To read all three of my “mobile-first strategy” posts as a pdf with a table of contents, scroll to the bottom of this post.
When I try out a new app for my iPhone, I think of opportunities the news business missed years ago. More importantly, I think of opportunities we need to pursue today.
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 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 selling 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). 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 of 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.” Perhaps, I thought, but why can’t a news media company provide that service for businesses in the community? Yes, businesses can send coupons 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-delivery service:
- 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 need to write an addendum suggesting in more detail the mobile possibilities we should pursue.
It’s too late for newspaper companies to be early in the business of developing mobile applications. CNNMoney.com reported in May that 40,000 apps have already been developed for the iPhone. But 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 1990.
We need to gain expertise, through hiring and/or training, in developing apps for iPhones, BlackBerries, 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 businesses.
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.
Read all three of my “mobile-first strategy” posts together, with their comments, and a table of contents:
Or, if you prefer, you can read the other posts on the blog: