Mobile news is the next challenge

by Melissa Di Costanzo
Twittermania is just one part of the next generation of journalism: news on the phone.

by Melissa Di Costanzo

Saleem Khan, national chairman of the Canadian Association of Journalists, was at a friend’s housewarming party in Toronto when he decided to catch a breather and do something he frequently does: check the news reports on his mobile.

When he decided to casually post a note on Twitter — a social networking and blogging service — a couple of previous posts caught his eye: Toronto transit staff were about to walk off the job at midnight. It was 11:00 p.m. and Khan had to get home.

Khan flipped on the television to double-check the news. About five minutes after he saw the posts on Twitter, he watched the TV flood with reports.

“No one at the party knew and there were lots of people who took transit,” he explains. “If I hadn’t received that alert, then I would have spent $60 on a cab ride.”

Techies versus traditionalists

Khan says he hasn’t bought a newspaper since 1998.

He is one of the 20.1 million Canadians the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association claims is a wireless phone subscriber, and one of the 19 per cent of Canadians found by Ipsos News Centre who depend on their mobiles — cell phones or PDAs equipped with wireless technology — for more than just communication.

Khan thinks printed word is slowly fading away.

“As the cost of paper and oil increases, the cost of technology will decrease. Both of those costs will cross very soon,” says Khan. “When that happens, you’ll see a major shift away from paper displays.”

The Toronto Star, the National Post, Metro and the Calgary Herald all have mobile sites — websites designed specifically for mobile devices — for readers who want breaking news as it happens, like Khan. With mobile technology in a constant state of improvement — the line-ups forming outside of Rogers stores when Apple’s iPhone arrived are a testament to this — more media outlets are jumping on the mobile site bandwagon.

“We’ve noticed there are an awful lot of people running around town with BlackBerry’s and other smart phones on their hips,” says Sheryl Grant, web manager for The Halifax Chronical Herald. “I think, given that change in how people are accessing their news, we decided that as soon as we could, we needed to (create a mobile site).”

Pocket press: a faster way to get news

Continual access to a computer can be a luxury for those not always at a desk.

Alyson Queen, public affairs manager of Bell Aliant, explains how mobiles can be extremely useful for readers who spend their days outside the office.

She says readers can view mobile websites in three different ways: they can surf the web, as they would on a computer, they can get news sent directly to e-mail or via text message or they can customize the news they want to receive and how they want to receive it on their mobile.

Provided there is wireless access, readers can get news anywhere from the airport to the zoo.

Kunal Gupta, CEO of Polar Mobile, says more media companies — like the Toronto Star and the Calgary Herald — are licensing mobile servicing companies (like Polar) to extend their brand to mobiles by way of mobile websites.

“When you look at the media industry, everything in print has been moved to online. Things are now starting to move to mobile,” he says, noting Polar’s work with Canadian Business and Maclean’s.

Gupta says readers are beginning and continuing to use their mobiles to access news simply because it’s fast, easy and convenient.

“It’s important that people see content at their phones, at their fingertips,” he says, adding people usually spend about half an hour browsing on their mobiles for news and other information. “That’s part of the culture, that’s part of the use of phones. People are not used to waiting.”

For die-hard news followers or professional news-chasers, yesterday’s news has become a thing of the past.

“Real time, when you want it, on demand. Those are the types of things the customers and the general public are now becoming accustomed to,” Queen says.

Which means news in a newspaper is new no longer. Chris Hogg, CEO of Digital Journal Inc., a social news site driven by citizen journalists, notes a new niche for newspapers.

“Lots of newspaper space these days is being devoted to editorials, opinions, heavy photography, the feature-type content,” he explains. “You don’t pick up a newspaper to find out what breaking news is. It’s more the analysis, the impact. It’s kind of a value-add.”

Hogg’s last newspaper purchase was about four years ago. He says immediacy is a key hook for people who want up-to-date breaking news.

A four-inch screen doesn’t go well with coffee

Hogg says readers will always want something tangible to get their news from.

