Cory Bergman

(Updated 7/29) - Whenever I talk to journalists about the mobile shift, they’re quick to defend the web over mobile apps. After all, the web is what the news industry knows best after years of playing digital catch up.

This bias has played out in product development. Many news organizations (even some new startups) have opted to invest more resources into responsive web design over creating and marketing compelling apps. In large part, that’s because good, differentiated apps are much more expensive to build, market and maintain. In the world of limited resources, what we know gets the attention.

But with each new study on mobile consumption, it’s becoming clearer that apps are not only winning, but dominating the field at the expense of the web. Sure, the desktop web is now in decline, but a new report by Comscore goes as far as saying the mobile web is flattening in share.

From October 2013 to May of this year — just 7 months time — mobile apps grew from 41% to 51% share of all time spent with digital media. Over the same time period, the mobile web remained flat at 9%, according to Comscore. Apps are driving the overwhelming majority of digital media growth.

Comscore broke it down by a few properties. For Gannett, for example, the split is nearly even: smartphone users spend 54% of their time on a Gannett website compared to 46% in a Gannett app. For The Weather Channel, users spend only 13% of their time on Weather.com compared to 87% in the app. And just 6% of Facebook users’ time is spent on Facebook.com on their phones.

The trend is echoed in a
 global study by Reuters Institute.  Researchers found that 47% of smartphone users say they primarily use apps for news — an increase of 6% over 2013.  By contrast, 38% of users say they prefer the browser for news, down 4% over the same year.

News organizations with languishing apps are quick to point out that their website substantially outperforms their app. Not to mention, they expain, mobile revenue is non-existent. But that’s a self-fulfilling strategic mistake: resource allocation decisions should be based on where consumers are going, not where they’ve been. The less you invest in apps, the more poorly they perform. And history has taught us, where consumers go, the money will follow. It’s already happening — fast.

Waiting until the dust settles may prove to be fatal. While app use explodes, “the average number of apps owners used had barely risen over the past two years, from 23.2 in Q4 2011 to 26.8 in Q4 2013,” explained eMarketer, citing Nielsen data. Loyalties are forming, and it’s becoming even more difficult than ever to crack into the app business this late in the game.

Adding fuel to the fire, Facebook and other social apps continue to gain share and solidy their own loyal user bases as de facto destinations for news. At the same time, people are visiting home pages less, coming in social side doors. If you don’t have a solid app, you’re handing over the front door on the fastest growing distribution platform to someone else. Those who own the front doors can gather user data and by extension monetize at scale. (Sound familiar?)

Even Buzzfeed, which helped write the book on social discovery and referrals, understands the destination value of apps. On any given day, its app is neck-and-neck with CNN in the App Store (a big investment), and the app’s tremendous growth helped Buzzfeed vault over NYTimes in total visitors several months ago.  

But that’s just the beginning. According to a job posting, Buzzfeed is assembling a “crack team to imagine a build a new kind of news app,” in addition to its current mobile team.  While everyone talks about Buzzfeed’s social exploits, the startup is doubling down on mobile apps.

For those news organizations investing heavily in apps, the benefits are starting to become clear. Once you start growing a loyal app audience, users consume and share content much more frequently — in many cases, exponentially more than web users. Users are more comfortable sharing data with apps that adapt to their needs, laying the groundwork for targeted advertising and a sustainable business.

If you’re good at apps, you’ve built a strong foundation to extend to new platforms that don’t run on browsers. At Breaking News, for example, our apps work seamlessly with wearables with minimal work (see an example on Android Wear). As Apple, Android and Amazon push into living rooms, video apps naturally extend to TV sets with strong ties to mobile devices. In a similar fashion, digital displays in cars all run on apps, not browsers.

A year and a half ago, I urged newsrooms to aggressively invest in mobile to avoid — even profit — from the second disruption. Now the disruption is here, and while the mobile web is still important, apps are leading the growth curve on mobile and beyond. News organizations have to fight a battle on both fronts, realizing that good apps require a tremendously larger and more patient investment than a mobile-friendly site.  Similar to the first disruption, those who don’t invest enough will be left behind.

(Updated 7/29 to include the Reuters Institute study and Buzzfeed job posting.)

A bunch of misfits, that’s what they called us. A bunch of nobodies. Inexperienced. Ain’t never been there. Well, you see what misfits get you.
Seahawks defensive end Red Bryant after winning the Super Bowl.

