Historical View: News providers moving to mobile can learn from Web transition
|The history of the Internet and news media reveals that most publishers and broadcasters neglected to treat the Web as a new and unique medium early on.
While many played with new capabilities (video, allowing readers to comment instantly, linking to other sources, etc.), most news publishers in the 1990s and early 2000s were content to use their Web sites to publish the same type of content as they had done in the past on legacy media.
The same mistake made in transitioning from print (and broadcast) to the Web must not be repeated now that the news industry must further transition from the PC Web to mobile.
Is it really possible to put large, time-consuming, attention-demanding, enterprise and investigative reporting packages on the small screen of a smartphone?
The modern smartphone may have a small screen, but in some ways it can be a superior experience to the desktop PC or laptop for interacting with content. A strong advantage is that a smartphone is a device that many people have with them nearly all the time, so news can be consumed in many places and situations where a laptop (maybe even a digital tablet) is impractical: waiting in line at the grocery checkout; waiting for the light to turn green while driving; standing on a crowded subway train for the 20-minute commute to work; and yes, while using the toilet. Today’s smartphone has such features as GPS and geo-location, so it can identify your exact physical location and deliver custom content or data that is based on that information.
VoiceofSanDiego.com, working with The Extraordinaries, asks readers to use their phones to document government water waste by submitting photos (iPhone screen grab from The Extraordinaries app)
Let’s say you’re viewing a mobile Web version or mobile app of a news report on the worst potholes on regional highways. With the smartphone version of the story, it could show you where reported potholes are located near where you are driving at the moment on an interactive map. Further, you could be urged by the reporter to take a photo of an unreported large pothole and send it to the news organization covering the story (directly from the smartphone); the editors would receive your photo along with GPS coordinates of the pothole’s location to add to their map database, and all you had to do was snap a quick photo and click “Send.” (There are many more advantages, and you’ll read about them in later chapters.)
In other words, the mobile editorial content experience need not be just a shrunken version of news as viewed on the Web with a laptop or desktop computer, or digital tablet.
And that’s where a history lesson comes in for news publishers. In a few words, it is: “Old models cannot be forced upon new media.” A corollary: “Learn from the past.”
Lessons from the 1990s
As has been well documented, the U.S. newspaper industry did a poor job adapting to the World Wide Web, which (should have) first caught their notice in late 1993 with the introduction of the first widely used Web browser (developed by then University of Illinois student Mark Andreessen and his team, called NCSA Mosaic ). Through the rest of the 1990s, newspaper companies mostly viewed the Web as an alternative medium to present the same content that they always had published on paper : text, photos, advertising. And they did not, for the most part, treat the Web as a publishing medium that was anywhere near as important as their more than century-old print franchise. Magazines and TV news operations fared even worse, many relegating their early Web sites to promotional duty for their legacy media products .
Look back further in time and you will find similar trends in the history of print media, going back to the early 19th Century, with publishers responding conservatively to newly emerging media technologies: telegraphy, film newsreels, radio, broadcast television, cable TV, etc.
A shovelware approach by the news industry to mobile news could be disastrous
Meanwhile, mid- and late-1990s entrepreneurs recognized the opportunity of the Web and its world-altering potential. Focusing solely on the new digital medium, fortunes were made in the first Internet bubble market, which burst in the year 2000 . Some of those early Internet companies survived and prospered again as the industry began its second ascent in the 2000s: Monster.com (founded in 1994); Yahoo! (1994); eBay (1995); Craigslist (1996); Google (1998)… While none of those were news companies and were not viewed in the 1990s as representing serious competitive threats by most newspaper executives, each took chunks from the newspaper industry’s decades-old near-monopolies in various ad sectors. (Ditto for other news forms.) Today, companies like Yahoo! directly compete in the news space by both aggregating and producing news. Google has a huge impact on the news business with its a href=”http://news.google.com/” target=”_blank”>Google News aggregation service and by the massive amount of advertising revenue it brings in from search ads, part of which has shifted away from the newspaper industry. Monster.com, eBay, and Craigslist all have eaten away at newspapers’ once-lucrative classifieds business. 
Perhaps even more of a mistake than not taking the Internet seriously enough, many newspapers throughout the 1990s and some even well into the 2000s dismissed one of the most powerful characteristics of the online world: It allows people with common interests to instantly find and communicate with each other, in a virtual world with no geographic boundaries. It also affords the “audience” for news the ability to communicate with the people who produce the news, and each other. Alas, old-media news organizations like newspapers were slow to warm to that idea, many preferring to keep their journalists at a distance from their “readers” and “viewers” — i.e., to hold on to the traditional journalist-as-gatekeeper model, and resist a bottom-up movement where the audience gained some power. News executives also didn’t, for the most part, see a profit advantage in embracing audience participation and interaction; in hindsight, that can be viewed as a mistake given the phenomenal growth of social networking and the rise of social-media behemoths like Facebook.
