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How 3 local news outlets optimize mobile experiences

September 3, 2020 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

Around the world, mobile accounts for just over half of all online traffic. However, a concerningly large number of local news publishers have sites that are either inaccessible to mobile users, or are slow to load and clunky.

“A good mobile experience is absolutely pivotal,” emphasized news industry analyst Ken Doctor, who is launching his own local news outlet Lookout in the fall. “At least 65-70% of news reading is mobile. That defines the landscape. If you want to be in the news distribution business, you’ve got to go where people are.” And they are using their phones. 

But providing a good local news experience is about more than just making sure the content is accessible to readers. “The massive yet slow movement of traditional publishers to the web meant that they largely took their news sections and put the headlines on mobile in the most boring way possible,” Doctor explained. “A good local newspaper always gave you a sense of city life. It would show you the problems. But it also told you what was going on in town, fun things to do, characters in town.”

According to Doctor, most mobile experiences from local publishers lack a sense of place. “And local press at its best has always been about a sense of place.”

Many legacy organizations struggle to cater to the growth of mobile. But some recent launches have shown just how vital a good mobile experience is. Here, three publishers explain how they’re putting the mobile experience at the front and center of their local news delivery.

Spectrum’s new News App

SSpectrum Networks, a News and Sports Network owned by Charter, has recently launched its own local news app. The Spectrum News App combines written reporting from existing newsrooms and curated content from partner news organizations. It also includes local weather and linear feeds of all Spectrum News networks. 

Although Spectrum already has local linear news networks, they saw a mobile app as a way to go deeper into those communities with a wider range of content. “We were seeing these trends with mobile growth just exploding, and TV and mobile getting to a similar amount of time spent,” said  Alison Hellman, Group VP, Audience and Content Strategy at Spectrum. “It made sense for us as a business, but when you look at the gaps, there really is a gap in high-quality, targeted local news. We wanted to bring it to a new platform, and that’s how we got here.”

The app has live video and podcasts as well as text content. Hellman emphasised that it was how it all worked together which is one of the key draws. “Weather is critical for local news, and it’s not just the data, but it’s about the context,” she explained. “If we do this right, we are a one stop shop. People are doing some of these pieces well in the mobile space. But no one was providing it all.”

The app is free to access to all 28 million of Spectrum’s residential customers. For non-customers, the company offers  a 30 day trial. The mobile initiative is  a play for a long-term relationship with their customers. “We want to be a part of their lives in the way that they live their lives,” Hellman said.  “If they watch TV, we want to be there. But if they’re on the go, we want to be providing that information as well.”

Each locale in the Spectrum News App features original content produced specifically for the app by dedicated local digital journalists. It is also includes content from nearly three dozen local news partners. Sources range from major daily newspapers to community digital news outlets. This has helped bolster the app’s content in local areas. 

Launching The Longmont Leader

McClatchy is another publisher using mobile as a key part of its local news strategy. The company has partnered with Google to found The Compass Experiment. This news laboratory explores new sustainable business models for local news. The second of their local news sites, The Longmont Leader, was launched in May in Colorado.

Rather than building the site from scratch, The Compass Experiment partnered with Village Media, which operates  a number of local news sites in Canada. Village Media’s platform is mobile-responsive. It also has features such as classifieds and obituaries which can sometimes be complex to build and manage from scratch.

The Compass Experiment’s General Manager Mandy Jenkins explained that partnering means the team can focus resources on reporting rather than development. “I’ve seen other startups that have built their own thing. It always ends up being more expensive and more clunky than they think,” she said. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of people who do this well. And I don’t feel like we have to reinvent the wheel.”

The team did extensive research in the local community before launching to find out what people’s expectations were around both the content and the experience. The answers were unsurprising, but included not wanting hugely busy screens, ads popping up or autoplay videos. A clear, easy-to-navigate site was needed. And with the vast majority accessing the internet via mobile, a mobile-default mindset was essential.

This mindset extends back even to before the stories are published. “Even within the CMS, when [the journalists] produce stories, we get a mobile preview by default,” explained Jenkins. “Most of our readers are on mobile, so that’s where we have to look at it.”

This mobile-first thinking doesn’t have to mean producing an app as there are plenty of ways to engage users through mobile sites. “Although we’re not going with an app strategy, we’re sticking with a mobile web strategy, we’re still looking at doing mobile push alerts,” Jenkins outlined. “Not just for breaking news, but things like local election alerts and what’s going on around town. We’re starting to put together the strategy around that and how we’ll use them.”

Lookout for local news in Santa Cruz

Unlike Spectrum and The Longmont Leader, Ken Doctor’s Lookout has yet to launch. However, he is applying his extensive knowledge of the news ecosystem to how he and the team are shaping the Santa Cruz, CA publication.

Doctor is working on the assumption that around four fifths of the readers are going to be on mobile. So, the whole experience will be mobile-first. Like the Longmont Leader, Lookout has chosen not to build the site from scratch. Instead, they’ve opted to use the L.A. Times’ Graphene platform. The team will benefit from the technology expertise and development resources of a much larger publisher, which allows Lookout to focus on the content. 

Lookout will also focus on just content for the first few months, saving audio and video capabilities for later down the line. But they are looking to get the community involved very early on.

“We have a number of community features and interactive features that are important in terms of the two-way communication between our reporters and the public,” Doctor explained. “It’s a small community – 275,000 people –  and to get to know them, to be able to interact with them and do weekly chats with the correspondents, those kinds of things are build-in.”

However, a good mobile experience is just a part of the puzzle piece for local news organizations. “It’s a combination of what kind of content [it is], how it’s presented, what the overall experience is, and how it’s optimized,” Doctor outlined. 

His advice for local publishers looking to provide a better experience is to work hard to understand their readers and would-be readers. “They need to understand how their reading habits work today, because they’re not going to change those reading habits,” he emphasized. “It takes a mind shift and it takes investment, and it’s amazing how slow both moves have been.”

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