Man Bites Blog: Hey, You Media Wimps! If You Want to Save Newspapers, Learn to Love Your iPhones, Then Go Join Facebook

Lots of publishers acknowledge the importance of mobile but are playing a game of chicken with advertisers: We build some infrastructure, you pay some money, we build more, you pay more.

That at least was the approach outlined by Chuck Cordray, the general manager of Hearst Magazines Digital Media.

“We are likely to continue to invest in the platform that we have on mobile,” he said. “But I’m not doubling down in 2009. We have enough presence and we’ll let advertising up to what we’ve built up now and then we’ll invest in at the next chance available.”

It may be a question of whether the chances aren’t already going to other kinds of businesses besides magazines. Some of us are already firing up our iPhones to read The Times’ headlines while we’re in bed or stirring some scrambled eggs for breakfast. But what if we could download a news application (for a reasonable fee) and get real-time news on our mobile phones as we walk to work? (There is already a New York Times download for the Amazon Kindle, priced at $13.99). And for those who don’t want to actually read the news on those teeny tiny devices—what about listening to The New York Times through podcasts and audio recordings? Maybe Times reporters should file mp3s of their articles, reciting their reporting, along with their print stories, so people riding on the subway, and listening in their cars can participate. There’s already a slew of podcasts on the NYTimes.com site, but there are none based on the newest of the new information—like a radio station. Users could comment on the article, by calling into the Times and record a comment, which will be automatically transcribed and posted on the website.

Microblogging services, similar to Twitter, would also add a real-time element to mobile news. Reporters would blog up-to-the-minute “tweets” on where they are and what they are working on.

News won’t be a once a day update or even once an hour, like on blogs. It will be continuous and ambient—all around us through our handheld devices, according to Bill Spencer, an evangelist for mobile technology and co-founder of viaPlace, a location-based data service for mobile users.

“As events occur they’ll stream right to the individual,” he said. “You’re going to become entwined with information. Information is no longer a thing that you go to. It’s threaded into the technology.”

So how will all of this get monetized? Well, if Apple’s iPhone 3G has shown us anything, it’s that people will pay for convenience. To date, there have been more than 300 million downloads from Apple’s App Store. Thousands of applications cater to users’ every whim, from an iFart application that is good for a laugh, to games like Texas Hold’Em to pass the time and users are willing to pay for them. According to a new consumer report conducted by ABI Research, more than 16 percent of U.S. smartphone users who installed mobile applications in 2008 spent between $100 and $499 on premium apps.

The Times already has an application that is free for download on various devices including the iPhone and the BlackBerry—with simple headlines and easy reading. But applications with added data, personalized content and social media would be more valuable. An initial fee of, say, $1 for a newspaper application might be reasonable, along with a monthly updated version of the application at .50 cents a month. With paid subscriptions, users will get tons of news, data, syndicated content from other sites and services at their fingertips.

Ads on the application could be displayed in a traditional format, like on Web browsers with text-based ads or display ads at the top or bottom of the screen.

But publishers can also partner with advertisers to create innovative, interactive applications. For example, on Feb. 2, Lucky magazine released their Lucky At Your Service iPhone application. Designed to supplement their March issue, Lucky app users can browse through more than 70 shoes listed in their shoe guide, including ones chosen by editors and advertisers.

Greg Sterling, senior analyst for Local Mobile Search, a service that tracks the evolution of the mobile Internet, said these types of ad-infused applications are the perfect bait for major brands. “Publishers can say, ‘Hey we’re this really effective vehicle for you because of our demographics, so on and so forth, but we can also extend that into this really cutting edge iPhone application,” he explained. “Suddenly it transforms that magazine into this interesting, multi-platform vehicle where the advertisers or the content can reach those loyal magazine readers as they’re out in the world.”