June 21, 2019

A smartphone alert to local news publishers: Mobile matters!

It matters to your readers, to your revenue streams and to the long-term health of high-quality local journalism. But, as our new research found, many local newspapers are failing to take basic steps to reach and cultivate mobile audiences.

It’s been roughly a decade since the advent of the iPhone, and the number of Americans who get their news via mobile devices continues to skyrocket. Elite news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian are racing to meet that demand with slick mobile products. But how is the transition to mobile news unfolding in rural and suburban communities across the United States?

To find out, we spent a few months last year surveying newspaper websites. We saw some fantastic journalism but also uncovered technological weaknesses that may make it harder for local newspapers to fulfil their crucial roles as community watchdogs, storytellers and hubs of local commerce. Although the majority of the sites surveyed employed responsive design, their technical performance was subpar, with page load speeds far below that of elite news organizations like the Times and the Post. We also found a lack of consistency in how publishers handled mobile ad display. Roughly half the sites we examined interspersed ads with news stories. The rest either had no mobile ads at all (despite featuring ads on the desktop versions of their sites) or clustered the ads at the very top or very bottom of the mobile site. This sometimes obscured other content and, in a few cases, the masthead.

In short, our findings indicate that local publishers are treating mobile as an afterthought. That’s a huge problem with serious implications for the future of community news. A growing body of research illustrates that many consumers are willing to pay for high-quality online news, but reader loyalty is an important factor. As a recent Medill Local News Initiative study found, people who frequently consume local news were more likely to buy digital subscriptions. But it’s hard to entice repeat visitors with a mobile website that loads slowly, generates screen-obscuring pop-up ads and squeezes stories into unreadable formats.

Mobile page speed matters to tech giants, too. It’s been about a year since Google switched to mobile-first indexing. Around the same time, it also began to consider page speed in some of its mobile search rankings. Both Google’s AMP and Facebook’s Instant Articles are designed to improve mobile performance. Some publishers that use them reported a boost in mobile traffic, although the long-term revenue potential remains unclear. Because of the risks and tradeoffs associated with these big information companies influencing local news, smaller publishers would be smart to develop their own mobile strategy even as they may eye collaborations and rely on Big Tech for help.

Despite the clear need for mobile development, local publishers are struggling to find their footing in the mobile news ecosystem. As part of our research, we surveyed members of the New York Press Association about their mobile strategies. Most of them reported that they were receiving significant mobile readership but had devoted few resources to improving their mobile product.

It’s a tricky chicken-or-egg problem, or what we call the “local-mobile paradox.” Outlets must devote resources to serving a mobile audience that may not yet exist but almost certainly will in the future. Local news outlets must generate sufficient web traffic to modify user behavior and promote mobile access habits, but that will be difficult without first investing in an optimized mobile web experience.

Still, there are some things even the most cash-strapped local publishers can do to better serve mobile audiences. For starters, shift your paradigm. Responsive design is important, but it should be the start of a news organization’s mobile strategy, not its entirety. If you happen to be in the middle of a web redesign or shopping around for a new content management system, put mobile optimization at the top of your list of requirements. (One interesting project to watch in this area is Newspack, a new CMS collaboration between Google and WordPress.)

If a shiny new website or cutting-edge CMS aren’t in your news organization’s future, consider making smaller changes to your existing products. Here are some questions to help you evaluate your mobile footprint:

What does your news organizations website look like on a smartphone? This is basic but a good place to start. Can you read the text in the top stories? How do the headlines appear? What do the ads look like? Are they obscuring other content? How easy is it to find information about local events, community meetings or high school sports? Consider the reader experience at every moment of mobile contact. If you’re frustrated by any aspects of your mobile site, there’s a good chance your audience is, too.

How easy is it for someone to buy a subscription, update their credit card information or otherwise give you money via their smartphone? We saw many mobile websites with decent news display but no easy-to-find place to subscribe. (In a few cases, news organizations featured subscribe buttons on their desktop sites but not on the mobile versions.) We also noticed a few sites that employed responsive design for their news content but not for the pages related to account management. Shopping via mobile is increasingly popular. Set up your site so your publication can benefit from that trend.

How fast does the mobile version of your site load? What might be slowing it down? Multiple factors impact page load speed. Some of them, like photo size and file types, are within your control. Others, like sluggish ad servers, may not be. To get a sense of how your site performs on both mobile and desktop, plug your URL into Google PageSpeed Insights. Some of the information you’ll get back is pretty wonky, but it will help you identify underlying technical issues. You might also use the information to start a conversation with your in-house technology team or an outside web designer. In many situations, a few hours of a programmer’s time can make a big difference in your site’s performance.

What non-web channels can you use to reach mobile audiences? We call this “sneaky mobile.” Examples include email newsletters and social media. Each of these channels have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they’re worth considering as part of your overall strategy.

We plan to continue our research on the mobile local news ecosystem in the coming months. If you’re a local publisher and would like to get involved, contact Meg Heckman at m.heckman@northeastern.edu.

This article is based on a study published in the Newspaper Research Journal. Meg Heckman and John Wihbey are assistant professors at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. Find them on Twitter at @meg_heckman and @wihbey.

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Meg Heckman is an assistant professor in Northeastern University's School of Journalism. Her research aims to document, critique and dismantle journalism’s macho culture in hopes…
Meg Heckman
John Wihbey is managing editor of Journalist’s Resource.org at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy. He is…
John Wihbey

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