As one academic’s deadline nears, how is your mobile progress?

by Clyde Bentley        

Two years ago, a journalism professor's proposed timeline — and 2013 deadline — for newspapers to move their primary focus to mobile went viral. Eight months out, where does the industry stand?

Click the image to view a larger versionNothing is supposed to get the attention of journalists like a deadline.
In February 2010, I drafted a set of deadlines I thought might help guide the newspaper industry into the mobile age. Originally published online by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, “The road to 2013: A timeline for newspapers” went viral and bounced all over the media trade Web.
At the time, I was a fellow at RJI studying the impact of mobile technology on newspapers. I dashed off the timeline to illustrate the importance of Gartner Research’s prediction that by 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common Web access device worldwide. I was having trouble getting my colleagues to see how quickly mobile could change our world, so I worked backward from that 2013 deadline to list the steps it would take to make newspapers players in the new mobile game. The benchmarks ran from research on the local mobile market in March 2010 to integrating mobile and online newsroom operations by December 2012.
The challenge of creating a timeline to guide newspaper folk is our very nature: A journalist will push a deadline to the last minute. While I know of no newspaper following the timeline to the letter, I have faith newspapers will come through in the clinch:
  • Most reporters or editors out there use smartphones if for no other reason than to keep up with their email.
  • A sizable number of newspapers already display their news on apps and more are working on it as HTML5 enables platform-agnostic mobile Web sites.
  • Almost all publications now pay attention to the number of mobile visitors in their Web analytics.
  • Local newspapers may not yet be the dominant source of news accessed by mobile phones, but ComScore says 25% of all mobile phone users regularly access news. That’s more than, say, listen to music on their smartphones.
Meanwhile, the growth of mobile technology I wrote about in 2010 was even more phenomenal than anyone predicted. 
  • The UN’s International Telecommunications Union notes there are 5.9 billion mobile phone subscriptions for the world’s seven billion people on Earth. The ITU says there are twice as many mobile broadband subscriptions globally as there are fixed broadband subscriptions. 
  • The CTIA trade group says the number of mobile phones in the United States now exceeds the number of people. It also notes that almost one-third of households are “wireless only.” For the first time in history, every person in the nation can have direct communication with every other person. 
  • Smartphone sales are close to double PC sales globally, and 60% of U.S. phone buyers in the fourth quarter of 2011 chose a smartphone. This takes some of the pressure off providing SMS alerts for “feature phones,” but increases the pressure to tailor newspaper digital editions for the 4-inch screen.
  • Whether tablets such as the iPad are “mobile” is open to debate, but there is no question they have joined mobile to change the picture of the connected mobile home. ComScore found that access to newspaper Web sites from PCs peaked around 7 a.m. and then tapered off while mobile access to newspapers was pretty consistent through the day. Tablet owners, however, had a huge increase in newspaper access in the evening. This brings back memories of the old three-edition newspaper and may warrant a re-examination of newsroom work schedules.
Although I am still waiting for mobile journalism to kick into high gear, my initial fear that newspapers would not take mobile seriously has been tempered considerably by simply looking across the aisle to the advertising department.
Ad people already realise mobile is where the money is: Scanners check prices, QR codes sub for coupons, cameras check selections, and shoppers have quick access to every product review under the sun — the mobile phone is the shopper’s best friend. Add to that the growing use of Near Field Communication (NFC), which replaces your credit card with a chip embedded in your mobile phone, and you have a device no one in retail commerce can ignore.
Unlike the Web, mobile is local and is used to shop on Main Street. That can be very good for newspaper advertising departments, who thrive on local merchants.
That in turn is good for the newsroom. If the ad staff can pay the way, we may be able to hit the 2013 deadline just before the bell. 

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