Quick off the mark

Who’s leading the way in the great media apps race? Ryerson Review of Journalism writer Brian Liu investigates the future of mobile media.

If you want proof that mobile applications have big potential in the media industry, you’ll find some of the most telling evidence in sports. Fans are downloading them in spectacular numbers. The Hockey News announced in September that its app was downloaded for the millionth time, a notable achievement given the magazine’s single-sport niche. The numbers are even more remarkable for national sport broadcasters. The mobile apps for the Score, Canada’s third-place sports cable broadcaster, together average 2.1 million unique users every month. During TSN’s 2011 NHL trade deadline coverage, its “TradeCentre” program was the second most-downloaded free sports app on the Canadian iTunes store — impressive considering it was a once-a-year event.

Indeed, mobile applications are a bright spot on the media landscape when it comes to ongoing efforts to attract and retain readers and viewers. Part of the success can be attributed to the exploding market for smartphones and other mobile devices. A spring 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 35 percent of adults in the U.S. have phone apps. True, most of them serve other uses — games, directions, even shopping — but apps are a natural fit for news media. The anytime, anywhere nature of smartphones makes it easier for news organizations to send out breaking stories or updates.

Apps represent the next step in digital distribution of news and information, and their adoption serves as a barometer of a publication’s devotion to evolution. The popularity of mobile applications is creating an environment in which competitors are pushing one another to devote more resources to app development, hopefully leading to better products and increased market share. “It’s like the early days of the internet,” says Alan C. Middleton, assistant professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

Although apps offer intriguing possibilities for media companies, the future is uncharted. Companies are experimenting with app strategies to suit their own individual brands. For some, that has meant heavy investments in mobile applications to grow and develop an audience. Others are simply focusing on keeping their brand in the media mix. No major outlets, however, are ignoring mobile apps as a distribution tool. If one thing can be said for sure, it’s this: if you’re not currently in the mobile business, you’re already behind.

To continue reading, see Quick off the Mark at the RRJ site.