This document combines (with minor editing) three posts on mobile strategy for news
organizations. They originally appeared on the Pursuing the Complete Community Connection
blog, Aug. 31, Nov. 20 and Dec. 9, 2009. In a comment on the Dec. 9 post, Chuck Peters
suggested a table of contents, so I have organized all three posts and the comments into a single
document. I start with the Nov. 20 post. Substantive comments have been included, though some
that were off-point or merely agreeing with earlier comments have been omitted.
I consider this to be a continuation of the Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection,
published on my blog April 27, 2009.
– Steve Buttry, Gazette Communications
Table of Contents
News organizations need mobile-first strategy Page 2
Comments Page 3
News companies need to help local businesses pursue mobile opportunities Page 12
How news organizations need to change to pursue mobile-first strategy Page 16
Journalists Page 17
Design Page 21
Technology Page 23
Sales Page 24
Marketing Page 26
Other Departments Page 26
Executives Page 26
Staffing Page 27
Examples to come Page 28
Let‘s get started Page 28
Comments Page 29
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 2
News organizations need mobile-first strategy
November 20, 2009 by Steve Buttry
News organizations are belatedly, reluctantly and often awkwardly pursuing ―web-first‖
strategies. As we fight these web battles, I am increasingly coming to believe that ―web
first‖ is what the military would call fighting the last war. News organizations need a
―Web first‖ was a tremendously difficult concept for journalists and newspaper
Publishers and editors worried about ―scooping ourselves‖ and ―cannibalizing‖ our core
product. Editors and reporters thought ―web first‖ meant posting our newspaper stories
online before the press rolled (but often after the late newscast). Advertising staffs
thought web strategies meant upselling print customers into annoying pop-up ads or
We wasted energy and time fretting over whether and how to move online and then
went about it wrong, as the world moved ever swifter to the web and got more things
right than we did and learned more lessons than we did from mistakes.
Even today, one of the primary reasons news executives cite for favoring paid content is
that they want to protect the print edition.
Newspaper companies are so thoroughly rooted in print and so devoted to ink and
paper that we missed opportunities and held back as digital technology revolutionized
communication, leaving us behind.
We can‘t waste that much time in mastering the mobile market. We need to start
thinking mobile first. Now. The world is moving swiftly to smart phones and we can‘t
afford to be as far behind this time (in truth, it‘s too late to be ahead, but not too late to
pursue opportunities that can lead us to a prosperous future). We need to make mobile
innovation the top priority and the first thing we think of when we plan change in our
(I should note that web-first meant content would be published online before in the print
edition, and that the organization should start thinking first about the web, though most
didn‘t, regardless of what they were saying. When I say we must shift to a mobile-first
strategy, I‘m not talking about where content appears when, but about the priorities of
the organization: what you place first in your thinking and acting.)
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 3
I heard someone recently cite figures on the low (in his view) percentage of people who
actually own iPhones (I won‘t cite the figure he gave because it‘s out of date and the
relevant numbers are those about growth of iPhone sales and apps). Actually, the
penetration percentage is a great reason to get moving swiftly into iPhone opportunities.
If we wait until nearly everyone has some sort of smart phone, someone else will be
filling the roles that we can and should fill.
―Mobile first‖ needs to change how we think and act throughout our organizations.
Reporters, editors and visual journalists need to think first about how to package and
deliver news for mobile devices. Information technology staffs need to work first on
development of mobile applications for popular devices. Sales staffs need to make it a
top priority to guide business customers in using our mobile apps and platforms to reach
customers with advertising and direct-sales opportunities. Designers need to present
content that is clear and easy to read on the small screen (even if this means spending
less staff resources on design of print or web products). Executives need to redirect
resources and set priorities so that we pursue mobile opportunities as aggressively as
we pursue the most important news stories in our communities.
We try to make one size fit all in many aspects of our business, but that will not work in
a mobile-first world. We need to become the mobile news, information and commerce
connection for people with the latest iPhone, BlackBerry or Droid (and whatever comes
next), but also for people with simpler phones that handle only phone calls and text
messages and for non-phone devices such as iPods.
We need to figure the best ways to deliver news and conduct commerce effectively on
mobile devices: text messages, email, mobile applications, tweets, easy-to-use mobile
web sites, podcasts, location-based news and commercial information.
Whatever your role in your media organization, consider how you would change your
work, your priorities and your thinking to support a mobile-first strategy. This will either
be our future or our next squandered opportunity.
This blog post drew 39 comments. I have included the ones I see as most pertinent to
the continuing discussion, identifying the commenter where possible.
Xark! blogger Dan Conover (who’s working with Gazette Communications now as
a consultant for e-Me Ventures):
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 4
A caveat: People have a different relationship with a ―phone‖ than they do a computer,
and if what you‘re pushing toward them is something they really don‘t want, they‘re
going to be aggressive in the way they turn you off — for good.
So while we‘ve always looked at news as something we pushed out to people, w hen it
comes to mobile, it needs to be more of a pull… or at least some kind of app that learns
from the individual user‘s stated preferences and actual actions.
Gazette Communications CEO Chuck Peters:
Steve – Absolutely, and mobile first will require a complete rethinking of how information
is created in the first instance.
Dan – Agreed – if we push, we lose. We need to get working on those apps, but they
won‘t be of much use unless the content is created differently in the first instance –
atomized and heavily tagged.
For something to be succesful on mobile it needs to be formatted correctly (and easy).
For example, a news agency has some hot story but the mobile site doesn‘t work right
and you have to scroll through all that junk the main site has, that just turns consumers
I agree with Media Guy and Dan. The secret to commercial success in a mobile -first
company is not bombarding people with unwelcome ads, but helping them by providing
easy access to the commercial information they need and helping them do business
with a few taps of the thumb.
Honestly, I don‘t even mind ads. Truth be told, I kind of ignore them and barely notice
them anyway. What drives me nuts is mobile sites that are broken, and stories on
mobile sites that are exactly the same as the one on the website. If the story is good
and I‘m interested in the topic I don‘t mind paging through a 3 page story on a website.
That same 3-webpage story on my Blackberry howe ver is quite painful.
Dan makes a good point. The relationship with the phone is different. That said, I read
more on my iPhone than I ever thought I would and I‘m not so sure that pull is more
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 5
important than push. You know what would be cool? If you could bookmark something
you‘re reading in a news app, ie, NYT, and next time you pulled that site up on a
computer and were logged in it would push a reminder to you on the home page that
you‘ve bookmarked some content to read. Then you could read it on your larger monitor
later. Many times I run across things I want to read but I don‘t want to read it on the tiny
phone window or I don‘t have time but don‘t want to forget about it either. This happens
frequently in Twitter and luckily I can ―favorite‖ these items or email them to myself.
In any case, I‘m rambling but my point is that I think Steve is right that any media org
that isn‘t paying attention to its mobile strategy is doing so at its own risk. The way we
find and digest information is changing rapidly and radically, like it or not, and
―protecting print‖ (God, how tiresome that‘s growing) is not an effective long-term view if
you want to extend the brand and capture or even keep your market share. Print is just
one golden egg, the goose is that all-important audience.
