The mobile money challenge

“Most news organizations are still approaching the mobile web the way they approached the desktop web in the 1990s: Let’s build an audience first and figure out the money later.”

In 2016, every news organization will want to be mobile-first. But no one knows how to make the business of mobile news work. This makes the mobile money challenge one of the most pressing concerns for news and journalism.

rasmus-kleis-nielsenIt’s clear that the move to mobile is a defining trend of news today. The rise of the mobile web in recent years has been faster and more global than the rise of desktop web access in the 1990s. In many countries, more than half the time spent with digital media is spent on mobile devices. Mobile Internet use is growing worldwide even as growth in home broadband access and desktop use is slowing. For many news organizations, more than half of their traffic comes from mobile users. To find an audience, especially a young audience, news need to be mobile, and media organizations are right to rush in, lest they get left behind.

But the business of mobile news is even more challenging than the business of desktop digital news already was, and legacy revenues cannot sustain mobile investments forever.

Sales revenues are difficult. Print circulation continues to decline and cable television channels — till recently seemingly impervious to digital disruption to their business — now see the pay television industry challenged by on-demand streaming services. Digital subscriptions and sales are growing incrementally, but few brands have reached a critical mass of digital-only subscribers, and some have had to rethink their strategy, whether upmarket like the NYT Now app or popular like the Sun in the U.K., as most users did not find their offers attractive enough to merit pay.

Advertising revenues, already difficult, are becoming more difficult. Print continues to decline. Television advertising stagnates. Online, Google and Facebook continue to dominate the advertising market across desktop and mobile. Display advertising CPMs are pressured by the high volume and low prices offered by programmatic advertising. And the recent rise of adblockers makes advertising even more difficult. Mobile offers new challenges, as the number of ads that can be effectively served on a smaller screen is limited and both advertisers and publishers are still working to get the user experience right.

The move to distributed content — with the relative decline of the destination site and destination app and the increasing importance of off-site publishing via a range of intermediaries and new initiatives including Google AMP, Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, Snapchat Discover, and more — only further complicate things. News media organizations risk losing control over how users experience their content, data about how users engage with their content, and opportunities to monetize their content. Some brands will continue to do relatively well, but the mobile space is incredibly competitive. Industry research suggests the top 10 apps account for about 90 percent of time spent, and few news apps have managed to establish themselves as an integral part of people’s home screens. An increasingly mobile, increasingly distributed news environment will have few winners, and many losers — especially regional and local brands face serious challenges even as they need to pursue mobile opportunities.

How are news organizations meeting the mobile money challenge? It’s clear that sales and advertising are two key elements, but also that everyone — whether legacy media from print or broadcast, or digital-born startup — has to look for more diverse sources of revenue. In 2016, we will surely see more experiments with sponsored content, new models for micropayments and subscriptions, hopefully new advertising formats for both display and video that are less annoying for users, and beyond that events, memberships, and e-commerce.

At the moment, however, most news organizations are still approaching the mobile web the way they approached the desktop web in the 1990s: Let’s build an audience first and figure out the money later. As the past 20 years have shown, it’s a dangerous strategy, but it may also be the only approach to take, as not embracing mobile is effectively turning your back on your audience.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.