Someone once joked that my wife and I, then still both working for Newsday, were bridging the digital divide all by ourselves. Between the two of us, we own an iMac, two MacBook Pros, an iPad and two iPhones.
As black journalists with relationships forged in newsrooms and media organizations, most of our friends and associates, like us, are news junkies – and use mobile devices to stay informed, connected and productive.
But a report released this week by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, “How Americans Use Their Cell Phones,” suggests that most African Americans don’t use their cell phones for similar reasons.
Yes, the study says, blacks and Latinos have higher usage rates, compared with white owners, across a wide range of mobile applications.
As other surveys have found consistently, however, most blacks and Latinos primarily use their cells for texting and for entertainment. Even if their phones make it easy to access the Internet, it’s not news they’re after.
Some say it’s still about content.
Monica Rhor, a Houston-based freelance writer who writes about education for Latino Ed Beat and Mamiverse, says media companies face the same conundrum getting people of color to view their offerings on mobile devices as in getting them to read a newspaper or watch the evening news.
“There isn’t anything in there that appeals to the Latino community,” Rhor said. “Too often, portrayals of Latinos or stories about Latinos are reduced to immigration or crime or the annual Latino festival in your city – and not becoming part of the fabric of every story.”
Others say it’s about simplicity.
Even appealing or essential news stories can be hard to view, let alone appreciate, on most cells, said Melanie Eversley, a breaking news desk reporter at USA Today and a contributor to The Grio.
“It’s not easy to get breaking news on the phone unless you have an iPhone,” said Eversley, also a vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists’ digital journalism task force. “Entertainment apps seem to be a lot more easy to use.”
The other morning was typical for me: Wake up, say a quick prayer, then reach for my iPhone on the nightstand. Check what’s new in my three email accounts – one asks me to write this article. Next, see what’s interesting on Facebook and Twitter. Then tap screen icons taking me to ESPN.com and blogs about Apple and media diversity. Return to the email invitation and tap the link to read the Pew study. All before sitting up in bed.
How do we make this happen in more black and Latino bedrooms?
Media companies must better engage people of color as content creators and producers, not just users, said Chioma Ugochukwu, Ph.D., an assistant dean and my colleague in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.
“When you have more minority developers/producers, you are also likely to have greater interest in creating mobile news apps that target minority audiences,” she wrote to me in an email.
Ugochukwu introduced a new media course at the University of South Carolina-Upstate and recently received a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to study how college students use social networking sites.
Creating business models that target and attract black and Latino mobile users to news is only a start, she said.
“There is also the fact that minority kids need to be socialized early enough at home and in the classroom to value technology and news,” Ugochukwu said. She cited Intel’s Computer Club House program as an after-school model capable of creating developers from communities of color.
Rhor, who taught at a high school in suburban Houston for 18 months, agreed. Saying most teenagers want only to download mobile apps that show what they would look like if really fat or really skinny, Rhor said media companies should develop more access points with teachers seeking to present news in their classrooms.
“Every history teacher I know uses CNN Student News,” she said.
Then, again, Rhor said, it will remain hard for teenagers to develop a mobile news appetite when many schools ban them from using their cells during the day.
There is hope, of course. Educators have told Rhor that at least one Web-based publication is contacting high school journalism programs with online capabilities to see about aggregating their content.
“I think it’s really smart,” she said. “If kids’ stories appear on a national website, you’re going to have lots of kids reading those stories that wouldn’t read them otherwise. They’re creating a new generation of readers that way.”
Eversley and Rhor said mobile news appetites could increase as more black and Latino online news and opinion sites better utilize social media.
“Not just tweeting links to their stories, or posting them on Facebook, they’re doing a lot of engagement, asking people, ‘What would you do with this story?’” Eversley said of The Grio. “Even when it’s quiet, they’re encouraging conversation and getting people to come to the site.”