan says: “Maybe ask yourself: do you really need all those landlines and desk phones?”

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

July 04, 2011

Filing from the field: Systems that make mobile reporting work

Increasingly, reporters are heading out into the field armed with smartphones. They’re shooting photos and video, recording audio, posting updates, gathering geodata, and much more. But how are they filing all that great content back to the newsroom? Too often, this key part of the process is an unwieldy, inefficient hack centered around e-mail. Here’s how newsrooms might better manage the flow of inbound content from mobile devices…

By Amy Gahran

Usually, when field reporters file content from their smartphones, they simply e-mail it to an editor’s e-mail address (or perhaps to the general newsroom e-mail address).  This may be the easiest and fastest way for a field reporter to file from a phone, but it’s not the best approach because of how e-mail gets used on the receiving end.

E-mail remains popular because it’s the lowest common denominator of digital media. It’s inherently cross-platform and bridges the mobile/computer divide. Almost anyone can send and receive e-mail from almost any internet-connected device. But it has big problems, too.

Problem: E-mail is hard to parse

The reason why everyone complains of e-mail overload is because, for most people, their inbox is one largely undifferentiated mass of messages from various sources about various topics, both expected and not. In the recipient’s mind, subject lines rarely translate clearly to current projects and tasks.

For instance, imagine a copy desk editor gets an e-mail from a field reporter with a subject line that says simply: School board meeting. Before opening the e-mail, the editor must take a moment to consider:

  • What story was that reporter working on today?
  • Is this an update to the school board story that the reporter filed for the morning deadline?
  • Is this for an entirely different school-related story?
  • Were any important decisions or news expected from this meeting?
  • How fast might we need to publish this content?
  • Who needs to handle this content next?

All of this questioning might happen in just a second or two—but it’s a demanding couple of seconds.

When the editor opens and scan the reporter’s e-mail to answer those questions, she’ll mentally parse it into categories such as “new story” and “not for tonight’s deadline.” Then she’ll decide which action to take. If she doesn’t handle the new content herself, she’ll forward the original e-mail along (probably without adjusting the subject line) to another editor—who will probably repeat this process.

Of course, if either editor is dealing with other pressing concerns, the cryptic nature of the subject line might be enough to cause them to put off opening it for minutes or longer.

In the big picture, the cumulative cognitive burden of constantly having to do so much mental processing and sorting can significantly increase the stress that newsroom staff experience. You may not even realize how much work you’re doing in your head to solve puzzles presented by vague e-mail subject lines—but your brain definitely feels it.

Solution 1: Actionable e-mail subject lines

Ultimately it’s best to get content filing out of your e-mail and into some kind of real content management process. Smartphones offer useful tools for this.

But before you add new tools, consider training your newsroom staff in better e-mail techniques—specifically, how to write more useful, actionable e-mail subject lines.

You can develop your own subject line conventions, from fairly informal to very rigid. Just make sure that the reporters understand how important it is to clearly signify which e-mails contain publishable content.

For instance, the reporter in my example could have titled that mobile e-mail: URGENT Update Wed metro: middle school consolidation delayed.

This subject line makes several key points obvious:

  • Type of content (update to published story)
  • Level of urgency (and thus, timing)
  • Who should be handling this content (probably the metro editor)
  • The news value

...All of this makes the editorial decision making process easier and faster as soon as the e-mail arrives.

Reporters may resist this or dismiss it as a hassle. Typing on even the best smartphone is generally a chore, and mobile e-mail clients have awkward interfaces. But when you file copy, it’s not an ordinary message, it’s part of an editorial process. In effect: If e-mail is part of your content management system, you need to be systematic about how you use it

If your mobile filing system relies on e-mail, you could get fancier with custom e-mail addresses, automated labeling, etc. But in my experience, clear, actionable subject lines are the simplest and best way to ensure that filed content gets handled appropriately.

Solution 2: Apps for sharing services

If your field reporters are using smartphones (especially Android or iPhone models), you could choose a good third-party service for filing content, and use its associated apps. The advantage is that you can set up dedicated categories or other ways to designate specific projects, sections, or beats; provide access only to staff; and use feeds or sharing mechanisms to transfer content into your content management system.

