the transition to digital journalism

Mobile - Cellphones

The explosion in cellphone usage during the 1990s and 2000s poses a major challenge and huge opportunity for media companies to get their content distributed to mobile devices.

While home computer ownership has pretty much plateaued in recent years (approximately three quarters of U.S. households have a computer), cellphone ownership is even higher - 82 percent, according to a survey released in September 2010 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The percentage of American adults with an Internet-enabled smartphone also has been increasing - up to 56 percent in 2013, according to a Pew Internet & American Life survey.

Cellphone usage also tends to be habitual, with people checking their cellphones continuously during the day and evening.

Cellphone ownership among African Americans and English-speaking Latinos is higher (87 percent for both groups) than among whites (80 percent), according to a survey released in July 2010 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Similarly smartphone ownership is higher for African American adults (64 percent) and Hispanic adults (60 percent) that for white adults (53 percent), according to a Pew Internet & American Life survey. in 2013.

Cellphones and News Sites

A steadily increasing percentage of people regularly get news on their cellphones, according to surveys.

In 2010 only 10 percent of cellphone owners in the United States said they regularly got news or news headlines on their cell phones and 8 percent sometimes did, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in September 2010.

In 2012 41 percent of men and 30 percent of women were getting news daily on their cellphones, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in December 2012.

In 2011 51 percent of smartphone owners got news on the devices (compared to 70 percent of laptop/desktop computer owners), according to a survey by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

A 2012 national survey by the Reynolds Journalism Institute of users of mobile devices, both cellphones and tablets, reported that 63 percent used one or more of the devices to consume news in the previous 7 days.

And news organizations are reporting an increasing percentage of traffic to their websites comes from mobile devices. The New York Times reported in November 2012 that of combined visits to the Times' website, mobile website and apps, 37 percent came from cellphones or tablets.

Websites developed by news organizations for traditional web browsers often display poorly on mobile devices, requiring new strategies for delivering stories and other content to cellphone users:

  • Media companies create mobile versions of their websites that are compatible with small cellphone screens. Check out the mobile websites of the New York Times or CNN and Consumer Reports.
  • Some sites use "responsive design" in coding their web sites: the site resizes itself based on the screen size or resolution of standard mobile devices. See the Boston Globe's responsive design website (click on a corner of your web browser and drag to shrink the page and see the responsive design in action).
  • Other sites deliver news stories to cellphones using applications developed specficially for mobile devices.  custom applications for mobile devices. See, for example, the New York Times, which has custom apps for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry cellphones.
  • Some news organizations just provide news feeds for mobile devices that deliver stories via text messages. See for example ESPN's text message alerts service. Companies such as foneshow work with media companies to deliver audio feeds of news stories to cellphones, which can be heard on older, less sophisticated devices.

Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen reported that his tests of user experiences found that mobile versions of websites should be created because their usability is significantly better on cellphones.  On the question of whether to create a mobile website or a separate mobile apps, Nielsen concluded that while apps currently have the upper hand, in the future it will be mobile websites.

A survey of cellphone users by Yahoo and Ipsos reported that people prefer apps for acquiring information, but prefer mobile browsers for searching for information.

A Reynolds Journalism Institute survey of mobile device users (both cellphones and tablets) found that 54 percent prefer reading news on a news organization's website, compared with 22 percent who prefer a news organization's application.

Among only smartphone users, news organization websites again were preferred over news applications, according to the RJI survey. Android users preferred news websites over news apps 63 percent to 23 percent, while iPhone users preferred news websites 49 percent to 34 percent.

Cellphones equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System) technology provide another opportunity for news organizations to deliver stories and information to people based on their location. Thus feeds of information like restaurant reviews or stories on traffic problems could be tailored to where a person is at any given moment.

Smartphone users are more likely to access local information like maps, event locations and local services than owners of tablet devices, according to a survey by Keynote.


Apple's introduction of the iPhone in June 2007 improved the web browsing experience on a cellphone.

