Alabama Newspaper Readers’ Mobile News Appetites

By Gigi Alford
Knight Fellow in Community Journalism, University of Alabama
[Download the research report]

Breaking local news is becoming modus operandi at The Huntsville Times. Following a series of fast-developing events in the early months of 2010, including tornadoes, severe winter weather and two school shootings, the newsroom staff is emerging as a force to be reckoned with on the Internet.

“This has been an exceptional year in terms of breaking news that got us prepared for the major 24-hour news cycle,” said Times social media editor Niki Doyle.

The Times is Alabama’s third largest metro daily newspaper with a daily circulation of 54,675 and Sunday circulation of 74,560, according to the Alabama Press Association. It was the first media source to break the news on February 12, 2010, of University of Alabama in Huntsville professor Amy Bishop gunning down her colleagues in a faculty meeting.  National reports attributed the information to the Times’ story, posted to the Web nearly an hour before local competitors reported on the shootings.

Doyle credited the journalistic accomplishment to the strides The Times editorial staff has made toward embracing the Internet.

“That’s one of the few times that we felt we broke important news before anyone else was able to,” Doyle said, adding that the results confirmed the newsroom’s choice to devote more energy to the pursuit of online content.

This new opportunity for newspapers to compete for breaking local news has led them into areas of news coverage that before were the domains of TV news stations. Where information seekers once may have immediately turned on their television sets for news updates on severe weather or important broadcasts that interrupted channels’ regular programming, now audiences have options. They can open a Web browser on their computer or click on a news app on their mobile device to connect to the Internet.

“In years past, we didn’t worry about breaking news in terms of weather coverage, Doyle said. “We have to think about that more now. Readers want it immediately. That’s what people want to know.”

Changing news appetites, limited newspaper menus

The Times’ discoveries about its readers’ news appetites in a mobile environment are echoed in a recent study of newspaper readers across the state of Alabama. The data show that younger, more affluent readers accessing their local papers through the Web or mobile devices want content that traditionally has been fodder for broadcast news, such as breaking local news, weather updates and traffic reports.

The survey was conducted by the Knight Fellows in the University of Alabama’s Department of Journalism in March and April of 2010. It first looks at whether the readers are clamoring for a mobile application from their local paper and then examines exactly what type of information they would like to access on the go. The study aims to identify patterns in the types of information people want. For example, do people who want breaking local news, also want other types of information but are less interested in still other types. Finally, the study asks if the ways that people access the Internet is related to differences in preferences for information delivered via mobile devices from local newspapers.

Newspapers in Alabama, like other traditional print news outlets, are struggling to balance the increasing demands of audiences for information delivered digitally with shrinking revenues and newsroom resources. A review of 123 APA member papers found that only one Alabama paper had a designated mobile application as of February 2010. Further, the majority of the 97 member papers with active Web sites didn’t have other delivery options that could be accessed in other forms on mobile devices. Only 15.5 percent had text delivery options, and 29.9 percent had e-mail digests.

The Times offers text alerts, RSS feeds and e-mail newsletters, all of which can be tailored to fit readers’ news interests. As of May 2, 2010, the Huntsville news provider counted 2,062 followers on Twitter and 3,788 friends on Facebook. It has a substantial share of the Internet traffic on al.com, the website offering content from the three Newhouse Newspapers in Alabama, which includes The Birmingham News and The (Mobile) Press-Register, in addition to The Times. According to a comScore Media Metrix report in February 2010, that is around 2.6 million unique visitors a month.

Print journalists, online reporting

The quick reporting feat of the February shooting, however, went beyond merely having an online presence to actually using the Times’ capabilities of instant communication. The risk in making this leap was the subject of a critical and urgent discussion that late Friday afternoon. Faced with the decision of whether to save the news for the morning paper, the editors chose to break out of the mold of daily newspapers.

“We knew that if we tried to hold anything that we thought was exclusive,” Doyle said, “it wouldn’t be exclusive the next day. We’d be the last ones to report it.”

Doyle said the experience was a turning point in conversations about online news coverage in the Times newsroom. Whereas before there was a need to push reporters and editors to be more Web focused, afterward discussions centered around, “How do we do this well?” and, “How do we maintain our standards?”

That shift has made Doyle’s job as social media editor a little easier.

