Why launch a mobile news lab?

Plus, few best practices for engaging a community of local publishers and media partners

I spent the last year asking questions and working to identify the needs of digital publishers and journalists in New Jersey. The goal of this community engagement project, which is part of the practicum assignment for my MA in social journalism at the CUNY J-School, was to figure out what the community saw as the biggest issues facing its members. The biggest issue, by far, was money.

Shocking, I know.

Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a concrete solution to local journalism’s money problem just yet — but don’t worry, I’m working on it.

In the meantime, I decided to focus my efforts another issue that kept coming up repeatedly in my conversations with local publishers: mobile readiness.

The Dodge Foundation gave the Center for Cooperative Media $20,000 to address this issue by funding mobile news experiments for local publishers in New Jersey. With their support, I created a project called the NJ Mobile News Lab.

In the paragraphs below, I’ve included a brief overview of the project, how it came to be, and what I hope to accomplish as a result. At the end, I’ve included a list of four important lessons I’ve learned after working on this project for the last year.

The New Jersey media scene

The New Jersey local news ecosystem is one of the most robust local media networks in the country. Like the rest of the industry, however, times are tough and money is tight. Limited resources, both economic and human, prevent people from exploring new ideas and innovations in their field. These organizational strains are compounded at the local level, where smaller publishers are often unable to fall back on deep pockets or the institutional legacies of their respective newsrooms when things get messy.

In New Jersey, most local journalism essentially lies in the hands of two kinds of owners: small regional media chains and digital entrepreneurs. In either case, most of them simply don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with the changes in the digital and mobile media landscape — let alone anticipate those changes and work toward building solutions for the future.

Beyond mobile news apps

Much of this project is underpinned by the need to move beyond some of the more traditional, often superficial and reactionary, ways of thinking about mobile creation and dissemination of local news. That means moving past the idea that crafting a “mobile strategy” in the news industry simply means that everyone should develop individual mobile news app for their publications.

Yes, the Center for Cooperative Media’s director, Stefanie Murray, has that many unread emails.

As Xaver Lehmann points out in this piece for ChatbotNews Daily, this line of thinking stems in part from the mobile madness that occurred as smartphone usage was becoming virtually ubiquitous.

“After all,” Lehmann writes, “statistics showed that people were spending hours on their phones each day. The logic was that people would download the businesses’ apps and their products and services would now have further reach, since their customers used their phones on a regular basis.”

As it turns out, that line of thinking was only half-right. Publishers do need to be where their users are, and that place is certainly on their mobile phones. At the time, people were rushing to download every app they could get their hands on. Mobile apps were the hottest new trend, but trends change, and so do user behaviors.

Today, many users still stockpile all kinds of apps on their phones, but stockpiling is not something any business wants their users to do with their app — certainly not with their publication or their stories. This is one of the key challenges that the mobile news lab hopes to address. Publishers, like most businesses, want their users to engage with their publication and their stories as much as possible, for both financial and other equally valid reasons.

This is why it’s important for publishers to keep up with the way people actually encounter and consume their stories. This is also why, for many small or local publishers, it makes little sense for them to invest what little time, energy, and resources they have into something like a mobile app, where the costs so drastically outweigh the potential benefits.

Instead of funding proposals that seek to build stand-alone mobile apps for local publishers, the NJ Mobile News Lab grants will be focused more on supporting innovative uses of existing or emerging mobile technologies and creative mobile strategies. Implementation should be aimed at improving local news in New Jersey by creating better user experiences, increasing community engagement, generating new streams of revenue, making a positive impact on a community, or some combination of the same.

As part of the listening activities of this project, I am not only learning from our local news outlets, I am also learning from ongoing mobile experiments taking place in larger newsrooms around the country and incorporate their findings into our work at the local level. My ultimate goal is to work collaboratively with publishers who already have a foot in the door and find ways to incorporate their work into New Jersey’s local news ecosystem.

Several mobile experiments similar to those described above are already well underway at a handful of larger publications. The best example is The Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab. Another, smaller-scale example, is the mobile journalism guide that Billy Penn is building in Philadelphia. Both of those projects, like ours, receive funding from the Knight Foundation.

Unlike this project, however, most mobile news experiments are being conducted at relatively large, often national publications. This makes sense when you consider the significant amount of time and resources typically required to conduct even one of these experiments, let alone multiple experiments — all with no guarantee they will be successful or profitable.

Ask, listen, and learn

Many of the Center’s more than 150 media partners have consistently told us that times are tough, money is tight, and resources are scarce. They express these concerns during phone calls, at our workshops and trainings, in partner needs surveys, and through a variety of other channels.

Many are left unable to survey or adapt to the challenges on the digital horizon at a time when new frontiers in mobile communication and media technologies continue to grow in both number and complexity. The terrain is treacherous and the weather can shift dramatically, often without warning. Local newsrooms need to be able to scan the horizon, adapt to the changes, and find the resources to support those adaptations without putting their entire operation at risk.

Mary Barr Mann, Carolyn Maynard-Parisi, and David Walsh publish a digital hyperlocal news site called The Village Green, which serves the communities of Maplewood and South Orange in New Jersey. In their mobile lab grant application, they wrote the following:

“We identified the need to improve our product for mobile before this grant [program] was announced. This is a no-brainer. As we look at our readership (parents of young children moving in from Brooklyn), we see a demographic that is increasingly mobile-centric. We need to move to meet our readership FAST and NOW before we get left behind.”