With the introduction of the 3G version of the iPhone with GPS technology in July 2008, information could be delivered to an iPhone based on the user's location. See for example Apple's description of how to use the iPhone to get maps with GPS.

While the iPhone display and touch screen technology made web browsing easier, it still proved unsatisfying for many users.

iPhone Applications

So content companies developed applications custom tailored for the iPhone to improve usability. For news organizations, these usually mean apps that deliver feeds of news stories.

See for example the iPhone applications for:

  • ABC News
  • Indianapolis Star Tribune. This app delivers not just the usual feed of headlines of stories, but also a photo gallery from the Star Tribune; a quick and easy way to take a photo and upload a photo to the Star Tribune's site; a map of local road conditions and a news and events feed customized to your location.
  • New York Times. Besides the iPhone, the New York Times has apps for Android and Blackberry phones.

iPods and Podcasts

Another Apple device that has exploded in popularity is the iPod. While this portable device is primarily used for downloading music, news organizations also are providing audio podcasts of news stories that can be downloaded onto an iPod or iPhone.

See for example NPR's directory of podcasts


Google created the Android operating system for cellphones that has quickly become a major competitor for the iPhone. "Droid" software is used by a variety of cellphone manufacturers.

Android Applications

News organizations also designed custom applications to deliver news stories to droid cellphones.

Google has created an App Inventor software program that allows people without any programming skills to design their own Android applications.

Cellphones and Social Media

People who use mobile devices are only very slightly more likely than laptop/desktop users to access news based on recommendations from social media like Facebook or Twitter, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

But people who use both cellphones and tablets to get news rely more on social networks for recommendations on news than laptop/desktop news consumers.

The survey found that 67 percent of people who get news on mobile devices follow news recommendations from Facebook, compared to 41 percent of laptop/desktop users. Similarly, 39 percent of mobile device users follow news recommendations from Twitter, compared to 9 percent of laptop/desktop users.

Cellphones and User Generated Content

The flip side of delivering news to cellphone users is their ability to use photo and video cameras built into many of the devices to create and publish their own content, especially eye-witness accounts of news events. A classic case was the execution of Sadam Hussein captured on a cellphone video camera.

News organizations can take advantage of this by encouraging people to submit their cellphone photos and videos. The Indianapolis Star Tribune iPhone application includes a simple button to take a photo and/or upload a photo to the Star Tribune's site.

Cellphones as Multimedia Reporting Tools

Many reporters are using cellphones, especially the iPhone, to take photographs and record video and audio for stories.

See this video of a man being hit and kicked by a security guard that was recorded on an iPhone by a UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalsm student while working as an intern at a paper in Iceland. The video had 50,000 views within 48 hours.

The iPhone now records HD quality video that can rival the quality of video shot on consumer and even lower-end profesional grade video cameras.

Many accessories and applications also are available to do everything from improving the quality of recorded audio to letting you edit video on the phone.

Read The Essential Mobile Journalism Field Kit posting by Richard Koci Hernandez, co-instructor in a UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism class that wrote a "Mobile Reporting Field Guide" iBook on accessories and applications for the iPhone.

See also this 10,000 Words story about an earlier UC Berkeley Journalism School class taught by Jeremy Rue on using the iPhone as a multimedia reporting device that includes tips on how to use cellphones for multimedia. 

Cellphone Applications

Cellphone applications have become popular because they usually provide a better experience than using a cellphone browser.

About 43 percent of cellphone users have downloaded apps onto their phones, according to a survey released in September 2010 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But only 68 percent of those people actually have used the applications, and apps rank low among the cellphone features people prefer to use.

Use of cellphone applications also usually tapers off dramatically in days or weeks.

Still, news, sports score and weather apps score relatively high in continued use after 90 days compared with other types of apps (such as music or entertainment), and to a lesser degree in frequency of usage, according to a 2012 study by Flurry, an application advertising and analysis company.

Many companies are developing applications for the iPhone and other cellphones that provide geo-locational information and take advantage of social media.

