As newspapers compete for online readers, mobile phones have huge potential to draw users online with their portable and real-time news updates.
The Guardian announced on Friday that it has seen more than 400,000 downloads of its mobile newspaper app since it was relaunched in January. The paper reported that it receives 10% of web traffic from its mobile website, a huge jump in growth from 2009, when just 0.6% of readers accessed the site from their mobile phones.
Similarly, in April 2011, MediaWeek reported that Mirror Online's mobile readership reached 8%, although the bulk of online visitors came from work and home computers.
The Guardian's app is free, although it limits content. For £2.99, users can subscribe for 6 months of full access, or £3.99 for an annual subscription. Nearly 70,000 users have opted for a paid subscription, 17% of all mobile readers.
This bucks the general trend based on a survey conducted last January by the Pew Research Center, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and the Knight Foundation. The study reported that while 30% of cell phone and tablet owners use them for "general local news", no more than 10% of mobile users pay for that local news content. However, the Guardian's subscription success is in the UK only - US users of the Guardian iPhone app do not pay for content, perhaps because the news source is less popular in the country.
Beyond newspaper growth on iPhone apps, mobile phones have news delivery potential in markets without wide Internet access. This year, Safaricom, in partnership with two Chinese companies, released a completely mobile newspaper in Sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike an app, which is downloaded onto a handheld device and allows for access to news when the user opens it, Safaricom's mobile newspaper sends information in an SMS message. The format is reminiscent of a daily morning paper, with coverage spanning from weather to sports to major news stories, and is a useful news tool in a region where smart phones are uncommon.
While the strategy to monetize content remains unclear, the popularity of handheld news sources corresponds with the ideas of Stig Nordqvist, executive director of WAN-IFRA. At the conference for Digital Media Readership last April, he predicted that "in the next one to four years, mobile will deliver a larger audience than laptops." Whether or not this will prove true remains to be seen, but mobile use for news is undeniably growing.
In the face of such optimistic numbers, it is necessary to remember the limitations of news consumption on phones: primarily the size of the screen, and the type of news that this favors. Will mobile be a top platform even for longer articles and more in-depth news?
Photo Credit: Kottke.org