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress, Financial Times’ CTO John O’Donovan said the term mobile first has become meaningless. “Focusing too much on one thing can lead to being obsessed with the things mobile can do” instead of seeing the bigger picture, he warned.  The FT uses a “universal publishing” approach.

Similarly, others have argued that the best, most holistic strategy is “platform appropriate,” optimizing for each screen.  “Who are we to say what screen is first?” said Meredith Artley, managing editor of CNN Digital.

From a consumer standpoint, they’re right.  We should be doing everything.  But for the vast majority of newsrooms with limited resources and tightly-bound cultures, mobile first is a rallying cry to aggressively turn the Titanic before it’s too late.

In news, culture is everything.  Over a decade ago, the industry saw the internet as just another distribution channel — another screen — instead of a disruptive new way of doing business.  Without the urgency, changes were made too slowly, too tentatively, and the rest is history.

If it’s just another thing, you won’t change fast enough.

Today, Facebook, Google and Twitter are dominating the mobile news and information space by making it their top priority — accelerating cultural changes, making bold new bets ($9 billion!?) and generating real revenue — while news organizations argue over which screen is more appropriate.

"We come to mobile like this is just another platform, we’ve seen radio go to television, we’ve seen print go to Web," explains Michael Zimbalist, SVP of ad products and R&D at NY Times. “I would sort of challenge everyone to think of mobile as a platform shift of a different order, because we’ve never seen a platform shift that’s invaded people’s lives in such a profound way.”

Mobile first isn’t about abandoning the desktop, it’s about accelerating culture change to adapt to the fastest shift in consumer behavior in the history of journalism. It doesn’t matter what you believe, it matters what you can do.  Mobile first is an urgent call to rethink our priorities, invest in new capabilities, relentlessly experiment and redefine success metrics to succeed in a radically new marketplace.

If “mobile first” forces news organizations to focus too much on mobile, so be it.  Because the alternative is a second wave of disruption and decline.

We come to mobile like this is just another platform, we’ve seen radio go to television, we’ve seen print go to Web. I would sort of challenge everyone to think of mobile as a platform shift of a different order, because we’ve never seen a platform shift that’s invaded people’s lives in such a profound way.
Michael Zimbalist, senior vice president of ad products and research and development at The New York Times, in this article.

Journalists like to talk about mobile web vs. apps like it’s a cage match. Which is better? Where should we place our bets? Which will win?

The answer is both. Prioritize both.

News organizations like to hope that the web will win.  That’s because the web is familiar, and apps are extremely costly. 

But the cruel truth is apps are dominating the mobile web in time spent by a 85% to 15% margin (Comscore).  Apps are even projected to eclipse the desktop web by the end of the year (Comscore).  And news apps are under-performing as a category, growing a third as fast as the average app (Flurry).

Oh, so people don’t like news apps, right?

No.  It’s because most news apps are built for pennies, and they suck when compared to snazzy aggregators like Flipboard and social experiences like Facebook.  The lack of investment is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Well, maybe news orgs should just focus on the web, because Flipboard and Facebook send us traffic, and that should be our mobile strategy?

No. If you punt on apps, you’ve just disrupted yourself.  Remember the argument about Google back in the day?  That it became the entry point of the web and monetized on top of everyone else’s content?  Apps are the mobile entry point.

But HTML 5 will come on strong and take market share from apps, right?

That’s not how it’s trending right now, and besides, are you willing to bet your news organization’s future on that assumption?

Let’s stop making excuses as an industry.  Poynter should stop writing about it.  We should stop asking the question in journalism conferences.

It’s no more web “vs.” apps.  It’s both.

I was introduced to “Seattle nice” when I moved here from California (gasp!) in the late 90s. I was driving downtown, and the Range Rover in front of me stopped cold in the middle of the street to ask a parking enforcement officer a question.

I honked. Several times.

The officer promptly marched right up to my car, and I preemptively asked, “What did *I* do wrong?”

She proclaimed, “You’re NOT BEING NICE!”

So why is a city so obsessed with being nice in love with Seahawks trash-talker Richard Sherman?  Even as much — or more — than one of the nicest quarterbacks on the planet, Russell Wilson?

image

Let’s start with Seattle’s dismal sports history. Only one of our pro sports teams has ever won a national championship: the Seattle Sonics, which were stolen away to Oklahoma. The Mariners set league records in 2001, only to succumb to the Yankees in the playoffs. The Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl once in 2006, but were overcome by the Steelers and the refs.

