To win in mobile: It’s a situation, not a news channel

To someone who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the newspaper industry, the hammer we have is news. And right now, the new nail is mobile.

With mobile usage exploding, our industry is determined to pound that nail with news as hard and fast as we can. It looks like a must-do, a matter of survival, and — we hope — a new opportunity to reach people, sell advertising and make money. But mobile is not the nail we think it is.


By thinking of mobile as a distribution channel for news, we are missing what mobile really is. It’s not a channel — it’s a situation. And that situation is producing a new set of human needs and behaviors that present new opportunities.

In that new space, news can expect to get a certain share of users’ time and attention. We want and need to get that share. But that share will be tiny compared to the new, uniquely mobile uses that are emerging. Our fixation on news will almost surely cause us to miss things we could and should do to win in the local media space.

It’s happened before. When the desktop Internet arrived, while we scrambled to put the news online, other people saw completely new possibilities. They invented,,,, and other digital plays, using the Web’s capabilities in ways we completely missed.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen calls this mistake “cramming.” Studying scores of disrupted businesses, he found it’s a very predictable pattern. When confronted by a game-changing technology or business-model development, the incumbent businesses mainly see the threat to their core products. So they race to cram their old products into the new space, oblivious to the new capabilities that are opening up.

Okay, if mobile isn’t a distribution channel for news, what is it?

Let’s picture the mobile situation. You’re somewhere, and you’re doing something, and mobile is your only connection to the world’s vast body of digital information and content. And suddenly, you’re reaching for your smartphone.

What’s making you do that? It’s what Christensen calls a “job to be done.” You need to get something done, and you’re reaching for the cellphone as the tool by which you can accomplish it.

This is far different from classic media consumption, which is usually done by appointment. People set aside specific times to read their newspapers and watch television. To some degree, they do the same with the desktop Internet, saving up things they need to do until they get to the computer.

But mobile is everywhere you are, all the time, and that’s what makes it different. Its uses are determined by the situation you’re in and the the needs or wants that arise in the moment. What are those needs?

For me, they are things like the following:

Filling empty minutes

I’m standing in line at the airport. I’m waiting for my dental appointment. I’m waiting for my lunch order. I’m eating lunch alone. I reach more my smartphone. What am I doing?

  1. I’m using time efficiently to get things out of the way that I need to do, such as checking and reading emails, sending or answering a text or checking my schedule. (Checking the news could fit here.)
  2. I’m amusing myself and killing time with things I enjoy doing but can’t do at work or during family/spouse time. Things like checking Facebook, playing a game, watching a video, reading a book (Kindle app) or a magazine (Zinio, Magster, NextIssue). (Checking the news could fit here, too.)

Responding to a need in real life

  1. Finding _______ nearby (fill in the blank – a good restaurant, homes  for sale in this neighborhood, the closest gas stations, etc.)
  2. Finding a nearby place to buy an item I need.
  3. Finding the hours, address or phone number of a business.
  4. Finding out what movies are on tonight and when they start.
  5. Getting driving directions.

Getting an answer to a question

  • This happens often. A question arises in conversation with others or in my own thought. Who was the MVP for the Detroit Tigers in the 1984 World Series Tigers? What have we seen this actor in? When was Van Gogh born? What day of the week is Christmas this year? Wikipedia, here I come.

These are just a few examples, and surely there are many more. But for me, I think these are my most frequent mobile jobs to be done.

Here are the threads:

  • Amuse me for short periods
  • Give me access to information I happen to need because of where I am and what I’m doing.
  • Find things near me – often things I will spend money on. This is monetizable, and Google’s huge share of mobile search gives them a big advantage.
  • Help me get things done efficiently in my available time.

Local media companies should take note: A lot of these occasions are focused on local, and a lot of them lead to purchases. Businesses in our communities have a large and growing need to be discoverable when people are using their cellphones in such situations.

This presents two big challenges/opportunities for local media companies:

  1. How can we claim a much bigger share of users’ mobile time by providing solutions for these situations? In other words, as audience companies, how can we tap these occasions to increase the size and engagement of our local audience?
  2. How can we help local businesses be seen when people do what they do on mobile? This means not only advertising, but also mobile platforms that businesses need — mobile landing pages, responsive web sites, apps, games, videos, etc.

I’m distressed at how few mobile solutions I’m seeing among newspaper companies that are designed to give cellphone users anything besides something else to read. They’re bidding for that time-killing job, which is only a small share of the space.

What about the more urgent jobs that lead directly to shopping and spending money? And how about all the jobs that relate to things people really need to get done right now, when a mobile device is all they have available?

Just this week, I saw on INMA’s blog pages what seems to be the best example of this I’ve seen from a media company. It’s an app from VOL.AT, the digital division of Austrian media company Russmedia.

Since I don’t read German, I’m not sure I completely get it. But it appears they have consciously targeted a set of mobile jobs to be done, providing a double row of icons for quick access to many types of information a person needs while on the go. They call it a mobile “pocket knife” — always with you, useful for a wide variety of tasks. Not surprisingly, their vision is based on Dr. Christensen’s notion of jobs to be done.

I’ve gotta talk to these guys to learn more.

Meanwhile, there’s the rest of the newspaper industry. Most news companies may not see the problem yet because their mobile page views are exploding. For many of them, mobile devices now account for half or more of all page views. And it’s not because they’re promoting mobile — it’s because people are using the device in hand for the job they need to do, and sometimes that’s checking the news.

This may feel like success, but it isn’t giving us the share of mobile face-time we need. John McDermott, writing on, pointed out Comscore’s figures: The leaders in claiming smartphone time are social at 24.5% and gaming at 4.4%, with newspapers claiming just .2%. If we hope to win significant amounts of mobile ad revenue, that’s not nearly enough. News isn’t a frequent enough or extended enough job to be done.

To get a meaningful share of people’s mobile time, we need to help them with jobs they do more often and for longer periods of time with their mobile devices. Local people, local businesses, local information, local jobs to be done.

Let’s stop thinking only about news and start thinking about how to help people get those jobs done.


Posted on May 22, 2014, in Advertising, Audience, Content, Disruption, innovation, Media business model, Mobile, News, Revenue, Sales and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. The thing is news orgs. are in the news business. They can’t race into another potential business just because it might be profitable and help fund news.

    Yes, classifieds used to be, in a sense, another business that helped fund news, but that worked because of the distribution monopoly, which is gone.

    As far as I can tell the VOL.AT “pocket knife” consists of apps I already have. This underlines the point that when and if news organizations try to get into these new businesses they will have plenty of competition as they are no longer protected by their distribution monopoly.

    Also, why would news orgs be good at this other stuff? They’re experts in news and content not weather.

    What the web has shown us is that people still want news and they still seek it out. that means it’s still a good vehicle for advertisers — just not the crappy types of advertising that have dominated the web to date

    The news/content industry needs to be thinking about is effective advertising, way more than creating local weather apps


  2. Paul Heidbreder

    Once again I’m enjoying your blog. Yes we have the amazing infrastructure to do many other things with mobile than distribute news. We have to be open to the possibilities. Our traditional role me be useful too… Our news maybe the perfect answer to fill in the gaps in the day for people we’re connected too. Are we packaging our news to be optimized for the mobile user?

    We can be so much more… We have the ability to be the “hub” of the community wheel if we open ourselves to the role rather than being chained to our traditional roles.

    Paul Heidbreder, Publisher
    Stephens Media Iowa, LLC


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