Mobile-first is a simple idea but a great strategy. Smart phone penetration is
skyrocketing even in markets like India and China. Any news distribution and publishing
model that can be truly Mobile-First would take the mobile phone content market by
Diana Pesek, Gazette Communications archive curator:
Absolutely correct. Mobile is where the growing market is, I believe. Formatting the
content and providing useful apps is key to successful use of the smart phones. For
busy people it‘s going to be short sound-bites (headlines re: Twitter etc.) for news and
the use of apps that make life easier (connecting users to whatever information they‘re
Jeff Sonderman, metro editor and Internet content director of The Times-Tribune
in Scranton, Pa.:
I think you‘re right. Also, though, we need significant new thought about HOW to do
mobile right. It would be a mistake to treat mobile just like the desktop web, same as it
was a mistake to treat the web like print when it arrived.
And see the whole picture as a company. Newsroom folks will think about mobile news,
but the company has to also go after the commercial side with sponsorships and
location-aware ads or coupons.
Tom Altman, Gazette Communications web developer:
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 6
The only way that you can do this wrong is to not do anything at all. Let‘s try
SOMETHING other than talk about it. Count me in, what can I do to help?
I agree in principle, but isn‘t it really about just publishing as much as we have as often
as we have it. I understand that sounds simple and obvious … but why must we say to
―mobile‖ or to ―web‖ or to a ―carrot‖.
It just seems blatantly obvious to me that whenever we are, where ver we are – publish
the information we have to any medium we have access to.
If we are at the print deadline – publish what we have. If we have a new story about the
re-opening of a flood-ravaged business, push it out to the website. If we receive a
scanner call about a fire at 5th and Main and we have a person tracking that story –
publish it to Twitter and maybe a ―mini-blog‖ section of the website.
Who cares what, where or when – just push out the content. The consumer should
know what we know, very shortly after we know it, in the medium they choose to receive
Kevin Sablan, leader of the Orange County Register’s web task force:
Great post, Steve. A few thoughts, some as devil‘s advocate:
Use: Many reporters and editors became comfortable with the idea of a web-first
approach once they started to really understand and use the web on a daily basis. That
might be the first step to a mobile success. Staff must start using their phones for more
than phone calls and an occasional text message.
Report: Aside from publishing to mobile, journalists need to start using their phones
to report. ―Citizen journalists‖ have been doing it for quite some time. Instead of filing a
picture from the field and waiting for it to be included in a blog post or article, they have
been tweeting pictures, sans-article. Journalists can and should follow that example.
Champion: One of the biggest motivators that I‘ve seen is success. If people witness a
colleague succeed with mobile (of course, we‘ll need to define success), they will be
more likely to climb aboard the mobile train. This is what I‘ve seen with blogging
Security: Many people in news organizations are just plain scared that they might lose
their jobs. They‘ve seen friends go ―web first‖ and still lose their jobs. Other colleagues
thought blogging would save them, but they were let go too. If journalists fully embrace
mobile now, will they have a better chance at surviving the next round of downsizing?
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 7
Kevin, I completely agree on use, report and champion, and appreciate those insights.
On security, I wouldn‘t pretend that I can predict how corporate executives will decide to
make the next round of downsizing. We‘ve seen lots of irrational moves to protect the
print product, and those people will throw the wrong people overboard. But they will
keep cutting because that strategy won‘t work. So my answer is that mobile-first is
scary, but not as scary as not trying it and not getting as deeply involved as possible in
Brian Cubbison, online editor of the Syracuse Post-Standard:
There are some similarities: Jumping from well-established print to the lower-revenue
web, jumping from a well-established web site to the much lower usage (for now) of
mobile. The challenge will be familiar: How does a well-established news company
switch to a low-revenue but disruptive technology? Does it start a separate operation or
try to leverage its brand? Can it be the ―two guys in a dorm room‖ with the people and
organization it has? Will it wait and buy the two guys when they‘ve got a hit on their
hands? Can a local newspaper spend its shrinking money on app developers? Does the
local newspaper understand the different consumer cultures of print, web and mobile?
Does the advertising staff? If you were mobile-only, how much money would you make?
Would it support nothing more than spending money for two app developers in college?
And how much mobile reporting will it take to support mobile news?
I can kind of understand why someone might say, ―Here we go again. All I want is a
revenue-first strategy.‖ Well-established companies are not good at moving to disruptive
technologies. They tend to wait until a development is ―big enough to be interesting‖ and
by then, someone else owns it. The best companies in their fields often have the
It sounds depressing. There are excellent mobile news apps, like NPR‘s. Can a local
newspaper do as much?
Brian, mobile-first is critical to any revenue-first approach (the downward trajectory of all
ad streams shows we need to move beyond advertising and a mobile device is great for
location-based direct commerce). Read my C3 Blueprint to understand the revenue-first
framework in which we need to pursue a mobile-first strategy.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 8
I agree it needs to be done, and it could be an exciting challenge. Sadly, too many
newsrooms are worn out and managing the decline. Others might be ready to, but must
defer to the headquarters of the chain, where the developers are. Others rely on buying
from a vendor. Still, there‘s no substitute for an energized newsroom that knows the
community, and vice versa.
Andrew Ottoson, sports reporter at the Hillsboro (Kan.) Free Press:
You know those services that advertise ―Text JOKE to 55555″ and charge you a quarter
to deliver a joke from a database? Why not ―Text NEWS to 55555….‖?
Andria Krewson, freelance journalist:
Great stuff. Cubbison‘s questions get to the heart of the problem for most existing
People have relationships with their phones. Thinking mobile first means going beyond
pushing information to those phones and responding to a tweet if you‘re not busy.
Phone software like Foursquare enables people to gather and share information, and
rewards them emotionally for doing so. Current newsroom culture plus community
skepticism make it hard for legacy news organizations to embrace that change.
Some news organizations might be in a position to get IT people to build mobile apps,
but those are few: NYT, and then who else?
So what to do: Think about what newsrooms produce that could be valuable to those
two guys (or gals) in a dorm room working on augmented reality or games like
Foursquare. What archives, lists, maps, photos, stories or ads could be traded for tech
development, links or ad positions? What historic photos can be tagged and traded with
the makers of augmented reality apps, so a person can stand on a corner and use their
phone to see how the corner looked 50 years ago?
How do you strike a deal right now?
To those still in newsrooms or out selling ads: Embrace clear tagging of everything:
bylines, datelines, maps, photos, lists and ads, with the understanding that the content
can be sold or traded to other companies.
Steve Buttry‘s absolutely right about fighting the last war. Maybe newsrooms could
make allies of those tech folks in a dorm room instead of fighting another one.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 9
Every newspaper should immediately secure at least one branded shortcode (e.g.,
―CRGAZ‖ for Cedar Rapids Gazette). These will become a critical point of interaction for
both news and commercial purposes.
And of course we‘re all storing cell phone numbers in our consumer CRM system, right?
Matylda Czarnecka, New York University graduate student:
I agree that shortcodes are still relevant right now. However, vanity shortcodes are
expensive (a steep monthly fee plus paying per message sent out adds up) and limited
(ever try replying to a tweet via mobile? You have to manually type the ―@someone‖ for
it to know it‘s a reply. Ditto for news signups – make one typo and the message
bounces). The character limit is restrictive also.
I can‘t say for sure what might replace shortcodes, but I can‘t imagine a technology wi th
so many limitations dominating the market long-term.
A live EveryBlock is something to shoot for if you have the tech chops.
