If you’re a media company, your mobile competition isn’t other news entities, it’s Google Now

Gigaom

At conferences — and in editorial meetings, when a visionary speech from management is required — media companies like to talk about how the future of news is mobile. And some media outlets are even putting their money where their mouth is, by releasing apps like NYT Now. But for many, it’s still a struggle just to get their websites to render properly on a mobile device, and their apps are unloved orphans standing alone in a field, carrying bad reproductions of the print version.

Meanwhile, Google’s information delivery features get stronger and stronger, and the amount it knows about the intended audience for that information grows larger. It’s like the web and Google News all over again, only worse.

For every innovative news app like Circa, which takes in all the news about a given event and creates brief updates that readers can “follow,” there are dozens of lookalike newspaper apps that have a handful of downloads — in many cases because they are bloated and unresponsive, and they tend to emphasize visual gimmicks over news delivery or actual interaction.

News should take advantage of being mobile

Some newspaper chains — like Postmedia in Canada — are trying to experiment with Circa-like features and other ways to make their apps serve readers better, but a lot of it feels like too little, too late. And it’s not just about reaching outside of your own media company to provide news, although that would be an improvement (the New York Times does some of this with its NYT Now app, but not enough). Too many news apps see themselves the way newspapers used to: as the one and only information source, instead of just another voice.

Photo by Maksym Yemelynov/Thinkstock

But more than that, as Frédéric Filloux notes in a post at The Monday Note, very few news apps take advantage of the qualities of a smartphone — things like GPS geo-targeting, which could use the location of a reader to augment the information they are getting, the way the Breaking News app does. Or the brain inside the phone itself, which could compute how long it took a reader to get through a story, how many times they returned to it, what other news they’ve been consuming, and so on:

“After a while, your smartphone has recorded your usage patterns in great detail. It knows when you read the news and, more importantly, under what conditions… based on these data sets, it becomes possible to predict your most probable level of attention at certain moments of the day and to take in account network conditions. Therefore, a predictive algorithm can decide what type of news format you’ll be up for at 7:30 am when you’re commuting.”

Google Now knows all about me

There are a few digital giants that have the potential to use of these kinds of features to deliver smarter news, and one of the most obvious is Google (another would be Apple). As I’ve pointed out before, the company’s Google Now smart assistant has already become a crucial source of answers to questions like “When is my flight?” and “Is there traffic on the interstate” for many users, and it provides those answers without the need for an actual search — it just shows up when you need it. Is that creepy? Perhaps. But it’s also incredibly useful.

Google has already been experimenting with news delivery, in some cases targeted to a user’s location, and it seems obvious that this kind of feature is intended for a range of mobile devices — including Google Glass. How is the average newspaper mobile app going to compete against that? The most a traditional media entity could hope for is that Google decides their updates are worth including in a Google News-style roundup delivered via Now or Glass — but how much loyalty is going to accrue to the actual media outlet that is the original source of that update?

Jeff Jarvis has talked for some time about how media entities need to get to know their audiences (or the people formerly known as the audience), so that they can fulfill their information needs, and possibly even anticipate them. The potential to do this becomes even more obvious, and more crucial, when you think about mobile news. The power of a device that knows where you are and what apps you just finished opening could be used by smart media companies to provide a host of useful information — and not just what we think of as “hard news,” but bus schedules or weather reports or any number of other services.

As Filloux notes in his post, a big part of the risk for news companies is that mobile devices contain so many other apps clamoring for the attention of the user, from Snapchat and Instagram to Facebook and games like 2048. How can a news outlet compete with these kinds of attention magnets? By being as useful as possible, in as many different ways as possible. And if they can’t figure out how to do that, then I expect that Google will be more than happy to show them the way.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Maksym Yemelynov

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