"On the Frontiers of Change"

If you want proof that mobile applications have big potential in the media industry, you’ll find some of the most telling evidence in sports. Fans are downloading them in spectacular numbers. The Hockey News announced in September that its app was downloaded for the millionth time, a notable achievement given the magazine’s single-sport niche. The numbers are even more remarkable for national sport broadcasters. The mobile apps for the Score, Canada’s third-place sports cable broadcaster, together average 2.1 million unique users every month. During TSN’s 2011 NHL trade deadline coverage, its “TradeCentre” program was the second most-downloaded free sports app on the Canadian iTunes store—impressive considering it was a once-a-year event. Quick off the Mark

Indeed, mobile applications are a bright spot on the media landscape when it comes to ongoing efforts to attract and retain readers and viewers. Part of the success can be attributed to the exploding market for smartphones and other mobile devices. A spring 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 35 percent of adults in the U.S. have phone apps. True, most of them serve other uses—games, directions, even shopping—but apps are a natural fit for news media. The anytime, anywhere nature of smartphones makes it easier for news organizations to send out breaking stories or updates.

Apps represent the next step in digital distribution of news and information, and their adoption serves as a barometer of a publication’s devotion to evolution. The popularity of mobile applications is creating an environment in which competitors are pushing one another to devote more resources to app development, hopefully leading to better products and increased market share. “It’s like the early days of the internet,” says Alan C. Middleton, assistant professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

Although apps offer intriguing possibilities for media companies, the future is uncharted. Companies are experimenting with app strategies to suit their own individual brands. For some, that has meant heavy investments in mobile applications to grow and develop an audience. Others are simply focusing on keeping their brand in the media mix. No major outlets, however, are ignoring mobile apps as a distribution tool. If one thing can be said for sure, it’s this: if you’re not currently in the mobile business, you’re already behind.

Dale Fallon lays out his impressive collection of phones on the table in his office—an iPhone 4, a BlackBerry Bold, a Google Nexus One and a Sony Ericsson Xperia X10. He scrambles to find his Nokia somewhere in the boxes above his desk, clawing through old flip-phones, batteries and tangles of wires. “I have a lot of phones,” he says sheepishly.

Fallon has been Score Media’s director of mobile since 2007, when the network started devoting more resources to its mobile presence. Back then, its apps were fairly basic score services. Today it offers a broad range of apps, supported on a wide variety of smartphone platforms. Outside the network’s headquarters in downtown Toronto, a giant billboard ad jokes that the Score’s apps are too addictive and cautions passersby not to download them.

The Score started out as a 24-hour highlight reel, but the channel’s licence restrictions have been loosened over the years, allowing it to broadcast programs such as Raptors games, a satellite radio show, and mma/wwe fights. The channel now reaches 6.8 million homes across Canada, far more than with its original audience, but it still lags behind rival networks TSN and Sportsnet.

To compensate, the Score has been forced to expand its audience in different ways. It was the first Canadian sports network, for example, to create an iPad application. In June 2010, the Score launched its soccer app, Score Mobile FC, to coincide with the World Cup, picking up around 300,000 unique users. The network’s hardcore soccer following, served in part by the afternoon program The Footy Show, contributed to that number.

The Score’s apps have generated valuable international exposure for the network, including mentions on “Best App” lists around the globe. In the bigger picture, the network’s mobile strategy has helped lift company revenue to more than $43 million in 2010, from less than $30 million in 2006.

For ESPN, the largest sports broadcaster in North America, the emphasis of its app strategy isn’t necessarily trying to innovate, but to complement the network’s formidable existing coverage. If you can’t watch ESPN on TV, the network wants to make sure you pull out your smartphone. espn’s success in the mobile sector has come from leveraging its potent brand to make ScoreCenter the number one free sports app in Apple’s App Store.

“The best available screen is a principle of ours,” says Kevin Ota, ESPN’s director of digital media communications. “The optimal way to watch sports [apart from in person] is on a 55-inch HD or a 3D screen, but we all have busy lives.”

It should come as no surprise that sports media outlets are early leaders in the market for mobile apps. Sports fans, after all, have always pored over box scores. The nature of sports news itself is immediate and definite. A game is won or lost. A player is traded. That’s one of the reasons sports broadcasters and publications still dominate the news app rankings. Traditional news organizations, however, are also making important inroads.