Designers should understand that mobile includes many platforms: Twitter-like services,
standard web pages that are reachable by smartphone browsers, web pages that are
optimized for the iPhone and others, apps that are really optimized for a certain phone,
plus formatting for e-readers.
Reporters and editors should understand that just as a web site is not necessarily the
best way to read a 12-part series, a smartphone is not the best way to read a 20-inch
story. A different kind of news — location-based updates — thrives on mobile.
Advertising staff should see advertising as ―news for customers.‖
Especially, mobile is a chance to facilitate intent. Most advertising interrupts us while
we‘re trying to do something else. Google‘s genius, even if they didn‘t realize it at the
time, is in serving ads that facilitate your intent. Search for snowblowers, and Google
serves ads that facilitate your intent to buy one. Mobile ads can facilitate your intent to
go out to eat, among many other things.
Context is a another huge ingredient in mobile. Mobile is different from the web in part
because it‘s always with us. While context could play a role in web experience via IP
address, it tends to be less significant since we usually use different machines at home
and at work.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 10
We all have different informational needs depending on where we are at the moment. A
restaurant coupon might be handy around lunchtime near the office but irrelevant near a
school in the afternoon. We can already customize our notification settings for different
contexts (vibrate in pocket, silent during a meeting, different ringtones for friends versus
clients). Mobile apps should be equally sensitive to context and deliver info, coupons,
news, etc. that takes time and place into account.
The trick is finding a way to let it learn from your habits so it gets better at anticipating
and fulfilling needs you didn‘t know you had. Contextual mobile alerts would recognize
that you stopped by a grocery store to pick up zucchini but alert you that swinging by
the greeting cards aisle might be a good idea since your aunt‘s birthday is coming up
Tim Bates, president of CST Research:
The right mobile program makes a newspaper money. This technology allows
newspapers to utilize their existing sales team, advertising expertise and operational
resources to generate new revenue stream. All the pieces are there today to do this.
Furthermore, link the right mobile location-base service with a newspaper‘s sales and
marketing resources and the company can lock up their local mobile ad market. Add
into this mix an integrated digital media advertising and delivery service and you have
the makings of a really powerful, money generating digital ad service that delivers
across many digital platforms. But the window is closing fast on this opportunity.
A Facebook friend asked about this post: ―Has there been much research on how
iPhones are used for news? Do people use them as a daily source of news? Do they
just read whatever links people send to them? Or do they just kinda scan CNN or
favorite news sites once in a while when they have downtime? It‘d be an interesting
challenge to package a classic five-part investigative news series for a mobile platform.‖
I replied: ―I don‘t know all the research that mig ht have been done. But I know when I sit
around an airport lounge, I see lots more people looking into phones than looking into
laptops or newspapers (or talking on phones). I don‘t know that the classic five -part
investigative news series would get the same readership on a mobile platform, but it‘s
not getting the same readership in print either. On the other hand, Amazon has a Kindle
app that people are using to read books. I would like to see someone try (please point
me in the direction, if they have) that series as an iPhone app: interactive graphics,
video, maps and audio. Yeah, some text that‘s formatted for the small screen.‖
Steve Woodward, CEO of NozzlMedia:
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 11
Great post, Steve. I‘m a 30-year newspaper veteran who left newspapers last year to
help develop a mobile news company. I‘ve been talking with newspaper editors about
our mobile web app, which will be able to stream news, public records, social media and
ads to smartphones. Users can then filter the real-time stream according to keywords
What‘s fascinating is that when I talk about the app with editors, one of the first
questions I get is: ―Can you put that on our web site?‖ Since it‘s a mobile web app rather
than a native smartphone app, the answer is, in so many words: ―Sure, if you want to
embed our mobile phone on your web site, we can do it.‖
The result: I now have a real-time web widget to sell along with our mobile app.
The apparent lesson: If your customers are always fighting the last war, don‘t try to sell
them supplies for the next war.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 12
News companies need to help
local businesses pursue mobile opportunities
August 31, 2009 by Steve Buttry
When I try out a new app for my iPhone, I think of This actually was the first of my
opportunities the news business missed years posts about pursuing a mobile
ago. More importantly, I think of opportunities we strategy. But in this context, I think
need to pursue today. it works best coming second.
Many years ago, before the development of
the World Wide Web, I was an editor at the Kansas City Star. Some critics fault
newspapers for failing to anticipate the need to move into the digital age, but I
remember a project called StarText. We were planning to deliver the next day‘s news
stories electronically to subscribers the night before. The stories were just in text and
you needed a modem to receive them and few people had modems then. But we were
making our first awkward moves into digital delivery of news.
I didn‘t have a modem on my home computer then, though I had been thinking about
getting one. But I wasn‘t sure how I would install it in my computer (home computers
then had hard drives we would regard today as massive, and nothing as simple as
plugging in a flash drive). And I wasn‘t sure I could figure out how to use it.
Home computers then were somewhat like smart phones now: Lots of people had one
and knew how to use it for a few essential functions, but many users weren‘t yet using
all of the features.
At a meeting of managers making plans for StarText, I suggested that we follow the
cable-television model, selling modems to customers, amortizing the devices over their
bills for the basic service and sending people out to customers‘ homes to install the
devices and show them how to use them. Think how slowly the cable market would
have grown if we had to buy the equipment and hook it up ourselves; cable‘s
remarkable growth came before people became used to hooking VCR‘s and DVD
players to their televisions. Supplying and installing equipment helped cable grow and
would have helped StarText grow. And, of course, cell-phone companies roll your
phone purchase in with the plan for the service.
My colleagues and bosses at the Star dismissed the suggestion (clearly I did not argue
for it persuasively, so I should bear some blame for any failing I see here). Part of the
reason the Star didn‘t seriously consider my suggestion, I‘m sure, was that it would
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 13
have taken a considerable investment in equipment and people to provide that service,
while simply delivering our text, which was already digital, was relatively cheap.
But when you think about it, our company already made a huge investment in trucks
and people to deliver the print edition. In our comfortable traditional model, we
recognized that we would have a much bigger audience for our news and
advertisements if we developed a system to deliver our content to homes in a timely
fashion. And we financed it by charging the consumer for the cost of production and
delivery (as I‘ve noted before, we didn‘t charge them the cost of producing the content;
that was always supported by advertising).
We thought we were in the newspaper business, but we went into the transportation
business because we saw the value in controlling newspaper delivery.
A few years later, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, I was working at the
Omaha World-Herald and suggested that we should become an Internet service
provider, helping people get access not only to our digital content, but to the rest of the
digital world. Instead, our company moved online slowly and grudgingly. Our industry
probably made another mistake (but I can‘t claim to have seen this one in advance) by
failing to develop mobile technology. If a newspaper company had developed the
iPhone or BlackBerry, can you imagine how differently that company would
produce content, generate revenue and use technology today?
I say this not to continue the discussion of the many sins of newspapers in the early
days of the Internet. (Alan Mutter, Howard Owens, Steve Yelvington, Jeff
Jarvis and I have all written our own views of the Original Sin of newspapers in the
Internet age. I‘m sure the various ministers in my family would prefer that I stop using
this metaphor anyway. My wife, Mimi, has grown weary of the Original Sin discussion,
as has college student Joey Baker, who tweeted, ―Newspapers‘ original sin isn‘t nearly
as interesting as the current one: not letting go of the past.‖) Joey, business director
for CoPress, has an excellent point. And, despite my long lead-in about another sin from
the past, this post is about opportunities we need to seize today.
