Buttry: Newspapers should develop a mobile first strategy

By Stanley Schwartz

Omaha, Neb. – New technology may have some newspapers concerned, but Steve Buttry , director of community engagement for TBD, an online news operation that covers community news in the Washington metro area, said these new mobile devices should be incorporated into a newspaper's arsenal.

Buttry spoke during a pre-convention workshop at the 2010 National Newspaper Association Convention and Trade Show in September. TBD is owned by Allbritton Communications Co., which also owns POLITICO, as well as a collection of regional TV stations. Buttry said the use of smart mobile devices is growing exponentially and more people are using them to access news on the Internet.

It is because of this increasing use that newspapers should develop a mobile-first strategy, he said.

"There has been a lot of talk in the newspaper industry about having a web-first strategy," he said. In a blog post he made last year about a mobile-first strategy, Buttry said he noted that "Web first is kind of the newspaper equivalent of what the military calls fighting the last war. People are spending enough time on mobile devices now. And there isn't a winner yet in the mobile game."

When he asked the audience how they used their mobile devices, many said they use them for looking at news, checking maps, searching for restaurants, checking the weather, searching the dictionary, looking up the Constitution, etc.

"The opportunity to connect with your communities can fall within any of those areas," Buttry said. "The real opportunity for news organizations is in mobile, because mobile is ... where the Web was in '97."

He pointed up some recent survey information:

  • 82 percent of American adults use a cell phone.
  • 23 percent of adults live in a household with a cell phone and no land line.
  • 35 percent of adults have cell phones with apps.
  • The average cell phone user has 18 apps.

"Next year, smart phone use will reach 50 percent (of the adult population). And every one of these numbers are going up year after year," he said.

He noted a survey done by Borrell Associates that showed local advertising in the mobile market would reach $11 billion by 2014.

"Right now you're not going to make a lot of money," he said. That $11 billion is more than the 26 percent drop in newspaper advertising revenue in 2009. "Think what a big catastrophe it would be if we don't tap into that market."

Mobile devices can become extremely personal to their users, he said. He noted that in his 36 years in the newspaper industry, he never carried around a newspaper all day long. His phone, however, is never far from his person.

Although smart phones do have a payment system built into them, Buttry said, he doesn't believe newspapers could get away with selling content. Instead, he explained, they could help newspapers help the businesses in their communities sell their products online.

"You would become the mobile marketplace for your community," he added.
"Help find effective ways of connecting businesses with customers."


A mobile device is available when news happens, Buttry said. A newspaper does not have to create its own app, he added. People can receive text or e-mail alerts on their phones. There are also ways to reach people through social media.

There are ways to engage an audience with location-based news, information and commerce, he said.

"For a mobile-first strategy," Buttry said, "you have to recognize that each of these devices is different. If you develop an app for the iPhone, it's not going to play the same on the iPad."

In addition to how print readers are using their mobile devices, Buttry said, newspapers should consider how their reporters can use their smart phones.

"They are able to shoot surprisingly good photos and video, without a whole bag full of expensive equipment," he said. They can also Tweet and text from events or disaster or crime scenes. "You can truly be the first with the news as it's happening."

They are also good for when you want the public to submit information or photos or respond to a notice pushed out to them.

One of the concerns from the audience was about verifying the accuracy of the news gathered from the public.

Buttry said that could be done based on the information. In some instances, his TBD site pulls in Tweets from a hashtag, but notes where the information is coming from and that it's not verified.

On a big story, such as when a plane crashed on takeoff in Denver, he said, all the big news agencies – The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, Houston Chronicle, The Associated Press and CNN – basically had the same official story .

"But on Twitter," he added, "I saw Mike Wilson, a guy whose Twitter handle was `TwoDrinksBehind,' Tweet two minutes after the crash, (that he had been in the crash) so you can be pretty sure he didn't hear about it on the news."

"You may not want to use (his expletive-laden) quote in your report, but you sure want to talk to that guy." Ten minutes later Wilson Tweeted a photo of the plane after being evacuated from the cabin.

To find some of this information on Twitter, Buttry said, go to Search.Twitter.com and click on Advance Search to search for specific words. At the time of his workshop, there had been some flooding in the Washington metro area. He keyed in the words flood and within 5 miles of Washington, to search for people who were tweeting about the flooding.

"You can also do searches within a narrow time frame," he said. "It's a valuable tool to find people" who have experienced an event. Once you've connected with them, you can ask the skeptical questions that will help verify if they are legitimate.

Buttry noted that TBD used Twitter extensively during the recent hostage situation at Discovery Channel headquarters.

Another audience member wanted to know the legalities of using either the text or photos posted by the general public.

"The fair use issues in social media are unfolding right now," Buttry said.

He noted that he's not a lawyer and legal questions should be directed toward someone who is qualified in that area. But at his company, permission to reuse is always asked for first before the site uses the information or photos.


A traditional newspaper vertical was built on buying and selling a car. But, Buttry added, people don't buy a car that often, so "we've built a huge part of our business around a job people don't do very often."

He asked the audience who among them had either driven, filled up, serviced or parked a car during the week. Almost every hand went up.

"If we start thinking differently about things, we find new opportunities," he said. "If we were to build ... a mobile tool to help drivers in our community, we will be connecting with them every day ."

Items such as a traffic watch, news of road closings or where to find the cheapest gasoline in town could be posted online, too, along with discussion groups on teenage drivers. It could also be a good tie in with where to find good vehicle service or insurance information.

Buttry warned that if the local paper doesn't get in on this, other national companies could move in. He mentioned the site RepairPal.com, a national website that lists repair shops, as one company looking to dominate the market. Or, he suggested, that because such a service doesn't have salespeople in a community newspaper's market, there could be an opportunity to partner with the site.


"It's important to understand the opportunities of location-based information," Buttry said. He explained that Foursquare is a Web-based game that is played through one's phone.

Once Buttry opened his Foursquare app, the program located him through his phone's GPS and then provided him several offers from nearby registered businesses. Even though Buttry said he thought it was a silly game, he believed the application was something newspapers could use in their local markets.

At a state press association meeting last year, Buttry said he checked in at a local bagel place and Foursquare told him about a special at a nearby coffee shop.

"Suddenly, this is not just a game, it's an advertising opportunity," he said. "And it's an advertising opportunity based on exactly where I am."

The Wall Street Journal posted a shout on Foursquare when a part of Times Square had been closed because of a suspicious package. The notice went to anyone who had checked in with Foursquare.

"That was a way to break news to people who were out in New York doing things," Buttry said.

He noted that Facebook is starting to get into location-based information distribution, too.


Because of the speed of information becoming available on mobile devices, Buttry said, it's important not to spread rumors. The time it takes to verify information has shrunk considerably and reporters and editors need to check the facts as fast as possible.

He noted the story about the pilot who crashed his private plane into the Austin, TX, IRS building evolved from of Tweets. One said it was the FBI building, but the newspaper said it wasn't sure and was checking on the claim.

He added that reporters can do live blogs from events and people can follow them on Twitter, making comments if they want.

A state championship game might be a good opportunity to start a mobile-first project, he said.

Buttry has numerous resources on his website at stevebuttry.wordpress.com.

© Stanley Schwartz 2010

Stanley Schwartz is the managing editor of Publisher’s Auxiliary NNA. You can contact him at stan@nna.org.

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