With so many classically trained journalists, Doyle, who was promoted to the position about a year ago, never expected her goal of fostering new media skills across the entire newsroom to be easy. She is pleased, however, with the progress that has been made toward ensuring that every staff member knows how to use the Times’ content management system rather than relying on a specialized team of Web reporters.

Now the training has been refined to focus more on providing quality content and thinking about the 24-hour news cycle. Not only are reporters more geared towards video and slideshows, Doyle said, they’re also integrating the interactive and social media with their commitment to principles of ethics and credibility. Most importantly, the Times has improved on its local breaking news.

“I really try to get our reporters to put emphasis on getting it out there instead of holding something for the paper,” Doyle said.

What readers want in mobile news

The University of Alabama online survey, in which Alabama readers volunteered to take part, posed questions aimed at understanding the relatively new widespread desire for news and information delivered to mobile devices. While there are limits to how broadly the results can be generalized to all newspaper readers in Alabama, the study is the first of its kind and can assist the state’s newspapers as they make decisions about where to devote resources in a changing media environment.

As mentioned above, when it comes to mobile and online news delivery, a sizable group of readers wants local papers to provide content not traditionally sought out from print news sources: Breaking local news, weather updates, live sports scores, traffic reports and interactive maps. This list of new demands looks more like a television news menu than traditional print fare.

Readers who participated in the survey can be grouped into two categories based on the patterns of what they said they wanted in the news.

The first group sought the five types of information that make up the TV model of news. Not surprisingly, the readers who fell into this category of demands are more likely to be younger, possibly because they were exposed to computers at an earlier age, and have a higher income, possibly because they have more money to spend on the mobile devices. For them, classified newspaper advertising was least desirable in their Internet news consumption.

The second group of readers wanted types of information that were digital versions of traditional fare for print newspapers: in-depth local news, blogs (opinion about community issues), special offers from local businesses (display ads) and classified advertising. Aside from age and income, no other demographic variable was significantly related to a stronger desire for the “non-traditional” information.

As expected, readers who reported connecting to the Internet through their cell phones placed greater importance on content they can receive on-the-go, without being tethered to a TV or morning newspaper, placing the greatest emphasis on breaking local news.  Similarly, non-traditional content was more important to readers who preferred accessing news and information through non-print means, such as popular social media Twitter and Facebook.

“We have to give them…everything.”

The night of April 24, 2010, when a tornado hit East Alabama, was a rare occasion for Doyle. She had the night off from work at the Times and was out of town. The tornado hit late enough that the weekend editor at the paper had already left before reports of the damage made it into the newsroom. By chance, a line editor had lingered and was able to call other staff members back to their posts when he saw the news break on TV.

Doyle said she was impressed by the amount of content the news team was able to get in the print edition for the next morning and understood that online content had to take a back seat to the urgent need to get the pages to the presses. Yet she knew, as the study results show, that there are many readers who, as soon as they heard about the storm, were checking the Internet by computer and mobile device to find out more information.

Whereas TV news traditionally held the advantage when it came to breaking, visually-compelling events, now newspapers have the opportunity to meet that demand.

“We have to give them video, sound slides, interactive content, audio, everything,” Doyle said.

And they have to do it faster, said University of Alabama associate professor of journalism George Daniels. He teaches his students that once they gather their information, they should go ahead and push something out through a website update or through social media outlets, which builds an audience before the report is aired or printed. This, he said, is an increase in urgency for both the print news model as well as the TV news model.

“The difference with TV is that the immediacy was already there, from day one,” Daniels said. “Only now, it’s even more immediate.”

In-depth local news to go

In addition to the sizable group of readers who want non-traditional print news content from their local papers online and on their mobile devices, the Knight Fellows’ survey data also show a strong desire for in-depth local news via these delivery methods. Considering the prevalence of 140-character message updates and news aggregators on the frenetic Web, it is surprising that readers are reporting a desire for longer pieces about serious issues, and that they would want to read them on the small screen of a handheld device or through the hyperactive windows of a computer screen. This concern may of course become obsolete as larger mobile devices such as Apple’s iPad become more widespread.

Doyle said she was intrigued and excited that readers placed such importance on in-depth local news coverage, which she called the mission of newspapers. Unfortunately, she said, the online viewership behaviors and trends have yet to reflect what survey respondents reported they want. Often the most visited stories are frivolous pieces, sports news or national celebrity gossip.