What I was talking about in that distant StarText past was expanding our view of our
core business and venturing into a supporting business, to help customers use our core
business more easily and to explore the possibilities of the supporting business.
That was always part of newspapers‘ approach to our business. In addition to getting
into the transportation business to deliver newspapers, we got into the advertising
design business so we could sell more ads. Our core advertising business was selli ng
space in the newspaper. But if a potential customer didn‘t have the skills (or an agency)
to prepare an ad, we had designers on staff to prepare ads for the customer (still do).
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 14
Sometimes we would prepare ―spec‖ ads for the sales pitch, knowing that seeing the
actual ad might help close the deal.
We need to take the same approach to the biggest opportunity facing us right now:
helping community businesses connect with customers using mobile technology.
At dinner in Chicago the other night, Mark Potts, who‘s using way more iPhone
applications than I am, showed off several apps to Mimi and me and we‘ve each added
a few. We know that we would get even more use out o f our phones if we someone
would show us all the right apps for our needs, interests and lifestyle.
Helping local businesses serve that growing mobile audience may be the most urgent
opportunity that local media companies face today. We are spending lots of energy and
money trying to fix the errors we have made on our web sites, mistakes that Mutter,
Owens, Yelvington, Jarvis and I have debated at length. But I suspect all five of us
could agree (maybe just four; we‘re a contrary lot) that mobile technology presents more
opportunities (and threats) now than finally getting it right on the web.
Edward Miller tweeted this weekend that a New York Times story about cell-phone
coupons was more evidence that the ―newspaper business model is dead.‖ Per haps, I
thought, but why can‘t a news media company provide that service for businesses in the
community? Yes, businesses can send coupoons directly to consumers, costing us our
business delivering coupons with the newspaper. But if we pursue this opportunity
correctly, we can offer many businesses two good reasons to use our digital coupon-
We should be able to reach a larger audience than most businesses in the
community (and we can know which people have interests that make them the
best targets for particular coupons and other services).
The business wants to spend its time and energy doing what it‘s good at,
whether that‘s making pizzas, landscaping or repairing cars. Just as many
businesses outsource essential work such as payroll and janitorial services, the
community business that can design and deliver coupons to cell phones will
provide a valuable service that other businesses will gladly outsource.
I will confess that I did not see this opportunity as quickly as I should have. In looking
back through my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, I am disappointed
that I didn‘t stress mobile opportunities more often and in more detail. I am trying to
correct that error now.
It‘s too late for newspaper companies to be early in the business of developing mobile
applications. More than 110,000 apps have already been developed for the iPhone. But
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 15
I don‘t think this opportunity has passed us by. The fact is that most of the local
businesses that represent the future for local media are even further behind in the
mobile world than we are. They know how to use their own phones, but they are as
unsure about how to use them for business as I was about using a modem back in
We need to gain expertise, through hiring and/or training, in developing apps for
iPhones, BlackBerries, Droids, Pres and whatever mobile device comes next. We need
to devise ways to help local businesses sell their products and services to people on the
move. We need to teach local businesses how to connect with people who are always
connected. We need to develop mobile formats for news content, community
information, databases, calendars, advertising and other services for users and for
Joey Baker is right. We spend too much time reliving the mistakes we‘ve made in the
past. Let‘s not make mobile one of them.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 16
How news organizations need to change
to pursue a mobile-first strategy
December 8, 2009 by Steve Buttry
I used to watch the crowds in airport lounges when I traveled, studying how people read
newspapers. Even with circulation declining, you could see people reading newspapers
intently. Especially after 2001, people would have plenty of time to read while waiting for
flights, and newsstands stocked a variety of papers to choose from.
Look around an airport lounge now. You‘ll see more people looking into their phones
than holding newspapers.
I get disgusted as people in news media companies fret over trying to squeeze some
money out of Google or trying to charge for the privilege of reading our content.
Whatever the merits of those arguments, they are essentially pleas to slow time down.
But when I see people in the airport lounge, I know time is only accelerating with each
tap of their thumbs.
My concern over this acceleration pushed me last month to call for news companies to
pursue a mobile-first strategy. I was pleased with how many people agreed with my call,
either in blog comments, tweets or their own blog posts. New York University journalism
professor Jay Rosen wasn‘t satisfied, though. He called for me to ―describe what a
‗mobile first‘ newsroom would do differently.‖ That‘s what I‘m trying to do here, start the
difficult but important job of answering the question: How do we need to work differently
(not just in the newsroom, Jay) to command the attention of those people reading and
tapping small screens?
In a different context (not addressing me or the mobile-first strategy), Jeff Jarvis issued
a similar call to ―futureshockers‖ this week:
What would be helpful is to see you … flesh out your own visions for a
sustainable future of journalism starting TODAY.
I‘ll try to answer Jay‘s question and Jeff‘s challenge on six levels: journalists, designers,
technology, sales, marketing and executives. A successful mobile-first strategy will
require effective work by all these people (and probably more; please feel welcome to
add an area, or to expand on any of my suggestions here). Both men called for detail,
so this post will be long, though it won‘t provide enough depth in some areas (I invite
you to help me add to the depth).
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 17
The mobile-first strategy needs to be move beyond advertising and embrace new
relationships with the community, as described in my blueprint for the Complete
Community Connection. That principle is fundamental to mobile-first success. We can‘t
simply transfer our failing business model onto mobile platforms.
As with web operations, a crucial question will be whether mobile opportunities should
be the responsibility of a separate operation focused exclusively on mobile or whether
the full operation needs to share mobile responsibilities. My answer is that if news
companies want to succeed in pursuing mobile opportunities, we need to make this
success the top priority and responsibility throughout the company. News companies
have not succeeded in doing that with the web and may not be able to do that with
Certainly some of the companies disrupting us will be focused exclusively on mobile (or
mobile and web) opportunities, and some news companies might succeed with small
mobile-only operations. I recognize the cultural obstacles will be huge, but I believe the
greatest opportunity for success lies in converting an entire existing news operation to a
mobile-first strategy, so that is what I will address here. If you are either a mobile-
focused startup or a news company trying to succeed with a mobile SWAT team, some
of the suggestions here may apply, with adaptation to your situation.
I should also humbly acknowledge here that the best I can do is point a direction and
share some ideas. The real answers to Jay‘s question will come from the people
pursuing mobile opportunities and learning from their successes and mistakes. Here is
my effort to point in that direction.
The traditional job titles of editors, reporters and photographers are painfully out of date,
and the new titles seem inadequate, so I‘m just calling them all journalists for purposes
of this discussion. Journalists will need to change how they gather, process and
Every journalist must quickly get serious and fluent with metadata, data about data
(think of the story behind the story). This will feel scary and unreasonable at first. Even
the term is a bit scary. But reporters and photographers have always gathered more
information than we shared with readers. We often have to tell editors about a story or
photo, to help editors understand the context and connections, so they can understand
where and how to play a story. That‘s sort of what metadata does; it tells the computer,
or the phone, about the story (or photo, video or piece of information), so the mobile
device knows what to give the user when and where. Think of metadata as context.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 18
Location. Where has always been a journalism fundamental, the fourth of the five W‘s.