Posterous is one good option because the basic service is free, and you can configure it for private group use. It was designed as a publishing platform, but you can use it to manage part of your internal content workflow.

Set up private Posterous groups based upon your workflow for handling content coming in from reporters in the field—which might be based on who reports to whom, or by section, or type of content (daily stories, features, etc.).

Posterous has free native smartphone apps for iPhone and Android. Make sure your reporters install this app on their phones, and set up their own free Posterous accounts.

Once they’ve done that, invite mobile reporters to join the appropriate groups you’ve set up for filing. The Posterous interface makes it easier to choose from multiple groups (one reporter might have to file different kinds of content different ways), add media and tags, and even geotag content.

For reporters who use other types of phones, a key advantage of Posterous is that you can post directly to this system via special e-mail addresses. But unlike ordinary e-mail, these messages feed directly into your editorial handling process—not into your regular inbox where all sorts of messages go.

Once everyone’s set up to use Posterous, ask reporters to practice filing via Posterous in non-critical situations. Or maybe bring reporters on to Posterous one at a time or in small groups to ease the transition and refine your process.

You also could use Evernote‘s shared notebooks or a private Tumblr group blog in similar ways. Find the tools that work for you.

Solution 3: Build your own CMS app

A more advanced approach would be to develop or customize a smartphone app that integrates directly with your content management system. This is easier if you’re using a digital-first CMS such as WordPress, Drupal, or Ellington. The point is: You could build an app that’s meant for internal staff use, rather than external publishing.

The key benefit is that it allows field reporters to directly enter content into your real CMS—not just send it to someone else who has to enter it for them. Ultimately, this saves time and effort for everyone. It allows your reporters to take the newsroom with them into the field.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

August 18, 2011

How people use cell phones should shape mobile news strategies

If you want to serve a mobile audience, it helps to know how people use their cell phones. A new Pew Internet and American Life report examines mobile phone use, and offers some insights that may be directly and indirectly useful to news publishers…

According to Pew, 83% of U.S. adults own a cell phone of some kind. That’s something over 200 million people nationwide, extrapolating from the latest comScore mobile market statistics.

How can news publishers serve this large audience?...

By Amy Gahran

Be useful—and fast. For mobile users, “news you can use”—especially if published in fact sheets, dashboards, or other formats besides narrative stories—might help attract and retain mobile audiences.

Pew noted: “Cell phones are useful for quick information retrieval—so much so that their absence can cause problems. Half of all adult cell owners (51%) had used their phone at least once to get information they needed right away. One quarter (27%) said that they experienced a situation in the previous month in which they had trouble doing something because they did not have their phone at hand.”

So don’t underestimate the value of non-story-format info such as sports scores, local weather, event listings, resource guides, restaurant reviews and more. For mobile audiences, useful info presented well (and quickly) might be a significant draw.

Also, consider giving users of your mobile web site and apps ways to bookmark specific stories on your site, making them easier to find quickly later on mobile devices. Don’t make them waste time searching again for what they’ve already found. (Searching in mobile sites or apps is generally pretty cumbersome for mobile users.)

Be fun. According to Pew, 42% of all cell owners (including 70% of those 18-29 years old) turn to their phone for entertainment when bored. To capitalize on this, make it easy for mobile users to find your fun content.

This doesn’t mean news orgs should create more “light” or “weird” news, at the expense of serious news. It just means if you make obvious whatever is entertaining about your news, and make it easy to find this content, you’ll probably attract more mobile users.

Also, consider adding fun layers to your news content via contest such as “caption this photo,” news-related games, and more. And, of course, make sure your mobile sites and apps make it easy for mobile users to share your content via social media—something many people consider “fun.”

Offer text messaging services. Pew found that 73% of all cell phone owners send or receive text messages. So offering a variety of opt-in text alerts (both ongoing and special-purpose) can be a vital tool for keeping your news brand on the radar of mobile users.

Accept user-contributed images. Similarly, 73% of mobile users take photos with their cell phones, and 22% have posted photos or videos online from their phone. So consider ways that you might put user-contributed imagery to use. This could be done via MMS (multimedia messaging, available to all types of phones), a mobile-friendly web form, or a feature of your mobile app. This could be part of contests, games, or campaigns.