This history becomes only more painful when the national media piled on the disrespect. When the Hawks first went to the Super Bowl, one analyst cracked that Seattle is in “southeastern Alaska.”  The national media coverage focused entirely on the Steelers — I remember vividly, because I covered the Super Bowl for KING TV — and the tradition continued for years to come.

Microsoft is mocked.  Amazon is in “Silicon Valley.”  The Gates Foundation, which is saving millions of lives, gets less press than Twitter.

For Richard Sherman, it got under his skin. “I think we’ll enter next season as we did this season: As a bunch of nobodies, a bunch of no-name players,” Richard Sherman said a year ago. “I think we’re gonna end up being one of those teams that, once again, flies under the radar because we’re in Seattle.”

But as the season began, Seattle started to get respect. Sherman’s trash-talking on national TV — challenging the East Coast in his own bizarre way to give us the respect we deserve — seemingly began to work.  Sure, the Seahawks are an incredible team this year, but we’ve seen incredible teams in our city before.  This time was different, and Sherman was at the megaphone.

That’s why Seattle loves it when Sherman loses it. The city enjoys being the underdog, but not an outcast.  And now everyone can hear us.

The second disruption for news organizations is taking shape quickly, according to new data that illustrates the poor performance of news apps in 2013.  A new study by Flurry (above) discovered that news and magazine apps were among the slowest to grow (+31% in user sessions) compared to the app average (+115%) and dreadfully behind the explosion of social media apps (+203%).
Separately, a Pew study released in November illustrated a growing population of users who get their news from social media.  For example, 30% of Americans get news on Facebook, and 78% of Facebook’s daily active users are visiting from their mobile devices — nearly all of those from the Facebook app.

Apps continue to overwhelm the mobile web and are poised to surpass the desktop, too.  Analyst Ian Maude tweeted a graph (above) — using Comscore data — that projects that time spent in mobile apps is “set to overtake desktop usage by year end.”
We’re in the throes of the fastest shift in news consumption in history.  For news organizations desperate for distribution, under-performing on the fastest-growing and soon to be dominate distribution platform is not an option.  However, a new report from Forrester Research found that many media companies and retailers are under-spending when it comes to investing in mobile: half are spending under $1 million a year.
Mobile apps are difficult and costly, and they demand investment and reinvention across the entire organization. The landscape will only grow more competitive with personalization and precisely-targeted advertising leading the way. For media companies hoping for a magical, inexpensive, third-party solution to save the day — or the sudden collapse of mobile apps — there’s a rude awakening right around the corner.
"Like a hanging, mobile focuses the mind," writes Lewis Dvorkan, chief product officer of Forbes Media. “I often say the $2 to $3 CPMs publishers frequently get for smartphone ads will crush all traditional newsrooms built for the era of $50 print CPMs — and most of them still are, whether they admit it or not.”
(I work at Breaking News, a mobile startup owned by NBC News).

The second disruption for news organizations is taking shape quickly, according to new data that illustrates the poor performance of news apps in 2013.  A new study by Flurry (above) discovered that news and magazine apps were among the slowest to grow (+31% in user sessions) compared to the app average (+115%) and dreadfully behind the explosion of social media apps (+203%).

Separately, a Pew study released in November illustrated a growing population of users who get their news from social media.  For example, 30% of Americans get news on Facebook, and 78% of Facebook’s daily active users are visiting from their mobile devices — nearly all of those from the Facebook app.

Apps continue to overwhelm the mobile web and are poised to surpass the desktop, too.  Analyst Ian Maude tweeted a graph (above) — using Comscore data — that projects that time spent in mobile apps is “set to overtake desktop usage by year end.”

We’re in the throes of the fastest shift in news consumption in history.  For news organizations desperate for distribution, under-performing on the fastest-growing and soon to be dominate distribution platform is not an option.  However, a new report from Forrester Research found that many media companies and retailers are under-spending when it comes to investing in mobile: half are spending under $1 million a year.

Mobile apps are difficult and costly, and they demand investment and reinvention across the entire organization. The landscape will only grow more competitive with personalization and precisely-targeted advertising leading the way. For media companies hoping for a magical, inexpensive, third-party solution to save the day — or the sudden collapse of mobile apps — there’s a rude awakening right around the corner.

"Like a hanging, mobile focuses the mind," writes Lewis Dvorkan, chief product officer of Forbes Media. “I often say the $2 to $3 CPMs publishers frequently get for smartphone ads will crush all traditional newsrooms built for the era of $50 print CPMs — and most of them still are, whether they admit it or not.”

(I work at Breaking News, a mobile startup owned by NBC News).

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