Media companies haven’t exploited opportunities created by iPad and mobile technology

I helped launch the Mobile Media blog in January 2010, days before Apple unveiled the iPad. Now, 15 months and 20 million iPads later, this is my last week as a daily contributor to Poynter.org.

I’m moving to The Boston Globe to take a position as a senior product manager. In a few weeks, Jeff Sonderman will leave the Washington, D.C., news site TBD to take over Poynter.org’s mobile and social media coverage.

Looking back at the first days of this blog, it is amazing how much has changed, how many of the issues facing us now were clear even then, and how much work there still is to do.

When the iPad was announced, we were still developing the goals for this blog. It was obvious that mobile was the “next big thing” in journalism, but tablets were still an unknown quantity, Android phones hadn’t taken off, and the check-in craze spurred on by Foursquare was just beginning.

Many of those early posts – mostly aggregated from other blogs – could have been written yesterday. They focused on topics such as location-based services, content bundles on mobile devices, and the likelihood that tablets would replace newsprint.

What wasn’t obvious was just how big the iPad would be, how it would affect the media industry’s business, and how that would influence us to focus on mobile business strategies. Although I won’t argue that publishers are making a lot of money with iPad apps, the e-commerce system of the iTunes App Store made it realistic to charge for those products. That, in turn, makes it easier for publishers to charge for content on the Web.

Of course, a headline from our first week summed that up as well: “Apple iPad creates opportunities, not solutions, for publishers.”

So far those opportunities have gone largely unexploited as media companies try to figure out exactly what tablets are good for. As I noted last month, most of the U.S. newspaper apps to launch recently on the iPad are replica editions — basically PDFs of the printed product. While there may be a small audience for these replicas, this is a transitional model at best and will do nothing to build new audiences on tablets.

Likewise, many interactive newspaper apps are a lot like print products — but not necessarily in a good way. Apps from USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are well designed, but they still offer the same type of content as in print, with a similar look and feel.

Personalized news services like News.me and Trove are entirely new forms of news presentation, pushing the medium forward with a mix of aggregation, social media, curation and filtering. For better or worse, the vanguard of this effort consists of startups like Flipboard, Zite, News 360 and Taptu, not longstanding media companies.

So, just over a year into the age of the iPad, what can media do to compete? Clay Shirky has suggested that “nothing will work, but everything might.” That is a call to experiment,  fail and try again. Not every startup will succeed, but it only takes one Craigslist or Google to devastate an old industry (classifieds) or start a new one (search advertising).

The problem has been that media companies are not trying enough, quickly enough. It is not that media cannot innovate, it is that media organizations have not been structured to encourage it.

That is beginning to change, slowly. Look again at News.me and Trove. Neither is a finished product or a perfect one. But both were created by newspaper companies that put resources into research and development. News.me was created by The New York Times R&D lab and transitioned to Betaworks for development. Trove was built by the WaPo Labs team.

Tackable, a crowdsourced photojournalism app, is another example. An independent developer is building the app, but the San Jose Mercury News is incubating it. Tackable gets office space and some development assistance, and the Mercury News gets a version of the app built to its specifications.

And this week, the first round of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Challenge launched. In the next two years the project will fund fellowships for 15 developers in newsrooms in the U.S. and abroad to “harness open-Web innovation for journalism.” One of the first challenges is building HTML5 apps for Web and mobile platforms.

After spending a year studying mobile technology in journalism, these types of initiatives give me some optimism for media companies. The revenue picture is still not clear, but innovative products and content need to come first. To quote Shirky again, a thousand flowers are going to bloom, many of them competing with legacy news operations. But the media now at least have a chance to be among the blossoms.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks Ray. There has definitely been some progress in the past year – but I would agree with you – it is unevenly distributed so far.

    Damon

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ray-Meese/1271529004 Ray Meese

    This hits home for sure. It’s been frustrating to say the least, watching as our newsroom jumps through all the (necessary) hoops to develop apps for the iPad and other tablets. With all the unfortunate cuts in newsrooms across America, I know a lot of people are sitting at their desk, looking to their left and right, asking “Who here can actually build these apps?” The concepts are here, there’s just nobody to execute it and no finances to outsource it.

    Congrats with your move to The Globe.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Rick.

    Damon

  • Anonymous

    Damon:

    Thanks and congratulations. Your energy and insight are going to be missed around here — but very welcome at the Globe, I’m sure.

    Rick Edmonds