Serve both smartphones and feature phones

Earlier this year Pew estimated that 35% of U.S. mobile phones currently in use are smartphones. This means that simpler, less costly feature phones still comprise the vast majority of the U.S. mobile market.

Despite the smartphone hype, feature phones probably won’t vanish anytime soon since they’re cheaper to get, and they offer more affordable and flexible carrier plan options. So news organizations should consider both types of mobile users in their offerings.

Smartphone and feature phone users do tend to use their phones differently.

Smartphone apps currently are the primary focus for most news orgs’ mobile strategies. Pew did find that 69% of smartphone users have downloaded apps. But: This means that over 30% of smartphone owners have not downloaded apps. That group probably includes a lot of BlackBerry users (overall a less robust platform for both apps and the mobile web).

Also, Pew found that 84% of smartphone owners (84%) access the Internet from their phones—significantly more than the 69% who download apps.

In contrast, 15% of feature phone users currently get online from their phones. However, going by comScore’s numbers that’s probably somewhere around 20 million feature phone users—a substantial existing audience for the mobile web.

These statistics underscore the core value of the mobile web: this single offering can serve huge numbers of mobile users well, largely irrespective of platform or device type.

So before investing too heavily in app development for specific smartphone or tablet platforms, news organizations probably should first make sure they have a good mobile web site that works for both full and limited mobile browsers. Doing so might grow your share of the feature phone audience well beyond 15%, and attract larger numbers of smartphone users as well (especially via inbound links to your site).

Intriguingly, 4% of feature phone users have downloaded apps. (Yes, most feature phones can and do run simple apps, and popular apps stores like GetJar and Snaptu serve this market.)

Many online publishers interpret small-sounding statistics like this to dismiss the need to offer content in formats friendly to feature phones. However, this seemingly tiny market segment comprises about 6 million people—and it has substantial room to grow. It’s possible that as feature phones continue to get “smarter” this segment of the mobile media landscape will grow to the point that it becomes a more attractive channel for news publishers. So it’s worth keeping an eye on.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

September 23, 2011

Quick survey for local mobile market research

By Amy Gahran

At the recent bootcamp for this year’s Knight Community Information Challenge projects, I discussed how new digital media projects serving local community needs can go mobile in useful ways. A good way to start is to do some local mobile market research…

Local is always a key aspect of mobile media, since the characteristics of wireless networks and mobile users can vary substantially from one community to the next.

Some towns, or some parts of town, may have better or worse access to faster wireless networks. Similarly, some people in certain demographics or neighborhoods might be more or less likely to have the latest smartphones. Also, people often are influenced by local peers in their preferences for how they use their cell phones.

If your mission is to serve your entire community, going mobile is essential. Gartner has predicted that in the next couple of years, most internet access in the U.S. will occur on mobile devices.

“Going mobile” means offering content or engagement through a variety of channels supported by cell phones. Native smartphone apps are only part of this picture. Some of the most popular mobile media channels are SMS text messaging, e-mail, the mobile web (using the phone’s web browser), multimedia messaging (photos and video), and social media.

The point of going mobile generally is not to try to deliver the full value of your venue. Rather, mobile tends to complement your larger online presence by building awareness, enhancing your timeliness and relevance, and encouraging engagement and sharing.

Last year for Oakland Local (a community news/view site I helped found), I conducted some basic mobile market research. Based on that experience, below is a rough outline for the kinds of questions a community news/info publisher or service provider might want to ask in a survey, to suss out which mobile offerings might work best in their community. I’ve tried to explain how each question yields actionable info for a mobile strategy.

How to conduct this survey

I strongly recommend going out into the field to talk to people face to face,  in the situations where they use their mobile phones. Look for people who are using their phone for something other than talking. Also look for people who are representative of the locations and demographics you most want to reach or serve. Don’t just poll people who already know your news/community site—part of the point here is to use mobile to grow beyond your current audience.

Surveying strangers in the field is more work, and perhaps more daunting, than polling people you know or via online channels. However, it’s really worth the effort. You’ll get to see firsthand what types of phones people have—and how, when, and where they use them. If you ask, people will generally show you what they like or don’t like about their phone.

