This series is supported by The Poynter Institute’s Mobile Media blog – your guide to the intersection of mobile and media. Sign up to receive the blog in newsletter format and be entered into a drawing to win an iPad at Poynter.org/ipadgiveaway.
Listen up, journalists — your cellphone is more than just a channel by which to reach sources, your editor and sustenance (you have the local Thai joint on speed dial, don’t front): It’s an essential tool for both local news-gathering and dissemination.
Mashable talked to reporters, publications and experts in the field to get the lowdown on how your cell is affecting local news coverage. We might not be able to get you to change your ring tone — “Poker Face,” really? — but we hope we can change how you’re using your iPhone, Droid, Palm or BlackBerry.
Read on for some actionable ideas for how you can make your mobile more than just another channel by which your mother can nag you about how you should have been a lawyer instead.
An Army of Citizen Journalists
If the recent spat of natural disasters and uprisings have proven anything, it’s that when it comes to local news coverage, audience engagement is truly an asset. Although the advent of the mojo (mobile journalist) is truly upon us — journalists are increasingly using mobile phones to collect video and photos and even to file stories — we also have a veritable army of citizen journalists out there armed with their own increasingly more advanced reporting tools: mobile phones. And, as we have seen, they’re more than eager to help a journo out.
Take, for example, the meteorite that zoomed over the Midwest back in April. Immediately after the event transpired, news stations took to Twitter in an attempt to get TwitPics and footage of the occurrence. Among the most successful was local Wisconsin news outlet, WISCTV_News3, who garnered an ample collection of cellphone pictures and YouTube videos.
According to News Director Colin Benedict, the rapid influx of content was due, in part, to the strong relationship the station already had with its viewers. “We use Twitter and Facebook every single day in our newscast,” he says. “Because when those big events happen, you have to have that relationship built already. We need to be in these spaces because that’s where our viewers are.”
Although the station doesn’t yet have a smartphone app -– it’s working on it –- it does have a distinct advantage when snagging this citizen footage: familiarity.
Parker Polidor — the president of Cell Journalist, a platform that allows folks to easily submit video from cellphones and other devices to local news stations –- would agree. Cell Journalist has 85 clients countrywide, and was instrumental in furnishing user footage during the flooding in Nashville, Tennessee, at the beginning of May.
“On a local TV level, this is where [local media] has a distinct advantage over all other forms of media,” he says. “When they issue the on-air call to action, they get flooded with content –- no pun intended. Over the course of that weekend, we received a little over 40,000 pieces of content submitted here in Nashville and a couple thousand in Memphis.”
By submitting footage like this to local stations, viewers and consumers feel like they’re a part of the story. “Any time a user sees their content on air, that gives them motivation to submit more content,” Polidor says. So, it would behoove the local reporter, station or paper to use social media to connect with these walking camera men and women, who make for excellent sources of information when disaster strikes.
Using Geolocation to Crowdsource
There is a distinct untapped market here when it comes to mobile crowdsourcing: geolocation (i.e. tools like Foursquare, Gowalla, etc). Your first thought here might be: “Why do I care who’s checking in at Chipotle at any given moment?” And we would agree — for the most part. But think about how tools like these could be used creatively. For example, Tracy Swartz, a journalist for Chicago’s RedEye paper, has found a novel use for Foursquare: She’s a transit reporter, so she scours checkins at various subway stations for news about delays, fare jumpers and track conditions.
This is only one way in which a journalist has figured out how to use the location-based tool. Now think how helpful Foursquare could be for a food reviewer (I’ve seen people mention things like vermin in checkins at various restaurants and bars), a crime reporter (I can easily see someone reporting gang activity or shots fired via a Foursquare checkin) or even an entertainment reporter (tons of people usually equates to something cool –- find out which concerts and music venues are racking up the checkins and proceed accordingly).
As more and more people get hip to Foursquare in your community –- 40 million checkins ain’t bad –- we would suggest becoming early adopters. Download this tool and start digging -– at the very least, you’ll score a mayorship and some serious street cred among the tech cool kids.
Putting Mobile First
I have a vivid memory of my grad school dean holding up his cellphone during various assemblies, imploring us to start thinking about how we’re going to get the news on “this,” rather than “this” –- the latter “this” being a newspaper. Back then, my immediate reaction was: “Ha, what? Who wants to read a story on a tiny screen?” Well, two years later, and I’m eating that thought bubble.
Although smartphone use is not as widespread among the majority of average consumers as it is within, say, the tech community — of the top five mobile phone manufacturers, only Motorola and RIM have made significant inroads in the smartphone space in the U.S. –- it is growing. And with more and more handsets and form factors on the market, the mobile space is indeed important when it comes to news dissemination (hell, the iPad sold one million units in the first month — that’s a huge market for mobile offerings right there). Still, at present, the space is a true work in progress.
Reporters and publications have to start thinking of the news in terms of “mobile first” –- i.e. Thinking about how to distribute content via mobile devices first, said Stephen Buttry, director of community engagement for TBD.com (a soon-to-be-launched digital local news operation covering the Washington area for Allbritton Communications).
“News organizations need to move quickly, and looking back on our history with the web, we know their tendency is not to move quickly,” he says. “It was easily 10 years or more into the history of news on the web that we even started hearing ‘web-first.’ … If we don’t make mobile our first priority, w
e’re going to screw it up like we did with the web.”