Well, in the mobile-first world, it might become the first W. In gathering content of any
kind, we need to provide specific location metadata wherever location is relevant. Our
technology staffs will need to automate this as much as possible, when journalists are
sending text or images from a location, their p hones or laptops should be GPS-enabled
to provide the location.
But journalists need to be able to supplement and override automatic location
information. Many events and stories have more than one location, and journalists don‘t
always have access to relevant locations. So a journalist should be able to quickly and
easily supply locations not automatically generated and correct the automatic locations.
The data and technology specialists will need to develop ways to use this location in
multiple ways. We need to be able to convert addresses automatically to GPS
coordinates, because sometimes content gatherers will have an address but will not be
at the location physically, so their phones cannot supply GPS data. The presentation
needs to let people access information by proximity to their physical location or by other
meaningful ways such as a route, a neighborhood, a city or political boundaries such as
school districts, wards or legislative districts.
I just enabled geotagging on my Twitter account through Tweetie, so every tweet I send
on my iPhone through Tweetie bears a map that other users of clients such as Tweetie
and Tweetdeck can see. While it was an amusing novelty to see tweets pinpointing me
while traveling in Russia, the value will grow rapidly as we assemble news, information
and commercial opportunities from all around town.
We can only begin to imagine the possible uses of location-specific information. Think
back to your first cell phone. You could see that it gave you mobility, but you didn‘t
imagine all the ways you are using it today.
Tagging. Where isn‘t the only W we need to provide in the metadata. We need to tag
content efficiently with the other relevant W‘s: Who is pictured in this photo or
video? What is happening? When did it happen? Sometimes why or how or ho w much
will need to be in the tags as well, and some of those questions will need to be
answered many times, for each person in a story, video or database or for each date in
a narrative story. Efficient tagging is going to require effective semantic tools as well as
disciplined use of the tools.
Tagging will help us provide relevant content for users and will help us link to more
relevant content. We can‘t afford to leave tagging to the whims of individual journalists
or to the arbitrary reading of software. We need to train the journalists to use the
software (and keep improving the software).
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 19
I saw a blog post a while back about a politician who had been ―testing the waters‖ for
the 2012 presidential election. A semantic program posted four links with the post: One
was appropriate, about the politician in the blog post. Another was about a different
candidate testing the waters in 2007 for the 2008 caucuses. A third was about a
different politician testing the waters for the 2010 Iowa gubernatorial race. A fourth was
about the University of Iowa Hydrology Lab actually testing water. Usually a good
semantic program will do better than that in suggesting links or tags.
We need to develop (or work with vendors who are already developing) better software
to analyze content and suggest tags more accurately. We need to train journalists to
check and correct inappropriate tags and links. We need to train journalists to
understand what sort of information needs tags, so they can quickly read and correct or
approve the suggested tags and add any other tags needed. Just as journalists learned
to use AP style widely, we can and should expect them to follow a uniform style in
These tags will help the mobile-first operation quickly provide content that answers the
questions and addresses the needs of the user.
Investigative. Newspaper journalists tend to equate investigative journalism with long
text stories, so at first blush it might seem that a mobile-first strategy would downplay or
eliminate investigative reporting. But effective watchdog reporting deepens a news
organization‘s bond with a community and it must be part of the mobile-first strategy.
I hope that Investigative Reporters and Editors will be a strong voice in taking
advantage of mobile technology for investigative journalism, just as it has with teaching
journalists to analyze data and to use the web as a tool both for gathering and
distributing investigative journalism. As traditional financial models for news media have
been failing, some of the most encouraging business-model innovation has been in the
area of investigative reporting, including the community funding of Spot.us and the
philanthropic models of ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting . I am
confident investigative reporting organizations will lead the way on mobile-focused
journalism as well.
Some ways that I think mobile-first strategy might shape investigative reporting:
Crowdsourcing holds great potential for investigative reporting, as some
journalists are already demonstrating. A news organization that effectively
engages its community on mobile devices will have a valuable crowd
enthusiastic about contributing to investigative efforts. Imagine how quickly and
effectively a community linked through a mobile-first journalism operation could
identify election-day voting problems.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 20
Emails, texts and tweets, the favored short communication forms of the mobile
world, can give headlines and summaries of investigative projects, with links to
full-text and video accounts or promotion for applications that users can dig into
on their phones, on computers with bigger screens, on the printed page or
Increasingly video, audio and databases need to be part of the presentation of
investigative projects. These can be presented effectively on mobile devices
and should be designed primarily for the small screen.
Don‘t rule out the possibility that people will read long text on the small screen if
you engage them effectively with well-presented content. Amazon has a Kindle
iPhone app for people to use for reading books on their phones. I do expect
long-form writing to continue to be part of mobile-first journalism.
Newspaper staffs spend lots of time on the print (and sometimes web)
presentation of an investigative project. A mobile-first operation might sacrifice
some of the print or web package because the first presentation priorit y will be
developing a killer mobile app for the project.
Data. Some of the best innovation of web-focused journalism has been the widespread
and creative use of interactive databases, which I detailed in my Newspaper Next
report, Be the Ans wer. Databases are an effective tool for delivering location-specific
information and other answers that are valuable for mobile users. News organizations
need to maintain (or strengthen) their commitment to development of interactive
databases and make mobile presentation a top priority in design of the databases.
One of the best-known journalism databases, EveryBlock, has developed an iPhone
application. Development of applications to easily and quickly deliver answers for
mobile users needs to be an essential step in developing interactive databases. News
organizations need to support the development of the skills and tools for developing
effective databases for mobile use.
Archives. Newsrooms maintain extensive archives primarily to serve our staffs. Most
archives available to the public are usable by search and for pay (pay that brings in only
a trickle of revenue). A mobile-first organization will want to offer appropriate archived
information relevant to your location. The information might be free, supported by
businesses who want to reach customers at that location, interested in that topic.
Effective use of archives for a mobile-first organization will require tending the metadata
of content you produce and collect. I‘m sure I don‘t know all that we need to do to make
full use of our archives, but some possibilities:
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 21
We need to add metadata to content gathered from the public. We may do this
by a combination of prompts to help contributors submit accurate metadata and
staff supplementation of the metadata from contributors.
We might want to add appropriate metadata for mobile -first use to content the
organization has created prior to the adoption of mobile-first metadata for new
content. For instance, in Cedar Rapids, we might decide that information about
how a certain location was affected by the 2008 flood might be valuable to
provide, so we would add location metadata, where needed and possible, to
content in our archives relating to the flood. Or an organization might decide
topic pages on community landmarks or important community issues would be
helpful to the mobile audience, so the staff would need to add metadata to
archived content on that topic.
Social media. I have blogged and taught extensively about social media‘s impact on
journalism. I see social media overlapping with the mobile-first strategy, but not
duplicating. Many people engage with social media primarily on their laptop or desktop
computers, so a social-media strategy needs to be focused more on how to engage
through social tools, regardless of which devices people use. However, lots of people
use their phones to tweet or check their Facebook pages or watch YouTube videos, so
a mobile-first strategy needs to consider at every step how to use social media.
Especially as Foursquare and other location-based platforms grow, and as Twitter and
Facebook start adding location metadata, any location-based service needs to
aggregate social content for that location. EveryBlock shows the value of aggregating
Flickr photographs and videos by location. That‘s just the start of how a mobile -first
strategy will use social media.