Bring some gift cards for popular local stores or eateries—a $3 gift card seemed to be sufficient to convince people to spend a few minutes talking about their phone. Wearing a t-shirt or badge advertising your news venue can make it easier to approach potential participants.

When I first did local mobile market research for Oakland Local last summer, I made this process much harder than it needed to be—primarily by asking too many questions. When a survey is complex, it’s harder to get people to participate and it’s harder to clean useful answers from the data. So I’ve pared down my question list below to the bare minimum, to yield the data that will probably be most directly useful.

How many people should you poll? A good goal is about 50, as long as you’re really hitting a fairly representative sample. But 25 is a decent start. This is basic market research, not a scientific investigation. Also, this research should be iterative—done every 6-12 months. Mobile changes very fast.


1. What kind of phone do you have? Manufacturer and model.

It’s a bad idea to ask people whether they own a smartphone—people commonly answer that incorrectly. For example, many owners of simple BlackBerry phones don’t realize they have a smartphone. Conversely, many feature phone owners mistakenly think they have a smartphone because their phone has a web browser and/or a touchscreen.

If you’re doing this survey in person, as I recommended, you can look at the phone and jot down the manufacturer and model. This will also tell you what kinds of networks the phone can access (3G, 4G, etc.) so you won’t have to ask about that separately. (But if the person has an iPhone, ask what generation it is. That info might not be immediately obvious from looking at the device.)

A true smartphone uses an operating system that can run native applications (software designed to run on a specific platform). And that’s all you’re trying to discover with this question: whether it’s worthwhile for you to develop a native smartphone app (a considerable investment).

At this point, the only smartphone platforms that are important to app developers are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. In the future, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry QNX might also become more viable for app publishers.

Stick to cell phones. Tablets and e-readers offer a very different, more immersive user experience—so while those devices are portable, they’re not really “mobile” media tools. If tablets and e-readers are common in your community, they probably warrant a separate strategy. (The exception is the iPod Touch, which many people use as a cheap wifi-only iPhone without the phone.)

2. How do you pay for your phone?

Answer options:

  • Two-year carrier contract
  • No contract (monthly bill or prepaid)
  • Don’t know / I don’t pay the bill

Knowing how people pay for their phone today can indicate which kind of phone they’re likely to have in a year or two. This can help you plan what kinds of mobile offerings to develop.

People who have a two-year carrier contract probably already have a smartphone or will get one very soon.

People who are on no-contract plans (monthly flat rate, or prepaid) are more likely to own a simpler, less costly feature phones. Unless highly affordable smartphones ($100 or less up front, with monthly costs of about $70 or less) start becoming very common on no-contract plans in the U.S., expect that for the next year or two at least these people will probably remain mostly on feature phones.

If the overall or local economy improves markedly and quickly, smartphones might take over sooner and this question might become less relevant. But if the economic recovery continues to crawl or stalls, expect smartphones to remain the minority in most communities (except highly affluent towns, or college towns) for some time.

This means non-app options (especially the mobile web, e-mail, and SMS) probably should form the core of your mobile strategy for now, since they’ll reach the widest possible audience.

3. Which of these features do you use on your phone, and how often?

Record this answer in a grid. For each, indicate one of these options: Most days, sometimes, rarely, never/not available

  • Text messaging (send or receive messages to other people)
  • Text alerts (sign up to get news or alerts via text message—from your bank, your favorite sports team, etc.)
  • Take photos or video
  • Share (or post online) photos or video that you took with your phone
  • E-mail (send or receive)
  • Access web sites or search the web
  • Social media (peruse or post by any mobile means: apps, web, SMS, etc.)
  • Watch videos (YouTube, TV shows, anything)
  • Subscribe to or download audio or video podcasts
  • Download and install new apps

This question will reveal which mobile channels most people in your community are already using for any reason (not necessarily related to news). Whatever is most popular—make sure you include that in your mobile strategy!

This question also indirectly indicates the answer to another question—which inbound mobile channels you should offer to allow people to contribute content, comments, or ideas for your venture. For instance, if lots of people in your community share photos from their phone, then maybe you might want to set up an e-mail address or phone number at which you could easily accept community photo contributions.

