College websites seeing mobile migration, but not all are ready

Website traffic at the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald was less than 1 percent mobile in 2010. This year, it’s 39 percent and growing. And while visits on desktops have more than doubled to 951,000 since 2010, mobile visits have risen from about 2,700 to 619,000 — nearly 23,000 percent — in that time. (Statistics cover Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 of each year.)

“I told our students that I think next year we will be majority mobile and the news editor asked me: ‘What does that mean for us?’ ” Ryan Frank, Emerald Media Group publisher, said in a phone interview. “It means we’re no longer digital-first — we’re mobile-first.”

It’s a similar story at Ohio State University where I serve as student media director and oversee The Lantern Media Group. The Lantern has seen its mobile traffic grow from more than 16,000 visits in 2010 to nearly 531,000 this year, marking a dramatic rise from 1.4 percent of traffic to more than 25 percent.

But are college-media outlets doing enough to best serve their increasingly mobile audience? Experts say no.

“I think a lot of college newspapers are failing to take advantage of the natural audience for mobile news applications,” Rachele Kanigel, associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, said in an email. “Many are so busy covering news and putting out their print and online editions that they don’t have the time and energy to think mobile-first. And social media and the need to feed that beast distracts college newspapers from mobile, too.”

Dan Reimold, an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph’s University, where he advises The Hawk, agreed.

“College students are constantly on their mobile phones. College media are not — at least not yet,” Reimold, who also maintains the College Media Matters website, said in an email. “Most of the student press is still beholden to, at worst, a print-first mentality and, at best, a web-and-print mix-and-match mindset. Mobile is entering the conversation. But it’s not yet a driver in big-picture planning sessions or editorial meetings.”

Limited resources, business struggles

College-media outlets often have limited financial and human resources. They also must deal with high turnover among editorial and business staffs.

Another issue is that “a lot of student editors feel overwhelmed or daunted by the technical challenges of developing mobile apps,” said Kanigel, who is also president of the College Media Association. And there are high marketing costs involved to help ensure a new, native iPhone app is successful.

The Emerald Media Group is unusual in that it has a full-time, professional programmer on staff, who has designed a couple of native iPhone apps and some experimental projects. But the Daily Emerald’s website isn’t where it needs to be from a mobile perspective; Frank said some changes are likely before this school year is over.

To help better serve its increasingly mobile audience, the students working on The Lantern website redesign here at Ohio State insisted that the theme look good and be easy to navigate on mobile devices. The new site, which launched in September after about a year of work, is a big improvement from the old mobile version, which was basically a list of headline links. The mobile version essentially recreates the website pages, including much easier viewing of photos and other visuals. But it took longer than expected to roll out and there have been programming and other obstacles to overcome.

The business side also presents a challenge. Frank mentioned the possibility of exploring native advertising, or sponsored content, as used successfully at BuzzFeed, Quartz and elsewhere.  (Native advertising was discussed by the Federal Trade Commission yesterday in Washington.)

“In a mobile-first world, banner ads are not going to cut it,” Frank said, adding that teaching students to use their phones to shoot video or photos isn’t nearly as complicated as figuring out how to make money for college media in the increasingly mobile world.

Experimentation is happening

Still, the mobile news isn’t all bad.

Reimold said he has seen a recent increase in mobile-responsive sites among student press outlets, along with Instagram experimentation. Student reporters also are “definitely using mobile devices to regularly report breaking news and produce real-time coverage of big events.”

The Lantern and Buckeye TV crews here at Ohio State have used their smartphones to help cover breaking news events around campus. A journalism class here, taught by my colleague Nicole Kraft, provides iPads for student use as part of a broader Digital First initiative on campus.

Frank has seen some success with early adopters in the newsroom at Oregon, where the sports staff got good-quality microphones for their smartphones and recorded audio and video at football practices to upload to YouTube. There was also a recent fire that reporters on the scene covered using their mobile devices.

At San Francisco State, the Xpress magazine has had an iPad app for several years and one issue each semester is iPad-only, Kanigel said. (Here’s one example).

Both Reimold and Kanigel noted the UCLA Daily Bruin as among the best college-media outlets at experimenting with and producing mobile-first content.

Still, many college newspaper editors don’t go beyond optimizing content for mobile, said Kanigel.

“Only a few are truly thinking strategically about mobile when it comes to editorial content, advertising or both,” she said, adding that “I think there are opportunities for college newspapers to do some really innovative, ground-breaking work with mobile technology, but I’m not seeing a lot of it happening.”

The question of the moment for college-media outlets in the mobile realm, Frank said, remains to be answered: “How do we use the greatest reporting tool ever invented, which is in our pocket, and use it more effectively?”

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