The future of mobile is not so futuristic. According to the Pew Research Center State of the News Media, 26 percent of adults — 33 percent of cell phone users — access news from their mobile phones.
While the total amount of mobile ad revenue might still be small, perhaps $593 million in 2010 according to eMarketer, that number has seen rapid and repeated gains over the last few years as smart phones become more affordable and accessible.
All of this has shown news organizations that any business strategy must mention mobile, whether that mention is an enthusiastic endorsement or a reluctant sigh. The stage is set.
Enter Asia Nettles.
The 21-year-old advertising major had just graduated from St. Johns University in New York when she took a special trip to Reno. But rather than a trip to the little big city’s casinos or nearby Lake Tahoe, Nettles was there to help design and pitch a mobile application as part of a week-long competition from May 30 to June 4 organized by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation and based at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Along with Nettles, I was one of the undergraduate and graduate students to attend the second NAAF News Challenge, which gathered 15 of us from across the country to help explore what is fast becoming the required discussion in all newsrooms: How do we create and finance a mobile app that builds our audience without undermining our mission?
Our project for the week was to come up with a mobile app to be offered by a generic newspaper in the Midwest with an average reader that was 45 and male. Journalism, computer science and marketing majors worked in teams, trying to figure out what apps might expand audience and connect with new readers.
The News Challenge offered its students breakfast followed by daily doses of industry insight and access to career professionals who mentored each of the three teams.
Executives from McClatchy Newspapers, the New York Times Company, Gannett and others, along with the heads of Internet startup companies, pitched in to deliver presentations on everything from innovation and idea development to business plans and — perhaps most importantly — how to dump an unsuccessful product.
The week culminated in a pitch presentation to journalism professionals who judged each mobile app from viability to creativity.
The end result was three different apps with three different visions of how journalism organizations can keep readers engaged and even make some money doing it. They were:
- A mobile app that offers its users personalized news and information along with calendar integration for even more customized service. Users can choose subjects from within the paper and get news in a variety of formats.
- A social networking app that allows users to prod others into trying new goods, services and activities from among daily events and lists of advertisers. This social game rewards engagement and pushes readers to go outside their comfort zone within their communities.
- A money-saving app that targets the best shopping deals from within the local area and organizes it to the user’s satisfaction.
The personalized news app won (that was the team I was on), because it incorporated existing technology and gave the hypothetical newspaper a simple yet effective way to build audience, primarily by using social networking tools to drive readers to the website.
The app ideas are posted on the NAAF website, and some students from the program might try and pursue them as real projects.
All of these apps are part of a shift in understanding what news and information is important to readers, according to Jeanne Fox-Alston, the vice president of the NAAF.
For Fox-Alston, the week was part of an effort to help journalists answer the most basic but vexing questions, such as: Where is future revenue going to come from? What will advertising look like? What are the pressing issues facing the industry?
She hopes to help foster in the digital age what she sees as the best attributes of newspapers — the ability to inform and engage a community, including a mobile community.