Training. Newsroom training has taken a severe hit in the cutbacks of the last few
years. We can‘t succeed in shifting to mobile-first strategy without heavy training in a
variety of areas, both concepts such as how journalists need to think differently in a
mobile-first operation and specific skills such as tagging and using metadata. (I cover
training specifically in relation to journalism, but we could add a similar paragraph under
each of these areas.)
In a mobile-first operation, design may be both a journalism function and a technology
function, or it might be a separate area of the operation, combining both skills. However
you organize, you need to make mobile service the priority of everyone involved in
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 22
Shifting resources. Newspapers spend lots of staff time designing the print edition,
and spent lots of money and time over the past few decades redesigning print editions.
Considerable but less time and money has been spent redesigning web sites. None of
that investment has changed the fact that newspaper circulation is declining rapidly and
that most newspaper sites provide frustrating user experiences. While I personally
appreciate a strong newspaper design and valued that skill (partly because I lacked it)
as an editor, we need to minimize staff and consultant time spent designing the daily
newspaper. Other than section fronts, newspaper pages should be templated and even
automated as much as possible, so copy editors can flow content into them with
minimal time spent on design.
This will make the paper marginally less attractive, but it will have far less negative
impact on performance of the print product than the positive impact of all those snappy
redesigns on which newspapers spent millions of dollars in staff and consultant time.
Print customers pay primarily for content, selection and convenience, which can be
provided in a format, still allowing for news judgment, and reserving design flair on the
covers. (Of course, when big news breaks, you still blow up the templates for dramatic
headlines and photo packages.)
Some staff design time will be required to auto mate formats of inside pages, but that will
be a wise investment of time, if it saves the daily cost of print design. If this is a difficult
shift in priorities to imagine, try to remember the last time you spent a lot of time and
money to make dramatic improvements in the presentation of your newspaper:
Chances are that you received a lot of complaints from readers, even if you thought the
redesign was a stunning improvement. Spend those resources instead on delivering a
better experience for the mobile user.
Web design has already been formatted pretty tightly in many operations, and most
news web sites do need improvements in navigation and design. A web-first operation
would spend considerable staff time in improving web design. A mobile-first operation
recognizes that the best design for the larger screen of a laptop or desktop computer
isn‘t the best design for an iPod or cell phone. You need to both minimize staff time
spent in web design, to free resources for mobile design, and keep mobile web
consumption in mind when you do spend staff resources on web design (for instance,
simpler display and larger headlines and body type will make for easier mobile web
While vastly better print design delivers only a marginally better user experience (if at
all), design is critical to the mobile user experience. Type that is too small or an
application that loads slowly or is confusing to use can doom a mobile project. But a
―killer app‖ can develop viral momentum as users talk, tweet and blog their delight. The
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 23
mobile-first operation needs designers with visual and technical skills to design new
products and to carry out the daily execution of existing products. Staff design
resources need to be shifted to ensure top priority for mobile design.
Sometimes we will want to do multiple versions of content. For instance, we might
change text size on a video clip so the TV and web versions are the right size for those
screens but the mobile version has bigger type that is easier to read on the small
screen. But in a mobile-first operation, if you can take the time to make only one
version, you make the font large enough for the mobile screen and let web and TV
users get used to larger text.
The information technology staff of a news operation faces multiple, constant and often
conflicting demands from throughout the operation. Priorities need to be set to ensure
that technology experts, whether part of a central IT staff or assigned to a department
such as a newsroom, have the training and time to help other departments execute an
effective mobile-first strategy.
Development. The web-first operation (or even a print-centric operation with a web site)
can make constant demands on web developers. This staff resource needs to shift
heavily into mobile development. To the extent that you still commit staff time to web
development, you need the training and priorities to ensure that all products developed
for the web provide a strong user experience for mobile web use.
Applications. A news operation needs staff developers who can quickly and effectively
develop mobile applications. The evolution of mobile devices will dictate whether you
can develop effective applications that work on multiple devices or whether you have to
develop separate apps for iPhones, Droids, BlackBerries and other products. But
applications appear likely to become the primary platform for content and commerce in
the mobile world, so they need to become a high priority for the mobile -first operation.
Apps will be important in several ways. Yo u will use apps to deliver content. For
instance, you might have apps for specific parts of your routine content, such as a
calendar app, obituaries app, local sports team app or business directory app. Or you
may develop apps for an investigative project, a new interactive database or for
coverage of a big event (for instance, Gazette Communications might develop
an Orange Bowl app, providing access to a variety of content about the Hawkeyes‘
participation in the Orange Bowl).
Don‘t think of apps just as devices for delivery of your content. Apps should become a
revenue source, too. Just as newspaper and television companies he lp business
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 24
customers produce advertisements for their products, a mobile-first organization is
going to help business customers develop mobile apps to promote their businesses and
sell their products and services. Many of the aspects of the mobile-first approach will
require shifting resources from current print, broadcast or web operations to mobile
operations. But development and deployment of commercial applications will produce
revenue to support eventual expansion of mobile operations.
Development of commercial applications will need to stress applications whose content
can be updated easily by merchants. For instance, if a local pizza parlor has an
application for ordering pizzas for pickup or delivery, the operator should be able to
update prices or add new ingredients or menu items easily from an office computer, so
that applications will update automatically when a user next opens the pizza application.
Sales staffs need to listen to consumers and businesses and learn how to help
businesses serve the mobile audience. In the early stages of a mobile-first organization,
sales efforts will be focused heavily on educating and training business customers on
mobile opportunities and our organization‘s role in connecting businesses in our
community with mobile customers.
Traditional advertising was intrusive and often unwelcome. You open your newspaper to
continue reading a page-one story and photos of women in bras attempted to catch
your eye about the lingerie sale at the local department store. Or you tune in the
evening newscast and ads for local car dealers shout at you between the news reports.
We still need to sell those ads because they deliver value for businesses in traditional
ways and because they are the revenue streams that keep us operating today. But
mobile revenue will keep us operating tomorrow and we need to learn how to help
businesses pursue mobile opportunities.
Mobile commercial content will be convenient and responsive, rather than intrusive.
Search advertising provides the answer that the pote ntial customer was seeking.
Location-based advertising should not be intrusive or people will devise ways to turn it
off. Our community apps and sites need to provide location-based tabs such as ―shop
nearby,‖ ―dine nearby‖ or ―nearby entertainment.‖ The user can ignore those tabs if she
knows where she wants to go and just wants information on parking, for instance. But a
user who clicks on such a tab welcomes our help (and the help of businesses paying us
for access to these customers).
As described in the C3 revenue approach, we need to be sure we don‘t fall into the trap
of focusing just on advertising. Some of the best mobile opportunities will go much
deeper than simply delivering business messages to an audience. We may make the
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 25
sale, using a customer‘s credit card (or possibly an account with us that taps into a
credit card, checking account or prepaid balance). We may make a reservation or enroll
a user in a class or a business‘s preferred customers club. We may send the business
an inquiry from the customer.
We also need to be careful not to use just a single mobile tool, such as a mobile web
site or iPhone application. Some businesses may want to sponsor breaking news alerts,
reaching the text-message audience with a link to the company‘s web site or to its
enhanced listing in our business directory. Some ma y want to sponsor a podcast or an
email newsletter, reaching people wherever they access email.