The most visited story on al.com for the early part of 2010 was not the UAH shooting story, but a tiny report with a user-submitted photograph about a rescued puppy found with its paws frozen to the train tracks, said al.com content director Bob Sims. There is some explanation, other than lack of reader interest, for why in-depth local stories don’t garner a lot of attention on the Web, Sims said.

For one thing, long pieces do not get high priority on Google. Also, heavy reports, especially those without multimedia packaging, are not attractive to users on the social media sites Digg and StumbleUpon which use crowdsourcing to rank content popularity on the Web and generate a lot of traffic for websites attuned to these particular users’ tastes. With such manipulation, Sims said, often the success of a story has less to do with the quality of the reporting and writing and more about whether the content is optimized for search engines, Web viewing and participant interaction.

“Print stories are not the same thing as online stories,” Sims said. “The question is: How do you build a vibrant site that has the investigative stories?” Although investigative articles typically do not see traffic spikes online, page hits add up over time, Sims said.

National research on mobile news

To better serve the group of readers who connect to the Web through their mobile devices, several Alabama newspapers have created mobile-friendly versions of their websites, which are optimized to load faster and tailored to serve mobile news consumers’ needs. Newhouse, following a national trend, is in talks to create a mobile application for its al.com newspaper coalition. Mobile apps are expensive, Sims said, which can be prohibitive for smaller news companies.

Insights about news consumption on mobile devices and through news applications emerged from recent studies by Verve Wireless, the Associated Press and the Pew Foundation’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and Internet and American Life Project. All report a change in news reader appetites on mobile devices.

For starters, Internet has moved into third place on the list of platforms Americans turn to for news, behind only local TV and national TV news programs. Given their first two preferences, it comes as little surprise, then, that news consumers also want their Internet sources to meet needs typically served by TV news.

According to the Pew study, released in March 2010 and titled “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer,” the Internet is at the center of the story of how people’s relationship to news is changing, and using mobile devices to access the Internet to search for news is rapidly increasing. On both platforms, the most popular news subject is the weather.

One quarter of all Americans say they get some form of news via cell phone, which amounts to 33 percent of cell phone owners. The types of news the Pew study found that mobile users access on their cell phones or other mobile devices reflect the results of the Knight Fellows’ study. Weather is accessed by the most users at 26 percent, followed closely by news and current events at 25 percent, then sports scores and stories at 16 percent, traffic info at 13 percent, and financial info at 12 percent.

As news organizations begin to embrace this trend—by creating content that optimizes Internet and handheld device interfaces and by implementing software that delivers the content through these media—the increasingly rich experience attracts news users.

The Associated Press was the first news organization to debut a dedicated iPhone news application when Apple released the device in June 2008. The platform, developed by Verve Wireless, won a Webby Award and in just one year raised the number of AP members choosing to distribute their news content on AP Mobile from 107 to more than 1,000 local, regional and national news sources.

Verve Wireless reports the following statistical breakdown of user interaction with content available on the AP Mobile application. On average, AP Mobile users spend 17 minutes per month interacting with the application and apnews.com. More than 50 percent of the news accessed falls into the content category of breaking news stories, followed by local news (21 percent), entertainment (9 percent) and sports (7 percent).

Verve revealed in February 2010, at which time more than 3 million of its mobile applications had been downloaded, the extent to which mobile access to news through the Verve Network had increased in the course of one year. Their figures from the month of December 2009 reported that 100 million mobile news pages were served, a 160 percent increase year over year, and more than 8 million readers accessed news from mobile devices via Verve’s mobile publishing platform, a 500 percent increase from the same period a year prior.

In November 2009, the Associated Press and Verve Wireless moved forward with their plan to offer a content delivery toolkit, based on the award-winning AP Mobile platform, which would assist local publishers in launching their own mobile applications without the expense of designing one from scratch. The companies contended that mobile apps drive [four times to ten times] greater usage because they are faster and easier to use than traditional Internet browsers on mobile devices. Readers who have the AP Mobile app are able to access local news content on the wire service’s platform according to which zip code they entered in the app’s customizable settings. Member newspapers of the Associated Press in Alabama included in this mobile service include virtually all the dailies and several of the weeklies.

