The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s eighth annual “State of the News Media” includes new survey data that confirms mobile apps need to serve consumers’ immediate needs for local information, including weather and restaurant listings.
The findings reveal that weather and business data, along with local news, traffic and public transportation information, are key interests of the local mobile audience.
The Pew survey, “How mobile devices are changing community information environments,” is based on landline and mobile phone interviews with 2,251 adults. Only a small percentage of respondents rely on a mobile device as their primary news source, but 47 percent say they get some local news from a smart phone or tablet.
The audience searching for local information on mobile devices is significant and that percentage will continue to grow.
The leading mobile needs are “practical and in real time,” the report says:
“Forty-two percent of mobile device owners report getting weather updates on their phones or tablets; 37 percent say they get material about restaurants or other local businesses. These consumers are less likely to use their mobile devices for news about local traffic, public transportation, general news alerts or to access retail coupons or discounts.”
In each category there are opportunities for local media, but also challenges posed by more recent, but already entrenched digital competitors. To develop a local app strategy built around these topics requires both delighting readers with quality content and design and serving their basic information needs.
Some news outlets are already doing this well, but the Pew report provides a clear road map and an added sense of urgency.
Forty-two percent of mobile phone and tablet users surveyed check weather on their mobile devices.
Three words: The Weather Channel. Local media cannot hope to compete with a TV network devoted to weather — especially one with a strong mobile strategy. Last year, The Weather Channel app for iPhone topped 10 million downloads.
I have not done an audit of every available mobile phone news app, but from a spot check it looks to me like broadcasters are more likely to have decent mobile weather offerings than newspapers. Generally, weather features in newspaper apps are more common among outlets using larger mobile vendors such as Verve.
Mobile managers — especially at newspapers — should work to get the fundamentals into their apps: current temperature, short-term forecasts, severe weather alerts and local radar maps. If you can serve that basic need, readers will be satisfied even if they turn to competitors for more in-depth information when a major weather event is on the way.
But for really local differentiation, try integrating a local weather blogger, columnist or short video forecast into the experience. That type of narrative content may not appeal to every mobile user, but it will help develop an identity for your app.
The Pew report indicates weather is a popular topic, a fact that has been born out in both app downloads and past surveys. But a few more details would be helpful in developing a mobile strategy. At a minimum: What weather information is enough for the typical reader on a typical day?
Thirty-seven percent of mobile phone and tablet users look for restaurant and other local business information.
Yelp has a national scale and a critical mass of reviews. That makes its service good enough at a local level to be useful to many readers. Other directory services, from Google Maps to Foursquare, are also active in the local market.
In-depth local business information is a service that cannot be provided by national competitors. Yelp and others depend on directory services, coupled with user-submitted reviews. Local media outlets, newspapers especially, have an archive of stories, photos and reviews for many restaurants, along with other businesses. Local knowledge beyond reader-submitted reviews can make a media app competitive against a national provider.
The key to success is not simply to purchase the same business directory information every website already uses, but to curate and supplement it to make the data feel expert and local.
The New York Times took this approach with The Scoop, a niche app targeting restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other entertainment and leisure venues. Each listing provides staff comments and reviews when available. One section contains a list and review of each of the top 50 restaurants in the city, as determined by staff critic Sam Sifton.
Pew did not ask about the specific information consumers most frequently accessed. Was it a phone number, directions or a user-submitted review? That behavior is critical for local media to understand before building an app.
Thirty percent of cell and tablet users check their devices for local news, 24 percent for local sports scores, and 22 percent for local traffic and transportation information.
Smaller newspapers may not be providing traffic reports online much less in a mobile app, but local news and sports are core competencies for every news organization.
Mobile consumers expect these updates to be both timely and data-driven. In many newsrooms that calls for putting mobile first, the Web second, and print third when it comes to publishing priorities. So, internal processes and technology are a larger concern than national competitors such as CNN or ESPN.
Everyone does breaking news in a mobile app, but what about taking a page from msnbc.com’s Breaking News and aggregate statewide or regional news in a niche app?
Or for sports, consider the partnership between WRAL.com and a local ESPN affiliate. They built the High School OT app that covers nearly four dozen high schools in the Raleigh-Durham area. It includes schedules, photos, videos from WRAL-TV, and live game scores.
For traffic and transportation, TBD.com does both well. The site’s mobile app includes general news and sports, but traffic and Metro (subway) updates are also highlighted, and both sections are designed to be information-rich but easy to navigate.
Not every market has a need for traffic and commuter rail updates, or a passion for high school football updates. But the Pew report indicates consumers increasingly expect this information to be available on their mobile devices. More local research and knowledge is necessary to decide which niche topics are of most value to your audience.
Mobile users are younger, more diverse
The survey provides the latest snapshot of the typical mobile phone news consumer. Users of local news apps are disproportionately younger, better educated and more likely to be black or Hispanic. Not surprisingly, the youngest demographic studied, 18-29, is the most likely to access local news and information via their mobile devices – across almost every content category.
This is good news for newspapers with an aging subscriber base. However, the report finds that local news apps are only used by 13 percent of adults who own mobile devices. Worse, only 1 percent of the U.S. adult population has paid for a local news app to date.
To some extent that is a chicken-and-egg problem. As smart phone and tablet ownership grows, and news organizations improve their mobile strategies and offerings, the paid options available to audiences — and we hope, those who choose to consume them — will continue to grow as well.