Sales staff will need training in how mobile opportunities can work and how to teach a
local business to pursue those opportunities. While we need to be willing to invest
heavy sales staff time in landing accounts and in training businesses to use their apps,
we also need to design self-serve mobile accounts that the business customer can
change and update after we get them launched, as describe in the pizza example in the
We need to develop pricing that helps businesses use our mobile services. We can‘t
discount services that we know will be valuable. We need an affordable base rate, with
most of our pay based on performance as we deliver for our business customers. For
instance, in the pizza example, we need to charge a reasonable fee for development of
the app. But most of our revenue will come from pizza orders (of course the app needs
to record orders accurately for both us and the business customer). We may collect the
revenue ourselves from customers‘ debit and credit cards, taking our cut before we
pass most of it along to the pizza parlor. Or the merchant may collect the money (in this
example, we might want to leave an option of paying cash) and we invoice for our fee.
Or we may use a third party such as PayPal to handle the transaction.
More and more, we need to sell customers into a full range of services. We sell them an
enhanced listing in the business directory, so we can connect them with customers
searching for the services they offer. We help them determine the best way to use our
services to move the customer toward the transaction or to actually make the sale. We
sell them location-based premium listings. We develop an app for them and help them
deliver the app to the phones (or other devices) of the right customers. Yes, web, print
and broadcast advertising will be part of the package for some customers, too, but we
can‘t just call on our usual suspects. Location-based advertising will appeal to some
merchants who haven‘t been interested in reaching the full community through a
newspaper or TV ad, but absolutely want to reach the person who‘s nearby at lunch
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 26
News companies know how to market newspapers and newscas ts. We shouldn‘t stop
marketing those products and our web sites, but the mobile-first organization will have a
mobile-first marketing department. The community knows about the legacy products
and will continue to find them with a reduced marketing effort.
We will need an aggressive (and vastly different) marketing effort to tell the community
about all the ways we serve your mobile audience. The effective marketing strategy
needs at least a two-pronged approach: sophisticated and witty to alert the savvy
mobile customer to our services and simple and educational to teach the new or
confused mobile customer how many jobs we can help her with.
Of course, print and TV ads will still be a part of the marketing strategy (Apple‘s ―there‘s
an app for that‖ ads and Verizon‘s ―there‘s a map for that‖ ads have helped both
companies pitch their mobile services effectively).
We need to work aggressively in sales channels to get our apps onto people‘s phones.
Obviously we need to use iPhone‘s App Store. We also need to connect with local
retailers selling phones and other mobile devices, perhaps offering free apps that
introduce and promote our apps or offering to load our package of apps on each phone
sold (perhaps as part of a deal that includes advertising for the retailer). We can offer
classes in the community on how to use our location-based services and our
We might consider cross-promoting: Get a new iPhone with all our mobile apps with a
full-year newspaper subscription.
I am sure that I haven‘t described all the ways that a legacy news organization needs to
embrace a mobile-first strategy. The finance department needs to work with sales on
the pricing issues I discussed. The human resources and finance departments needs to
update compensation to include incentives for achieving mobile goals. Human
resources also needs to work on training and recruiting issues. The details will vary with
each organization and its structure and strategy.
Top executives of news organizations – CEOs, publishers and general managers –
need to lead the way to a mobile-first future. If you want to launch a mobile-first SWAT
team but not change the whole organization, then the top executive may not need to do
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 27
much more than provide resources and direction. But if you want to transform a legacy
media operation into a mobile-first company, executives need to lead the way
aggressively, firmly and consistently. Our default settings are powerful and the whole
company or individual departments will veer back to our print-broadcast-web roots if the
top bosses are not demanding and vigilant.
The bosses need to set the example by using and mastering mobile apps for their
personal use and by consuming our products and rival products on their mobile devices
(and talking with managers and staff about how they use them and the lessons they
learn). The top bosses need to spend their most time and attention on pursuing mobile
opportunities. You can say mobile is important, but if you spend your time on print,
broadcast or web issues and hold feet to the fire in those areas, managers and staff will
see. They will know by your actions whether mobile first is a wish to achieve in spare
time or a priority for all to embrace.
Unless you‘re loaded with cash (and who is these days?), you can‘t pursue a mobile-
first strategy without risk. Traditional media such as print and broadcast provide the
revenue that supports your company. The inclination will be strong to try to pursue a
mobile strategy on the side, while you protect those core operations. Top executives
need to acknowledge the short-term risk of shifting resources away from those core
revenue streams and also to reassure managers, staff and shareholders that the long -
term risk of timidly pursuing mobile opportunities is far greater.
The top executives need to coach all managers in pursuit of a mobile-first strategy. This
means tolerance of mistakes and risks in pursuit of mobile opportunities but no patience
for protection of the old priorities. If the top executives preach mobile-first and practice
mobile-whenever, whenever will win.
A mobile-first operation will need different skills and a different outlook from an
organization focused on established pursuits such as print, broadcast and web. Through
a combination of training and recruiting, we need to move quickly to the right staff for a
I have spent enough time in the training business and learned enough new skills and
new thinking myself to know that committed staff members can learn the skills and
outlook that a mobile-first organization needs. The more we can help staff members
transform, the more we will benefit from their other skills and their community
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 28
But some staff members will be unable or unwilling to make such a transition. And we
will need to hire some people for skills so specialized or advanced that we can‘t
reasonably expect staff members to reach the necessary level fast enough.
Examples to come
In coming posts, I will provide some examples of how a mobile-first operation might
work, both from the company and consumer perspectives. For now, I call your attention
to an example published in May by Xark! blogger Dan Conover (the post has a long
lead-in that I like, but it‘s not why I‘m calling this to your attention; the example starts
with the subhead, ―From documents to data structures‖). While he wasn‘t writing
specifically about mobile-first strategy, Dan gives a great example of how mobile-first
journalists would cover a fire. Recovering Journalist blogger Mark Potts also provides
an instructive example, with his critique of how the Washington Post, a renowned
journalism institution, fails in its mobile operations (again, the example follows a lead-in,
in this case, praising my call for a mobile-first strategy).
Let’s get started
In the coming weeks, I will be discussing this approach with my colleagues at Gazette
Communications. CEO Chuck Peters has praised the mobile-first approach, and I hope
we can start making some significant steps in this direction. I hope your organization
starts doing the same thing. As we make progress (or encounter setbacks) here, I will
share the story on this blog. I hope others will similarly share the stories of your efforts
to pursue mobile strategies.
As we proceed, we need to remember the ―good enough‖ principle of disruptive
innovation that Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen taught in
theNewspaper Next project. An innovation doesn‘t have to be perfect to launch; in fact
the cost of pursuing perfection can doom a project to failure. ―Good enough‖
performance along traditional lines is sufficient for launch, if it is providing a distinct
advantage over existing products in some new approach.
The cell phone is a perfect example. One of the first times I used a cell phone to dictate
a news story was in 1995 in Herington, Kan., as authorities were searching the home
of Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh‘s accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing. The
phone was huge. It dropped the signal twice during the call and I had to call the city
desk back. I pretty much had to shout to be heard. And the battery was about to die (as
it almost always was, because it didn‘t hold its charge very long). By every respect that I
would have measured the performance of the phone back in the office on my desk, this
cell phone was just barely good enough. But the phone wasn‘t back in the office on my
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 29
desk. It allowed me to dictate from the sidewalk across the street from Nichols‘ home as
I watched the search. (I think Herington probably had two pay phones and 100 reporters
that day; fighting for time on a pay phone to dictate would have been a nightmare.) I
knew reporting would never be the same.