They're often providing the kinds of information such as events listings, restaurant reviews, store coupons, home sales or reports on problems in a community that used to be the domain of local newspapers. They include:

* Location-Based Social Media - Companies like Foursquare, brightkite, loopt and MyTown have cellphone apps people can use to tell their friends where they are or submit comments on restaurants, nightclubs or other places to hang out.

See Foursquare's partnerships with Canada's Metro newspaper and the New York Times and how the Wall Street Journal is using Foursquare's tips and check-ins features to feed entertainment and news stories to locations Foursquare users are visiting. Read about how the Washington Post and National Geographic created tour-guide-like trips for Gowalla.

Nieman Reports has a summary of a research study on what has worked for news organizations using Foursquare.

(for a different take on Foursquare and similar social media see the Onion's "New Social Networking Site Changing The Way Oh, Christ, Forget It")

* Photo SharingInstagram is a cellphone application and social network for photo sharing that includes tools for applying simple filters to photos to alter their appearance. It's now owned by Facebook.

* Reporting Community Problems - SeeClickFix has an app people can use to report public nuisances and problems that need fixing in their communities - everything from potholes and broken traffic lights to graffiti and trash.

News organizations such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald and the Dallas Morning News have partnered with SeeClickFix to use its widget to display maps of problems in those cities on the newspapers' websites. See this New York Times story on how the Journal Inquirer in Connecticut is using SeeClickFix. And check out how the Mission Local site embeds the SeeClickFix widget on its home page (scroll down and look in the middle column).

* Restaurant and Business Reviews - Yelp provides user-submitted reviews of restaurants and businesses via its cellphone app.

* City Guides and Tours - News and other organizations have created cellphone applications that are guides and tours of various cities.

Check out the New York Times' "The Scoop" guide to New York City (Mashable has more on the application)

You can make simple iPhone applications like local guides using free services like Sutro Media. You just enter content into a template and Sutro Media generates a custom iPhone application (you set a price for the application and split the revenue with Sutro Media).

See for example this Mission Bars guide developed by two students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and this tour of historic spots in Richmond, CA, also created by UC Berkeley journalism students, both done in collaboration with Sutro Media.

* Augmented Reality - Companies like Layar developed augmented reality or "AR" applications: a person points a cellphone at a location and information about the location is overlaid on the phone's camera display. The location is determined by the GPS location of the cellphone, the cellphone's internal compass or software that recognizes the shape of an object seen through the cellphone's camera.

See the Museum of London app that overlays historic photos on London landmarks. Yelp also has an augmented reality application for mobile viewing of its business reviews. And read about how the Boston Globe quickly and inexpensively developed an AR application to display animated versions of artwork on display at art events.

However, Layar has found it's difficult to get people to consistently use its AR application, so the popularity of AR applications remains a question mark.

* Real Estate Sales - Zillow has an iPhone app that displays information about nearby houses and homes for sale based on your location.

* Coupons and Group Discounts - A number of companies like Groupon, Yowza and LivingSocial have cellphone apps that provide access to discount coupons at stores or group discount offers. The coupons also can be accessed at the companies' websites.

Read about how 3,000 people signed up for a Groupon half price offer on cupcakes at a bakery in San Francisco and how other businesses have been overwhelmed by customers after using Groupon. But another study by a Rice University found some businesses were less satisfied with the customers they got using Groupon. See also this New York Times story that raises questions about the viability of these discount coupon services.

See Poynter Online's Rick Edmonds' analysis of the opportunty and threat Groupon poses for newspapers.

See also the Nieman Journalism Lab story on how news organizations can use discount coupons or gift certificates to become "deal brokers" between local businesses and residents. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has launched one such coupon service called STeal.

* Barcodes - With RedLaser you use your phone to scan a barcode on a product (often displayed as a two-dimensional QR or "quick response" code) at a store to find sites online that offer the same product often at a cheaper price. ShopSavvy displays product prices at online sites and at other local stores.

* Street Vendors - the Taco Loco iPhone app provides a map so people can locate nearby taco trucks and stands. People also can update the map with the latest location of the vendors and rate the quality of the tacos.

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