The Hunt For Mobile News
By Mike Masnick, Mon Jun 21 22:15:00 GMT 2004

As newspapers are still struggling to find their footing in the internet and mobile age, they still seem to be doing even the most basic things wrong.

The newspaper industry is clearly facing quite a challenge these days from a variety of competitive news sources. For the most part, they haven't done very much to respond. They've finally repurposed much of their content for online access, but often hidden it behind annoying registration walls that don't actually take advantage of the internet, and instead try to block off users and inbound links.

Pundits are starting to show up to teach newspapers how to embrace the digital world, and many of those suggestions include creating customized mobile news. In an age when there are so many news sources out there, no one expects to get all of their news from one source any more, so customization, rather than a broad lowest common denominator sweep is vital. On top of that, in a twenty-four hour society, waiting for the soggy morning paper or the evening news on the TV doesn't cut it any more. If that's the case, then customized mobile news sounds like a no brainer -- except if you're in the news business, apparently.

While the US has been slow to embrace mobile news, the common wisdom was that Europe was far ahead. That might not be entirely true, according to Ernst Poulsen who ran an experiment trying to the mobile versions of various Danish news sites. Poulsen complains that many sites don't offer a slimmed version of their sites for mobile phones, and the ones that do don't make the URL easy to find. Finally, he's worried that the sites make it confusing to find any information about the mobile sites, suggesting that the newspapers just don't care about mobile users at all.

That last point is probably absolutely true, as many newspapers are a bit hesitant to jump back into mobile news content after being tricked into jumping on the "WAP is the wireless web" bandwagon a few years back. The other obstacles he points out may be eventually taken care of if the .mobi domain name is ever approved by ICANN or if (as expected) higher network speeds and better software makes it so it doesn't matter whether or not the site has created a special slimmed down version, since the browser will be able to accommodate on the fly.

The biggest issue, though, is that these newspapers aren't really looking to take advantage of the medium. They're simply repurposing the same content with a different user interface. Most of the news isn't customized or specialized and much of it can wait until the reader gets home and can watch the evening news or visit news on the web. The value of news being mobile is that it can find you anywhere. That means it's useful for location specific information (e.g., "don't get on that highway, it's backed up for miles due to an accident") or timely alerts (e.g., the company whose stock makes up a good percentage of your portfolio just admitted to cooking the books). It can also be used to change the journalism equation, by making consumers of news creators as well. There are plenty of stories about camera phone wielding citizens helping to create the news, but imagine if mobile phones could be used to coordinate those "citizen journalists?" There are certainly services that look to fill those needs with their own solutions, but it should be the newspapers who are at the forefront of this space if they hope to make themselves relevant in the mobile age. Instead, they remain stuck to their plan of slowly repurposing content in a way that attracts very few readers, pushing subscribers to go elsewhere.