Folks like David Beard, editor of The Boston Globe’s Boston.com, have seen firsthand how quickly the news delivery landscape has changed. “When I took this job maybe two years ago, I was mostly the browser guy,” he says. “We had e-mail alerts and text alerts and not much more. Now we’re on five or six different platforms.”
Currently, Boston.com has two iPhone apps — a news app and a photo blog app called The Big Picture — and Beard says they’re doing fairly well. “We’re up triple the mobile pageviews this year from last year at this time,” he explains. Boston.com is also currently working on an iPad app.
Still, the local website, like myriad other sites, has a lot of obstacles to overcome when it comes to making inroads in the mobile space: deciding whether or not to adapt to more than one platform (Android, Palm, etc), as well as weathering the battle between Adobe and Apple.
(It would be an entire other feature at this juncture to get into the whole Flash vs. HTML debate, but suffice it to say that many publications are trying to figure out the best way to get video on mobile handsets. According to Jeff Whatcott, SVP of marketing at popular video platform Brightcove, “When the iPad came out… we actually had so many requests coming in from so many customers that we decided it would be most efficient to just book a hotel room in New York, and we did the same thing in London, to get all of our customers together. That was something we haven’t seen before.”)
Still, folks like Buttry are not impressed with most local news apps –- which aren’t really that different from their mobile sites (which are essentially the website shrunk down to fit a smaller screen). Yet he sees any local news site with an app as moving in the right direction. “I’m glad that they’re getting their feet wet,” he says. “Because those are skills and experiences they need to develop. And if the first one is pretty lame, that’s OK –- don’t stop there. Because the first news story you wrote was pretty lame.”
Taking Advantage of Location-Aware Abilities
Again, however, having an app is only the beginning of the story. What we have not yet fully realized is the location-aware nature of the mobile phone and how vital that is when it comes to delivering local news.
According to Amy L. Webb, CEO and principal of Webbmedia Group, LLC, “If you encode your content correctly –- to really be able to deliver people real-time news that’s about where they are at that moment — that’s hyperlocal news that makes sense. The problem is that most news organizations aren’t thinking that way. They’re still thinking in terms of zip codes.” What she means is that we have the ability to tie news to exact street corners, and we should be taking advantage of that.
Recently, we’ve seen several brands and publications making partnerships with Foursquare in an attempt to make ample use of geo-location. The Wall Street Journal is probably the most notable example of late. Basically, the paper’s partnership with the location-based service allows readers to collect badges for checking in at various New York locations, but –- more interestingly –- it also seeks to integrate news consumption into the game.
For example, the publication has added tips to places like Yankee Stadium that include facts about the location as well as links to stories. In fact, just the other week, The Wall Street Journal broke the news about a suspicious package found in Times Square via a Foursquare tip. Essentially, the publication is bringing us the news in a whole new way –- instead of reading stories for pleasure or leisure (via the printed page) or searching for information (via the web), The WSJ is making news dissemination about discovery.
Of course, it may be prudent at this point to recall that Foursquare only has around one million members, so it’s probably not the best way to reach your entire audience at present, but it’s this kind of innovation that people like Webb hope to see more publications experimenting with.
The same goes for aggregators on mobile platforms, which seek to bring a location-specific array of news to consumers. EveryBlock –- which is basically the granddaddy of location-based news aggregators –- has matured and developed over the years, adding a location-aware iPhone app that delivers a selection of local news to your handset. Newer services, like Fwix –- whose iPad app has been a huge success –- are seeking to do the same thing.
These services seek to provide users with the most information — from the most sources — about a given location. “Local news has to come from a ton of different sources,” says Fwix founder Darian Shirazi. “It just can’t come from one source anymore. We’ve been a central location to collect all that news together.” EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty would agree, “The more location-specific news there is, the better position we’re in, because we aggregate all that,” he says. “We love the fact that Twitter has launched geo-coding Tweets, because, in theory, it means there’s more geo-coded news out there.”
Still, the question, again, becomes: Will the average person use such a service? Webb doesn’t think so. “I think that people want local content for sure –- we know that they do,” she says. “The problem is that they want it in a way that makes sense to them. You can aggregate all you want, but at the end of the day, people want accessible, critical, niche local content that makes sense to them that’s relevant that depends on where they are.”
What All This Means for You, The Journalist
The fact of the matter is: Mobile technology is moving at a breakneck speed. Handsets that are hot at one moment may be completely incompatible with all the newest software a couple of months down the road. So the takeaway here is that you have to be aware of the changing landscape and adjust accordingly, but you don’t have to be a tech fiend.
When it comes to innovations and services like geo-location and the iPad and various and sundry apps, make sure that they are on your radar. Use the ones that suit your needs and at least test out the others. Casting an eye to the horizon –- while also keeping your feet square on terra firma –- is essential to staying relevant in the local news game.
Series supported by Poynter Institute’s Mobile Media blog
This post is part of a Mashable series providing analysis of how mobile use impacts journalism. The series is supported by The Poynter Institute’s Mobile Media blog – your guide to the intersection of mobile and media. Sign up to receive our blog in newsletter format and be entered into a drawing to win an iPad. Learn more at Poynter.org/ipadgiveaway.