News visionaries like Larry Pryor, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, were warning newspapers about the dangers of online shovelware in the late 1990s. (screen grab from Online Journalism Review)
The most basic level of interaction between news organizations and their online audience is the user comment. But in the 1990s and into the 2000s, many news organizations resisted even this lowest level of journalist-reader online interaction. In 2005, this author researched news Web-site interactivity for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and found many traditional news brands not yet allowing even user comments on articles. A component of that research was an article, “The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism” , which outlined a taxonomy for online interaction between “citizens” (i.e., non-journalists) and journalists and news institutions. User commenting was cited as the “baby step” to online interaction, with subsequent “layers” increasing the ability for non-journalists to interact with journalists and to contribute their own knowledge and eyewitness experiences into the news stream.
Again, pure-play Internet companies (those without legacy operations to tend to such as newspapers and TV stations) and smart entrepreneurs who recognized that the Internet was foremost a two-way medium prospered by focusing on facilitating personal communication online. They were not beholden to historical business models or the stifling effect of old corporate culture. While newspaper executives resisted moving away from one-way news-gatekeeper model, the social networking industry arose to take full advantage of the digital two-way model. Social networks online proved so successful that industry leaders like MySpace and later Facebook attracted hundreds of millions of users. Facebook now rivals Google in online traffic and boasts 500 million active users . Had newspapers, especially, understood the potential opportunity of social media early on, they might be significant players in that space today; after all, newspapers had been for decades their cities’ central community gathering venue.
To sum up newspapers’ first decade as Web publishers, too many of them employed primarily a shovelware strategy of porting the contents of the print product to their Web sites. During the 2000s, many did take better advantage of the Web’s full capabilities: using more video, audio, multimedia, interactive graphics, personalized news delivery, etc. But the overly long dedication to a predominantly shovelware approach allowed newspapers’ new competitors to seize the opportunity.
Another chance to not repeat the past
The news industry players who have been publishing on the Web for some time now face a new and similar situation with the emergence of smartphones. Just as print news publishers and broadcasters had to figure out how to use the Web as an additional publishing medium more than a decade ago, now all news providers using the Web have to figure out how to use the smartphone platform. This mission is made difficult due to the downsizing of news staffs in recent years by legacy news organizations.
Most smartphone news apps by well-known news brands don’t even support user comments for articles or any other forms of content
The easy thing is to set up automation for porting Web-site news content to smartphone format, making the experience of reading news on a smartphone acceptable and tolerable, but not adding anything unique other than the ability to consume news content anywhere. Indeed, many major news brands’ smartphone apps and mobile Web sites available today offer little other than a small-screen formatted version of what the news companies also publish for the PC Web (text, photos, video, and audio). Examples include smartphone apps for: New York Times, USA Today, CNN, Washington Post, The Guardian, and many others.
As noted in chapter 5 of this report (State of the (Mobile) News), most smartphone news apps by well-known news brands don’t even support user comments for articles or any other forms of content. That’s despite their respective PC-Web sites allowing online users to write and leave comments. This may seem odd, since a smartphone could allow a reader of an article to type a comment, record an audio response and submit it, or even a video response.
This report will make the case for news publishers using the smartphone platform to utilize its unique features to make the mobile news experience not just different, but one that takes advantage of the features and capabilities of the smartphone that are unique to it.
If the history of the Internet and the news industry over the last decade and a half is a good guide, news companies and entrepreneurs already know what not to do: repeat the mistakes of print-to-Web during the move from Web-to-smartphone.
 Alves, Rosental. Info: The journal of policy, regulation and strategy for telecommunications. “The future of online journalism: mediamorphosis or mediacide?” (2001) http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/mcb/272/2001/00000003/00000001/art00007
 Bergman, Cory. Lost Remote. “The new urgency for local TV.” (Jan. 15, 2007) http://www.lostremote.com/2007/01/15/the-new-urgency-for-local-media/
 Demers, E., and Lev, Baruch. Review of Accounting Studies. “Rude Awakening: Internet Shakeout in 2000.” (June 2001) http://www.springerlink.com/content/w0h887000vr76776/
 Project For Excellence In Journalism. “The State of the News Media, 2010: Advertising: Anatomy of an Advertising Crash.” (March 15, 2010) http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2010/newspapers_economics.php
 Outing, Steve. Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism.” (June 15, 2005) http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=83126
 Valentino-DeVries, Jennifer. Wall Street Journal. “Facebook Crosses the 500-Million Threshold, ComScore Says.” (May 18, 2010) http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/05/18/facebook-crosses-the-500-million-threshold-comscore-says/