Definitely do not ask how people get “news” or “community info” on their phones. It’s more important to focus on device usage preferences than content preferences. People often tend to pigeonhole “the news”—and you want to become part of their overall life.

In another year or two it’ll be worth asking whether people are using location-based services to discover important, interesting, useful, or fun stuff nearby. But for now—given the difficulty with properly geotagging news/info content and integrating it with popular locative services such as Foursquare or Yelp—it’s probably too early for that information to be actionable.

4. When people you know send you links or other stuff to check out (via text messaging, photo messaging, e-mail, social media, etc.), do you tend to check it out on your phone—or wait until you’re at a computer?

Answer options:

  • Usually I will check it out from my phone.
  • Sometimes I’ll check it out from my phone.
  • I rarely or never check out links or recommendations on my phone.

As new Gallup research indicates, recommendations that people receive through their personal social networks are perhaps the most powerful tool to increase and enhance brand awareness and loyalty.

Absolutely everyone who uses any digital communication channel gets recommendations from their social networks—everything from cute cat pictures to huge breaking news stories. Most people also share links or other recommendations with their social circles via digital media.

On most mobile devices it’s a somewhat simpler task to follow a link (read a forwarded e-mail, etc.) that you receive from someone else, rather than send or post a link, picture, etc. for others to check out. So it’s sufficient to simply ask whether people follow links they get on their mobile device.

The more common it is for people in your community to use their cell phone to check out links, content, or recommendations that they receive from people they know, the more important it is for your mobile web site to display reasonably well on a simple mobile web browser—specifically the browsers that come installed on feature phones.

Even if your primary audience mostly uses smartphones, chances are good that they’re also sharing links or content with their networks—and it’s likely that plenty of people in their networks are using feature phones. You want those recommendations to work, because that can help grow your audience.

5. Which digital services do you tend to use most to communicate with GROUPS of people (not just individuals)—whether from your phone, computer, or any other device? (Includes posting, commenting, and reading/viewing)

Record this answer in a grid. Customize this list according to what’s appropriate for your community. For each, indicate one of these options: Most days, sometimes, rarely, never/not available

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • MySpace
  • Tumblr
  • Foursquare
  • LinkedIn
  • Flickr
  • E-mail discussion lists
  • Group texting (GroupMe, etc.)
  • Group instant messaging (via BlackBerry Messenger, AOL IM, etc.)
  • Other (describe)

Social media is one of the most popular mobile non-voice activities, after e-mail and texting. It’s also one of the most powerful channels for community engagement and personal recommendations. Any local news or community site must have a strong presence in the social media that are most relevant to your community.

I’m defining “social media” very broadly here, as: any channel or service that allows people to communicate publicly or privately with a defined group on an ongoing basis. That’s because the point is to figure out how to build awareness and engagement within groups—not just to get the most Facebook friends.

Whichever social media channels are most popular with people in your community, make sure you have a strong presence there. If most local people are on Twitter or MySpace or Foursquare, you need to be there—actively conversing with people, not just broadcasting. If e-mail lists, group texting, or other more closed channels are popular, you need to be there too (though that’ll take more bridge building to gain access and trust).

And of course, every link that you post on social media should lead to a page that works well on simpler mobile browsers. If it’s a kind of content that simply won’t display well on a feature phone browser (such as an interactive data visualization, a pdf file, a large video, or a Soundslides presentation), indicate the content type in your post so mobile users can decide whether to click. Preventing their frustration is key. Mobile users remember when someone frustrates them.

...These five questions are a very basic starting point. They won’t tell you absolutely everything about your local mobile market—but they’ll probably give you enough information to make better choices as you start experimenting with mobile offerings.

These questions also can be a great starting point for community conversations. After you’ve run through the quick survey, you can ask, “So what do you you really love to do with your phone? Or what really bugs you? Could you show me?” That can lead to some fun and intriguing conversations.

People tend to have very strong emotional connections to their cell phones—positive and negative. The more you understand that connection, the easier it will be to engage with them via the phones in their hands.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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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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