As the Village Green and other local partners remind us, few have the time, the resources, or the funding required to do what needs to be done and to gather the information they need — so most of them simply don’t. Failing to seize the right opportunities and adapt to the new realities that mobile platforms create — especially when it comes to reporting and presenting the news, engaging with diverse publics, and raising sustainable revenue — will undoubtedly leave them stranded as the industry moves on without them.

Listening and feedback mechanisms

Before soliciting grant applications and proposals, I wanted to set up a few listening and feedback mechanisms. The point of these mechanisms was to help me gauge the needs and abilities of New Jersey’s local publishers, journalists, news consumers, and other community stakeholders. They also helped shape the way the grant application was constructed, as well as the criteria for selecting proposals to fund.

I originally planned to host two community listening events at Montclair State University. I planned to bring together publishers, journalists, and other community stakeholders to get a general sense of what each group needs and wants in terms of mobile news delivery. I also wanted to use the events as a opportunity to hand out partner needs surveys.

Scheduling in-person events turned out to be more of a logistical challenge than I anticipated, and I was unable to go forward with them, given the limited time and bandwidth available to me in the months leading up to the holiday season.

Instead, I set aside roughly one hour per week for outreach phone calls to our partners. Every Friday, I called anywhere from two to three partners around the state and asked them to tell me about the various projects they were working on, the challenges they faced, and ways that I or the Center could be of service. The calls turned out to be a very successful method for assessing the needs of our partners. In fact, I plan to continue making these regular calls and incorporate them into my work schedule at the Center in the future.

In addition to the outreach calls, I worked with Stefanie Murray, the Center’s director, to create and disseminate a digital partner needs survey via SurveyMonkey. So far, we have received about 40 responses to the partner needs survey and 15 mobile news lab grant applications. Surveys are a much more systematic way to collect and analyze the needs of our partners, the results of which will be used to inform the direction and scope of the project in the future.

Finally, I hosted a virtual partner engagement event with around eight local publishers in the Center for Cooperative Media’s private Facebook group of partners and stakeholders via Facebook Live. The goal of the event was to discuss their particular needs and preferences regarding mobile innovation, as well as their digital communication preferences.

Lessons in listening

To anyone who is interested in serving a community of local publishers and media partners in the future, I offer the following insights and recommendations, which are based on my interactions with our New Jersey media partners:

1 . Be aware and considerate of the various pressures they are operating under.

As discussed in the sections above, the media and publishing industry is locked in a deep economic depression, the effects of which are compounded at the local level. Many local publishers were once staff journalists themselves, before they abruptly lost their jobs in the middle of their careers. Not everyone fits this description, obviously, but the overwhelming number of people I work with have been affected in one way or another by the massive disruption occurring in virtually every corner of this industry.

That’s why it’s important to be aware and considerate of the immense pressures that many in this community are laboring under every day. For many, every minute spent innovating and experimenting is a minute they could have spent trying to put food on the table. That’s not to say that innovation doesn’t contribute to sustainability, but there is no guarantee that it will. This means you are likely to encounter hesitation from some publishers and outright dismissal from others when asking them to sacrifice traditional practices and the associated short-term gains for a long-term bet with no guarantee of a payoff in the end.

2. Remember how many different hats most local publishers have to wear.

In addition to the industry-level pressures operating on the world of local journalism, many smaller publishers have to fill multiple roles in their operational hierarchy. That means the publishers you work with are, in many cases, simultaneously acting as journalists, editors, designers, salespeople, community liaisons, digital strategists, social media managers, and a laundry list of other roles within their organizations. Be conscious of this and look for ways to take advantage of operational overlap.

3. Reach out to catch up and listen, not just when you need something.

No one likes to feel like they are only important or relevant when someone wants something from them. Make a point to reach out to members of the community with the sole intention of checking up on them to see how they are doing, what they are working on, and what’s been on their mind of late. The difference in response and enthusiasm I noticed between partners who received these friendly, obligation-free phone calls and those who I only called on a transactional basis was profound.

Not only were the former more open and willing to help me when I finally did ask them for something, but some of them even made a point to reach out to me on their own when they heard about a project or resource that they thought I might find useful. This is one of the most important and effective methods for maintaining community relationships I have come across during the course of this project.

4. Frequent contact is key, but don’t overdo it.

The above paragraph notwithstanding, there is a threshold for constant community contact that, when crossed, can turn even the most earnest and well-intentioned outreach efforts into the human equivalent of email spam. People like to feel like other people care about them and have their best interests at heart, but no one likes to be pestered and no one likes people who hover. There is a delicate balance between being attentive and being annoying. Find the line, and try not to cross it.

Looking ahead

At times, this project has been challenging, stressful, and frustrating. Other times, however, it has been an exciting and, I believe, a fruitful process that has helped me develop a better relationship with the community of publishers and media partners that I serve and work with on a daily basis in my role at the Center for Cooperative Media.

Hopefully, the money we raised to support this project will be a valuable resource for our mobile new lab grantees. In the long run, my hope is that the lessons and insights that emerge as a result of this project will help fuel innovation projects and similar endeavors in newsrooms across the state and across the county, regardless of whether those newsrooms are located inside a multi-million broadcasting studio or inside a suburban home office.

My ultimate hope for this endeavor is that, by alleviating some of the financial burdens associated with this industry and empowering local publishers to step outside their comfort zone, they will find the flexibility and motivation they need to pursue innovative and exciting new projects that may otherwise have seemed out of reach.


If you’re interested in learning more about the NJ Mobile News Lab, the Center for Cooperative Media, or any of our other projects, visit www.centerforcooperativemedia.org, or send me an email at info@njnewscommons.org.

The NJ Mobile News Lab and the Center for Cooperative Media receive support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and Montclair State University.

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