Now I carry an iPhone that I use to take pictures and post them to my Flickr page while
traveling in Russia or to text tweets to my Twitter feed. And if my Siberian host tells me
it‘s minus-23, I can use my ―Units‖ app to convert from Celsius and comfort myself that
it‘s only minus-9 Fahrenheit. That good-enough start didn‘t mean we were settling for
mediocre. It meant we were getting started on a new road to excellence I couldn‘t even
That‘s what we need to do now with mobile -first strategy.
Mark Potts, CEO of GrowthSpur:
Another great post, Steve, on this important topic. And since I criticized The Washington
Post‘s mobile strategy in my recent post, I‘ll pile on with another anecdote from their
disappointing mobile service: The Post alert service sent out texts today about the FBI
requesting an independent review of its actions leading up to the Ft. Hood shootings
(anything but urgent) and about the Senate rejecting an abortion amendment to the
healthcare bill (procedural news, at best)–but was utterly silent about a gunman firing
shots at a local community college campus (urgent and local). Flabbergasting.
It‘s so incredibly critical for news organizations to get this right. News is about
immediacy and location, and mobile devices are about immediacy and location. It‘s a
perfect match–but so far, in too many instances, it‘s a nearly perfect mismatch.
Excellent post. We are cycling lots of brain cells thinking about meta -data and tagging. I
agree that the journalist of the future will be working as much with the meta -data as with
So, while the CEOs are surfing their mobile devices, the CTOs should be working on
tools that help reporters surround their stories with the sort of structured meta -data that
will make their content sing.
Structured tagging tools like http://swiftapp.org will be the printing presses that drive
these next gen journos.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 30
Thanks again for the post, great stuff.
How much time in the airport did you have? This is so long it needs a table of contents
and an index! (Buttry note: Done, in this pdf version. Thanks for the suggestion.)
As you have stated before, you tend to focus on the what, and I focus on the how. Any
company attempting to make this transition needs to focus on both, congruently.
With this ―storm of the last 30 years‖ currently upon us, I might have more time today for
a more comprehensive response.
For now, here are my first thoughts:
1. I think you and Jeff Jarvis are answering different questions. You seem to be focused
on a user-centric sustainable system for the next 20 years, and as Jeff reminds us, he
was focused on what happens tomorrow if a major daily stops production – how is the
2. To get anywhere close to the functionality you describe, we need to create content in
the first instance in a very different way – atomized and heavily tagged. There are so
many technical, cultural, emotional, work process and business issues in just this
aspect that it is beyond the scope of any one company. A coalition of the willing needs
to form to pursue the various aspects and share best practices.
3. For the user, we need multiple user-defined applications, mobile and desktop (think
Twitter apps) that allow the user to obtain the content they want in the new mobile,
social, location based information world.
4. For the business, we need a system whereby the creators of the information content,
the creators of the commercial content, the application developers and promoters and
the system administrators can all get paid their fair proportion of the revenue,
automatically, driven off the tags. The revenue comes from very targeted promotional
messages and transactions, easy for the users to experience and act on.
5. If #2 is not beyond the scope of one company, 3 and 4 clearly are.
I believe Dan Conover‘s frustration with our industry‘s ―lack of imagination‖ stems from
the fact that not enough people are even talking about the same ―what‖, so we cannot
get to sharing the ―how‖.
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 31
Judy Sims makes it personal, in her comparison to the grieving
Once we get past the grieving, we need to start fresh
Yes, lots of time in airports and airplanes (and hotels, awaking even earlier than usual,
thanks to jet lag). I got feedback that people preferred reading C3 as one take rather
than several, so I tried that here (though this was much shorter than C3). I thought detail
was demanded because of the focus on the how in this piece.
1. I‘m not thinking 20 years here. The world is moving mobile now and media
companies need to hustle on this.
2-4. No doubt we need to help and learn from each other (but not wait for someone else
to figure it out).
Love the Sims piece.
Looking forward to reading your snow-enforced more comprehensive response and to
discussing this when I‘m back on Iowa soil (or snow).
Rory Moulton, online content manager for Colorado Mountain News Media:
Let me begin by agreeing with you that mobile (and streaming media) is absolutely the
future (perhaps the present) of all media consumption. Additionally, your outline above
is the most comprehensive and workable approach to a mobile-first strategy that I‘ve
ever read. Kudos.
That said, I‘m not convinced it‘s going to be a monetizeable (sometimes I make up
words) medium for newsgathering organizations because:
1) Online readers — especially mobile ones — don‘t read, they scan. That‘s one reason
why online ads perform so poorly. As a survey of one, I consider myself a hardcore
reader — I devour books, blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc. — but I rarely get past a
headline or summary graph on mobile devices. Admittedly, I spend far more time
watching my son play with the cool light-saber app and watch steaming videos, movies.
This point correlates to news media‘s main problem — the one no one wants to talk
about: the kids don‘t read these days. I‘m 28 and consider myself an anomaly in my
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 32
generation. The generation below me is even worse. Video games, Facebook, viral
UGC, movies — that‘s where the eyeballs are.
2) The money in mobile is in development and hardware. I doubt any news organization
will buy RIM or Apple any time soon or build a competing device, so that leaves app
development. A good iPhone app developer will cost so much that I don‘t see a strong
ROI on apps. And that‘s assuming news organizations other than the super-big ones
can even find a good app developer.
3) Text-based media — which is still what all newspaper organizations do best and
most prolifically — can‘t possibly survive the shift to a mobile/streaming media-based
ecosystem. We‘d have to completely clean house and start anew with broadcast
journalists, developers and producers as our content creators and editors. I‘m not sure
that‘s feasible for many newspaper organizations. I think many will wither away before
they make that transition.
I dunno Steve. I‘m conflicted. But I guess that‘s common in our industry. I‘ll think about it
some more and post a response on my blog.
Regardless, keep up the good work. We need more people like you with the foresight to
initiate these discussions.
This comment and response started as some Twitter direct messages between Rory
and me. I asked if we could do it as comments on the blog to share with a broader
audience. I appreciate Rory doing that and elaborating more than Twitter allows.
On points 1 and 3, Rory is absolutely right that a mobile -first strategy can‘t be rooted in
text. As Chuck noted, we need fundamental change and a big part of that change will be
that we can‘t be text-based. The effective mobile-first service will include video, data,
maps, photos, games and more. Rory and I disagree, though, about people‘s
willingness to read text on the small screen. A small percentage will still do that, so text
can and should be part of your content.
On point 2, Rory is right that we need to pay app developers well. But we disagree
about the potential for revenue. I think people will conduct lots of commerce through
mobile apps and a media organization that builds a large community audience and
develops apps and mobile opportunities for businesses in the community will have a
Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun:
News organizations need mobile-first strategy, by Steve Buttry Page 33
A tour de force post. Truly and nicely definitive on the needs now and ahead. Makes me
feel a lot better about how I‘ve set priorities for the time ahead, but also makes me
understand just how much there is to learn.
Quite a conversation you started here!
We are starting now to build something from the ground up that can last for 20 years,
because it is that fundamental.