Verve reports that local news is an important attraction on its platform.  As more local media companies provided their content, viewership jumped by more than 100 percent, making local news the most accessed content.

Press-Register editor Mike Marshall is wary, however, of his paper’s content being delivered to readers on the AP Mobile news app and said he is eager to see which direction the Newhouse consortium and al.com take in mobile news delivery.

When it comes to local news, 38 percent of respondents in the Pew survey said they would like to see more coverage of issues in their community in their Internet news. This preference and others are important for news producers to take into consideration. Users can personalize their news experience, through customizing settings in news accounts and user profiles. And there is increased competition for their attention. Mobile devices and their news apps allow users to become both more active and more passive in their news experience. Once mobile device owners take the proactive step of customizing their news app preferences, they then expect the news they like and use to be pushed to them rather than seeking it out.

The expectation that news consumption will become more seamlessly integrated into users’ fast-paced lifestyles is in line with the new group of non-traditional preferences from print newspapers that in days past would be confined to TV news. No longer are individuals tethered to a tube for breaking news, especially information of immediate importance and relevance, such as weather and traffic. Thus changes in technology and society contributed to the shift in public demand for news content and sources.

Even as the newspaper industry begins to realize the magnitude of the changes it faces in its audience, medium and content, it is haunted by the results of previous transitions in the landscape of news delivery. One major consequence of digital Internet news has been the difficulty of monetizing online news consumption owing to lack of interest from viewers to pay subscription rates and from businesses to pay the same advertiser rates as for the print newspaper.

New content, new mission, hard times

Whatever the outcome of the debates over whether newspapers mistakenly devalued their product by giving it away for free on the Internet and whether their audiences are willing once again to pay for news, the emerging reality is that not only are users ever more accustomed to receiving their news free of charge, but they also want local newspapers to provide ever more value than before. Thus, reconciling newspaper resistance to change and dependence on subscriber and advertiser fees is a priority in order for print media to adjust to the 24-hour news cycle.

The first major paradigm shift is the definition of newspaper content in the online, mobile, 24-hour news marketplace. Newspapers, which have suffered sweeping cutbacks in the newsroom, including 15,000 jobs lost in 2009, are already stretched thin to cover the typical domains of print media. This makes serving new audience appetites for weather, traffic, sports scores, locator options, and breaking local news even more difficult. With limited staff, how can a newsroom manage delivering new content, delivering it differently and delivering it instantly and frequently? These three factors, when properly executed, combine to make a news source compelling, which is important in an age when readers confront a clutter of information competing for their attention.

Ryan Pitts, senior editor for digital media for the Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash., said the focus in newsrooms should be less about what content should be delivered through new media platforms and more about which media platform best delivers particular content. Pitts described the emerging news marketplace as one in which every choice imaginable is offered, with different content highlighted in the appropriate venues.

In the Spokesman’s new mobile site, for example, the online team prominently features traffic and weather news, while on the regular website, they emphasize this content less. One assumption about mobile devices that Pitts cautioned against was that they are used to access only immediate information, such as the TV news model. This is only one use for the mobile device, Pitts said, while a second is spending longer periods with the mobile device, filling up idle time on public transportation, in waiting rooms, at children’s school and practice pick-up zones, and so on. This observation shines light on the Knight Fellows’ finding that readers show a strong desire for in-depth local news on a mobile news application, in addition to the TV news menu.

When the extent of users’ news appetites seems to be, in reality, that they want everything, everywhere, all the time, then asking questions about what they want in a mobile environment becomes more about their particular circumstances at the time they access the content, and less about the content itself. Questions might focus on the user’s location when accessing certain content and their activity. Pitts said there is no question that mobile is exploding, but there is yet to be enough substance to make newspapers’ “mobile-first strategies” more than just a buzzword.

He alluded to what Vickey Williams, newspaper consultant and associate director of the Media Management Center, called the elephant in the room: the economy. The current business model of newspapers means that, as users migrate to mobile, media must be smart about how they craft their mobile applications, Pitts said. In his experience, businesses have not yet embraced mobile advertisements as eagerly as consumers are embracing mobile delivery. One smart cost-saving approach, Pitts noted, would be collaboration between local TV news stations and newspapers. Pitts said news sources, which have up to now competed in covering much of the same events, and consumers who want more choices no matter what source they come from, would profit from such an alliance.