“I think there’s always going to be a future for newspapers,” he says. “There’s always going to be the in-depth analysis that maybe someone won’t want (to read) holding a phone with a four-inch screen.”

He notes a dent in the mobile news-hungry population: Hogg thinks an older age demographic will be less inclined to use their mobiles to read news because they haven’t grown up with the technology.

“Usage does depend on the age category that you’re looking at,” he says. “Anyone who is younger than 40, I would argue, their media consumption habits are very different that anyone who is older than 40.”

Hogg also says Canadians wary of spending vast amounts on technology may shy away from reading news on their mobiles: a study released in June 2005 by Innovation Analysis Bulletin found the average revenue per mobile subscriber was $46.72 per month in 2001. In 2003, this number climbed to $52.32.

“I think definitely a budget-conscious Canadian would be less likely to use their mobile device to consume news,” he says, also noting the $299 price tag of a 16GB iPhone in Canada.

Chris Tindal, content manager, interactive, of Metro Canada says mobile technology is still premature and lacks consistency: news on a mobile website on one mobile appears much differently than it does on another.

“The thing about mobiles that is both exciting and challenging is that it is very similar to the early days of the web, in that everyone is still trying to figure out exactly what the best way to use mobiles is,” he says. “Just like the early days of the web … the mobile industry, or sector, is going through a lot of growing pains there.”

Zac Echola, a producer for Forum Interactive Communications Company in North Dakota, says a lot of work needs to be done in order to entice more mobile readers.

“Mobile devices tend to be technologically scatterbrained. The standards are everywhere. They have different web protocols they have to access the internet, and different browsers. And it makes it hard for a developer for all these different web page organizations,” he says. “Eventually, there will be standard protocols.”

And Aliant’s Queen says the mobile industry is just getting warmed up.

“I think the industry in general is one where in the next few years, we’re very much in a state of change,” she says. “Telecommunications in general is in a state of change.”

Reader’s choice

Like it or not, mobile websites are here to stay. Their role in relation to print media, though, is still developing.

Tindal puts forth his hypothesis.

“Ideally, I think mobiles would allow you to react and interact on-the-go,” he says. “I envision a day where you’ll be reading a newspaper and you’ll see something that you want to react to and comment on, and you’ll be able to instantly interact with other people who are reading that paper, people who are all over Halifax, through their mobile devices.”

Rachel Boomer, former editor of Metro News in Halifax, hopes mobiles will connect readers to the printed product.

“By necessity, you can’t read a big story on a cell phone, or on a smart phone. You have to go to the newspaper or newspaper website to read the full analysis of the election, or whatever it is that you’re looking for,” she says. “So, maybe what will happen is that people will read on their mobile device, it’ll pique their interest and they’ll go looking for more.”

Tindal concludes on a reassuring note: while each medium — print, mobile and online — presents news in a different format at different times, all three will serve the same purpose: allow readers access to news.

“Web is not going to replace print, and mobile is not going to replace web or print. All three will have their advantages and disadvantages,” he explains.

Gupta says the choice of preferred medium lies with the reader.

“I think print and mobile can make a very strong combination together,” he says. “In the end, it’s all about users and about the content they want.”

Related links: URLs for newspaper mobile websites

Canada
The Toronto Star
Metro
The Globe and Mail

The National Post
The Calgary Herald

United States
USA Today
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal
The L.A. Times
The Washington Post
The New York Post

Europe
The Guardian
The Daily Telegraph
The Times
Le Monde
The Financial Times
Telegraph

By the numbers: Canadian Online!
2008 Canadian Internet Project

85% of Canadians report they personally use a cell phone
34% of Canadians consider newspapers to be more reliable than the internet, while 24% chose the internet over newspapers
46% of Canadians have not cancelled a newspaper subscription if the content is available online
32% of internet users use wireless devices (this includes a device built into a computer, OR a cell phone/PDA)
40% of students and 36% of employed Canadians have the highest wireless penetration rate
13% (or just over one in 10) of Canadians access the internet through cell phones
4.1 hours a week: devices that show the lowest level of internet activity are mobile devices

For the full report, click here: