AP’s Litvack on mobile news: ‘We need to be there first’

The Associated Press aims to be the “news” button on your next mobile device, right next to e-mail and weather. Jeff Litvack, the wire service’s general manager for mobile and emerging products, insists the AP and its more than 1,400 members deserve that placement. And more to the point, without the combined clout of the news industry behind its efforts, that coveted spot could end up going to Yahoo or Google.

“We need to be there first. The data supports the fact that news is an important category” on mobile devices, said Litvack during a phone interview last week. “We believe this is on the rise.”

Litvack, a founder of AP’s mobile efforts, is now the product development lead in the newly created Gateway business division. CEO Tom Curley announced the unit’s creation last month; its mission is to pursue new opportunities for the AP on digital platforms such as the iPad and other mobile devices.

When we spoke, Litvack was fresh off the plane from Las Vegas, having attended Microsoft’s Web design and development conference, MIX10. At the event, Microsoft unveiled several new apps for its upcoming Windows Mobile 7 operating system, including a new version of the AP Mobile news app. The app aggregates content from AP staff writers and photographers, and from more than 1,100 AP members that have agreed to participate in the Digital Cooperative initiative.

The app was built using Microsoft’s Silverlight framework and is the first news app announced for the new mobile operating system. “Up until the Mobile World Congress [in February] most people in the mobile community had written off Microsoft,” said Litvack. “Now, Windows Phone 7 is a clear winner.”

Getting an early jump on the rapidly evolving mobile ecosystem involves building relationships with handset manufacturers, operating system developers and cell carriers. “That affords us the opportunity to assure our place is where it should be,” Litvack said.

Those relationships resulted in AP’s participation in the MIX10 event, as well as an Apple developer’s conference in 2008. And, according to Litvack, the initiative has earned agreements to pre-load the AP Mobile app on selected handsets from AT&T, Cox Wireless, U.S. Cellular and Virgin Mobile USA, as well as some Nokia and Blackberry devices.

The original AP Mobile app for the iPhone launched in July 2008 and has been downloaded more than 3.5 million times. Back then, “there was no button for ‘news’ ” on smart phone screens, “and one individual [media] brand was not going to get placement,” said Litvack.

More importantly, there wasn’t and still isn’t any clear business model to support mobile apps. In 2008, “the only option was either advertising or a one-time download fee,” Litvack said. Early on, AP decided $1.99 per app was not a business model. And, while a monthly subscription model might be attractive to publishers, “in truth the tech is not there” to allow that to work across platforms, he said.

Many of the same issues affect online advertising as a dependable revenue stream. Litvack believes that the available mobile ad inventory is currently outstripping demand. “That will shift over time. But right now, advertising alone is not enough.”

Far from being hopeless, Litvack feels the situation has created an opportunity for the AP and its members. The solution, he says, is all about the reader. “We need to find a model that works for the consumer. It is not as simple as creating a pay wall. It is not as simple as locking everything up. It is about having the right relationship with the end user — the right way for the right price.” Litvack was unable to share specific details related to payment solutions AP is developing, as the wire service is still in negotiations on the issue.

Unfortunately for news organizations looking to move into the mobile market, finding the “right way” is also complicated by the proliferation of carriers, operating systems and devices, all with different features and requirements.

“The number one problem in mobile today is the fragmentation across handsets from an operating standpoint,” Litvack said. The variety of standards makes it “extremely expensive and time consuming” for publishers to create apps for the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Palm and Android phones, to name a few. Litvack sees that problem resolving itself in three to four years with the adoption of cross-platform solutions around technologies such as Silverlight, Flash or HTML5.

But, AP feels it has that problem solved now. In partnership with Verve Wireless, it is offering a “white label” version of the AP Mobile app for six different mobile operating systems. “The first version was for the iPhone and the next will be Blackberry. We are in final testing with it.” After that, Litvack said, will be Android, Windows Phone 7, Palm and Nokia phones.

Local AP members use the white label app by providing content feeds to Verve, which handles the infrastructure and publishing of the app. Revenues are generated via advertising that AP sells into the mobile network. Those revenues are shared with the member, after reaching a monthly minimum guaranteed to Verve and AP to pay for the technology and ongoing support. If a member’s ad revenues do not meet the minimum in a given month, the member pays the difference. Litvack indicated the minimum cost varies depending on the number of mobile platforms being served.

Greg Hallinan at Verve reports that nine media outlets are live with the program currently, including WFAA and KHOU. And, according to Hallinan, “several dozen more” will be launched in the coming weeks.

Litvack stresses that by cooperating on a single mobile platform, media organizations can reduce their upfront costs and maximize the revenue they generate from mobile devices. In addition, Litvack said, the strength of AP’s advertising solution is that it creates a standardized platform across mobile devices, something that is not otherwise easily achievable.

Litvack said he is in “wait and see” mode about the iPad. “The iPad is certainly a revolutionary device. But, there are a number of other devices that are fantastic but not getting as much press.” The AP, he said, will work with all manufacturers of mobile products.

CORRECTION: Jeff Litvack’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

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