A report released yesterday by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 47% of Americans are getting some of their local news via a mobile device.  Pew also found that just 11% of Americans reported having an app installed to help them get local information or news.  Of those accessing news via mobile, 51% use six or more different sources or platforms monthly to get local news and information. 

Being interested in both mobile and the news business, I had three initial reactions to this data:

  1. The number of people getting local news via mobile devices is a lot higher than I would have thought.
  2. The playing field for mobile is still wide open, as people are using a lot of different tools to get local news and information.  There is an opportunity here.
  3. Many, many people equate mobile with apps, but the mobile space is about more than that.  Focusing exclusively on apps is short sighted.

To explore the issue further, I decided to take a quick look at the mobile websites of the 50 largest U.S. newspapers in the country by print circulation.  Specifically, I wanted to see if newspapers had bothered to create a specific mobile experience for web users and, if they had, study how compelling the experience was.  First, the straight facts:

  • 92% of the 50  largest newspapers in the U.S have mobile optimized websites that could be found easily via Google search.  This figure was higher than I anticipated. 
  • Of the newspapers that had mobile sites, 82% of them detected that I was on a mobile device (iPhone) and automatically served me the mobile site.  Despite having an iPhone that has a pretty good web browser, when browsing on a mobile phone I personally gravitate towards sites with mobile-friendly set ups.  It is just a better experience while on the go. 
  • Surprisingly, the Washington Post, New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were among the 18% of newspapers who have mobile sites but don’t route iPhone users to the mobile version automatically.  Given the resources of these three papers, I wonder if this is a strategy as opposed to an oversight.  You can view the paper-by-paper data here.

Having scanned 45+ mobile newspaper sites, the thing that jumps out is how remarkably similar they all are.  Many are clearly built from the same design template (see slideshow at the end of the post), and even when they don’t look identical they all follow a pretty standard formula:

  • A stream of the most timely headlines from the paper.
  • Local time and weather information.  This makes sense given that the Pew study found that  42% of mobile device owners report getting weather updates via mobile.
  • A large display style advertisement at the top of the mobile site.

Some of the mobile sites included prompts for users to download the paper’s iPhone application.  Some asked me to bookmark the site homepage on my mobile device. A few included stock tickers, traffic information and links to online video viewable on my phone.  Interestingly, none of the sites I looked at prominently featured information on local restaurants or business.  Pew found that 37% of mobile device owners use their mobile device for this purpose.  As far as I could tell none of the sites customize my experience based on my location. 

Of the sites I looked at, the New York Times and USA Today struck me as very good, with the rest all sort of bunched together in a pack.  I didn’t think any were as good as the mobile sites of properties like CNN and ESPN.  You can take a look at the homepage for all the mobile sites in the slideshow at the end of this post.

In closing, I was pleasantly surprised at the percentage of newspapers that have created mobile versions of their websites.  Newspapers are doing a good job on the fundamentals of the mobile web.  Working at an interactive agency, I also understand how hard it is to juggle developing for the mobile web with building apps for Android, iPhone, iPad and other mobile platforms.   Resources are tight, and you have to carefully pick and choose where to focus time and money.  But given how wide open the local space for mobile is, I’d love to see more innovation from newspapers and others in the coming days and months.  I think it is worth the investment.


About the Author
Todd Zeigler
Todd Zeigler serves as the Brick Factory’s chief strategist and oversees the operations of the firm. In his sixteen year career in digital, he has planned and implemented campaigns for clients including the Pickens Plan, International Youth Foundation, Panthera, Edison Electric Institute, and the American Chemistry Council. Todd develops ambitious online advocacy programs, manages crises, implements online marketing strategies, and develops custom applications and software. He is bad at golf though.