For example, The Globe and Mail is putting more emphasis on creating and editing digital content for both its website and mobile app. The effort is paying off, especially on the app front. After its first launch in 2009, the Globe’s apps have been downloaded more than 750,000 times. Developed for both iPhone and BlackBerry devices, they grab 20 million page views a month. “It’s quickly becoming a third pillar of Globe and Mail content delivery,” says Matt Frehner, the Globe’s mobile editor.

Much of the Globe’s success in mobile news can be attributed to the fact that it was the first national Canadian newspaper to launch an app. “[The early rollout] was the experimentation phase,” Frehner says. “We’re still testing the waters, seeing what works and what doesn’t work.

That head start meant that the paper was able to benefit sooner from user reaction, and had more time to refine its offering before the market started becoming more competitive. It also meant the Globe was able to benefit sooner from user reaction. That early launch strategy is carrying over into other digital projects. The Globe’s iPad app, for example, was quickly built in a couple of months. “[The app] was about getting something out there that we were proud of, that we thought worked well and we used it as a basic first approach,” Frehner says. “If you try to put out the perfect app, you’ll never make it out to market.” Even with a basic effort, the paper pre-sold the first three months of ad inventory for the iPad app.

Laying down the early groundwork has allowed the Globe to improve, and its mobile traffic has doubled in the past year. That figure reflects industry-wide growth—the Gartner research firm recently released a study forecasting 17.7 billion app downloads worldwide in 2011, more than double the 2010 figure. But while the Globe may have an early lead, its competitors are closing the gap. Both the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest paper by circulation, and the National Post launched apps for the iPhone and the iPad in 2010.

Although the Post trails the Globe in traditional readership, it is counting on its brand to carry its app. “We always get lumped in with The Globe and Mail, but the fact is, we’re not the same,” says Duncan Clark, director of product management for the Post. The paper is focusing on its core audience—a “fiscally conservative” readership with “personality” and a “sense of humour,” according to the paper.

Even so, the Globe is miles ahead. The Post launched its app just before Christmas 2010, to take advantage of the spike in new mobile users during the holidays. But the company only recently started taking advantage of reader feedback on its app. Still, Clark is optimistic about its prospects. “We’ve been extremely happy with the response,” he says. “What we’ve learned from these apps is that we can reach people not just in a different place but in a different time of day from newspaper consumption.” Up next for the Post this spring, support for a burgeoning Google Android phone market.

Meanwhile, the Globe has started to move into the next phase of development, focusing on what it calls “agile” mobile development. While something such as the Globe’s main news app may take up to eight months to develop, agile development aims to build a smaller product every couple of weeks. For example, the paper, in partnership with Xtreme Labs, released their Globe Politics application for Apple products just before the 2011 Canadian election was announced. The daily hopes this will help its mobile development stay up to date.

Whether the Post follows the Globe down this road remains to be seen. For the time being, however, Clark is not overly concerned about short-term competition. “I don’t feel there are people saying, ‘Am I going to download the National Post or the Globe or the Star?’” he says. “I think it’s likely that they’ll have all three. Will they like using all three? Every user’s focus is different. When it comes to us, we have a heavily financial focus. There’s a myriad of apps [beyond traditional newspapers] that are, quote unquote, competitors to us.”

For an industry with flagging readership and advertising, mobile applications are a new way to bolster ad sales and increase distribution. Even so, there are plenty of obstacles and uncertainties in this evolving market. For instance, when it comes to traditional digital, print or broadcast distribution, news organizations are in control of the process. They own their servers, trucks and towers, or contract businesses that deliver the best service at the best price. When it comes to mobile applications, media companies must depend on app stores, which operate under their own agendas. Apple, for example, is infamous for removing content it finds objectionable. The company has also earned criticism from publishers for taking a hefty share of the revenue earned from paid applications, like magazine subscriptions.) Smartphone technology
is also changing rapidly, forcing the media to continually invest in updating and developing new applications for the latest mobile devices.

But these issues can be largely ascribed to growing pains in a market that shows considerable promise. They certainly aren’t deterring media companies. “We’ve seen a tremendous appetite for this,” Clark says. “It’s an ever-evolving medium. This one seems to be evolving more than others.” Audiences are moving with the times. For news organizations, that’s a sign that the best is yet to come—perhaps sooner rather than later.

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About the author

Brian Liu was the Production Editor for the Summer 2011 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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