“They could do what they do really well,” Pitts said, “and we do what we do really well, and online, we can put everything together.”

Williams, in her work with the Media Management Center, has studied closely the uphill battle print media companies will likely face in adapting to the new media landscape.  The struggle arises from both the culture at newspaper organizations and the emphasis on the business side of the industry. Williams said it is unfortunate that media companies tend to evaluate the transition economically, when the best way to approach it would be strategically. She is not, however, surprised at the reticence encountered in the newsroom.

“Journalists belong to the most change resistant workforce ever studied,” Williams said.

A 2009 report titled “Life Beyond Print: Newspaper journalists’ digital appetites,” drawn from a Media Management Center study, describes the attitudes within newspaper organizations grouped by categories of digital appetite. The researchers found journalists’ desire for their newsroom to be more digital to be the key predictor of adaptability, and the factor that correlated to desire for digital in the workplace was not age but personal Internet use. Overall, the study showed that “journalists have no trouble envisioning a career where news is delivered primarily online and to mobile devices instead of in print. …In fact, almost half think their newsroom’s transition from print to digital is moving too slowly.” It is noteworthy to mention that the study also showed that newspaper journalists express satisfaction with their jobs, despite apparent industry turmoil.

Newsrooms would be remiss to sit back and wait for the transitioning to run its course. There is plenty of data to give cues to the preferences that audiences have preserved and discovered in the shift in delivery modes, news content and more. News companies of all sizes in all regions need to proactively experiment with various modes for interacting with users, with the aim of becoming their trusted source of local news. This feat has yet to be achieved by even the largest national media outlets, according to the Pew Internet study. As the “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer” report puts it: “In the digital era, news has become omnipresent. Americans access it in multiple formats on multiple platforms on myriad devices. The days of loyalty to a particular news organization on a particular piece of technology in a particular form are gone.”

Journalists must learn to listen carefully to their colleagues and readers for the DNA of the ideas that will grow into the new news ecology. A fascinating assessment of the state of the news media came from New York Times columnist Gail Collins. Speaking to an audience of journalism students, she said the journalism industry has always been in a state of flux. At every juncture marked by a shift in technology, Collins said, journalists have the opportunity to remake the way journalism works. Listen to her: “People are so distracted today, every sentence you write is a battle for the attention of multi-taskers. The challenge of communicating today is ten times greater than in previous generations…Every time you go into a new level of technology, the way we communicate changes. It gets better. The whole world is being recreated right now for a new version of journalism.” Collins told the students they were lucky to be part of such an exciting time of change. “You get to discover a stylistic, fascinating way to communicate to a cell phone.”

Sources

This article relies on original research undertaken by the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism in spring 2010: a content analysis of offerings of Alabama newspapers and an online survey of readers.  Other sources for this article include

Associated Press (May 21, 2009). AP Mobile rings in one-year anniversary, more than 55 million local stories read by consumers on the go, Retrieved from http://www.ap.org/pages/about/pressreleases/pr_052109a.html.

Associated Press Mobile Content Contributors, Retrieved from http://www.ap.org/mobile/contributors.html.

Pew Research Center for People and the Press. (August 17, 2008). Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources: A News Audience Segmentation. Retrieved from http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=1357.

Readership Institute, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. (April 2001). The Power to Grow Readership: Impact Study of Newspaper Readership, Retrieved from http://www.readership.org/impact/impact.asp.

Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and its Project for Excellence in Journalism. (March 1, 2010). Understanding the Participatory News Consumer. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Online-News.aspx.

Associated Press. (November 5, 2009). Verve Wireless and the Associated Press introduce ‘White Label’ mobile application publishing services to media partners. Retrieved from http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/home/permalink/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20091105005923&newsLang=en.

Verve Wireless. (February 3, 2010). Verve Wireless serves up 100 million mobile news pages per month in 2009 – on track for 2.2 billion news pages served in 2010. Retrieved from http://www.vervewireless.com/headlines.html#headline1

(G. Collins, group presentation, April 1, 2010).

(G. Daniels, personal communication, April 24, 2010).

(N. Doyle, personal communication, April 29, 2010).

(M. Marshall, group presentation, March 8, 2010).

(R. Pitts, personal communication, May 12, 2010).

(B. Sims, group presentation, March 29, 2010).

(V. Williams, group presentation, March 30, 2010).

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