Commentary

Building A Mobile News Network

When AP decided several years ago to get into the mobile news business with its many newspaper partners, the company wasn't kidding around. "AP invested millions to get this up and running," says Jeff Litvack, global product development director at AP. And it shows. While AP Mobile News Network is available in a WAP versions, the focus has been on the iPhone iteration, which gets up to 80% of the site traffic. It is among the best iPhone Web apps I have used, with top line buttons navigating local news from over 100 member papers, search, and a drill down into over a dozen news categories. The best part is, you can customize the home screen with just the news categories you want. The photo gallery is simply brilliant. You can drop into thumbnails of the entire gallery, and a tap on any image overlays a rich caption. A smart phone version is coming, and a dedicated iPhone app will allow offline viewing and user uploading of news and images directly to AP.

So with all this goodness under the hood, I was curious how the network is doing -- and if that tells us anything about how people do want to access news on handhelds. "We're pleasantly surprised," says Litvack. Users and reviewers have been almost as high on the product as I am, and the first month of service saw over 2 million page views. Sports, top news and entertainment are the leading categories. And echoing recent metrics from Quattor Wireless on some of the sites it services, Litvack says that the traffic flow undermines some mobile mythology. "There isn't one peak hour," he tells me. "The Mobile News Network is used consistently throughout the day and even across weekends and weekdays." While they are very early in the game, so far the typical unique user is logging in for seven visits a month. Most of them are doing some kind of personalization, either by customizing the home page or entering their local zip code.

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From my perspective, local news coverage is still pretty spotty. Here in northern Delaware, no local news pops up and I have to default to the Philly market. But Litvack has high hopes for the local feeds, which has always been central to the content and business models. "We work with members who join the digital cooperative. And can opt into the Mobile News Network. We take the feeds, add metadata that is valuable to their Web subscribers and post that to mobile in the appropriate categories," he says. Most of the non-local news categories are aggregations of AP reports and newspaper items, all nicely branded with the paper's logo.

On the business side, the decision to make AP Mobile News Network free and fully ad-supported from the outset was also imposed by the existing Web models and a desire to maximize distribution. Ultimately, Litvack sees traffic, content, and advertising migrating to local. "It's truly our belief that people are looking to get their hometown news alongside their sports scores." The next iterations of the product will add in other resource content like movie reviews, listings and restaurant guides to form a coherent news and local resource hub that may be a kind of centralized national portal that reaches into local resources. And the local ad staffs may be the ones to fuel the engine. "AP is doing this as a not-for-profit. [Partners] capture 100% of revenue on the content, and if you sell against the content you get 100%."

Local news and local advertising have always been a hard sell on digital. Local TV has been making surprising inroads to mobile, as affiliates leverage that TV mojo to promote some very sophisticated WAP sites. Local news is going to be hotly contested terrain, and on mobile the national brands like USAToday and CNN already have some momentum. AP and its newspaper affiliates will need to do a hard press from all available marketing angles to get traction, I suspect.

Being first mover is one way of coming at the problem. As we went to press, Apple dropped its iTunes version 7.7 upgrade that includes access to the new iPhone/iTouch applications store. According to reports, the actual iPhone 2.0 software that runs these third-party apps will be available by the time you read this later today. But already we can see the program catalog. In the News category, AP Mobile News Network's standalone app competes only with NYTimes as a major general news source. If APNews can get in early and outgun competitors with its ingenious use of the iPhone interface, then it has a deserving chance in the market.

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