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

GOING HYPERLOCAL

Many of the smartphones in development now are being built with voice as an afterthought and search, email, Twitter and Facebook-ing at the center of their functionality. But will long-form newspaper articles, ones that are a bit longer and more in-depth than 140 characters, be readable on these tiny handheld screens?

E-Ink, the company that built the technology used for electronic paper displays like the Amazon Kindle, has been developing technology to create more reader-friendly displays since 1993. “You want to read a bunch of magazines or you want to read a combination of books and magazines when you travel today,” said Sriram Peruvemba, E-Ink’s vice president of marketing. “You can put all those things on your device—literally thousands of documents, a small mini library that you can put in your briefcase.”

Perhaps more newspapers should be meeting with mobile device manufacturers and designers to make sure they are catering to consuming news on the go. Can you imagine the next Google/New York Times Android-powered portable reading device?

Google “wants to have as much control of the development of mobile web advertising as they can,” according to Mr. Sterling. “Google’s advantage is that it has a lot of advertisers. If it says, ‘Hey publishers, we’ve got all these advertisers! We can make it really easy for you to advertise once you launch your mobile Web site.’” Newspapers might want to pay close attention to how Google is utilizing their mobile ad network. 

Luckily, newspapers have some time to get into the mobile business. Only 12 to 13 percent of phone users have smartphones like an iPhone or BlackBerry, according to Mr. Sterling. So it’s time for newspapers to start thinking about how their users can get their news on their feet—before it’s too late.

The irony of news that follows you wherever you go is that it is intensely local—just the kind of stuff news sites are jettisoning these days.

Consider Patch, the New York–based start-up co-founded by Tim Armstrong, Google’s vice president of advertising sales. Funded by Polar Capital Group, Mr. Armstrong’s private investment company, Patch launched three hyperlocal news sites in three New Jersey towns on Feb. 5: Maplewood, Millburn and South Orange. Each individual site combines hard-nosed journalism from professional reporters, information from local government on everything from health department services to volunteer opportunities and various platforms for user participation with pictures, stories and blogs. Patch’s sites don’t just dispatch news articles—they are information portals.

Likewise, The New York Times Metro desk right now is in the process of creating a series of “microblogs” that would cover the same area of New Jersey, and potentially other outposts in the metropolitan area as well.

“It’s the year 2009 and the way people are getting community-news specific information is largely through corkboards and bagel stores and kiosks in town squares,” Jon Brod, Patch’s chief executive officer and co-founder, told The Observer over coffee earlier this month. “There’s a huge opportunity there to really include people’s local lives and strengthen communities through information and that’s really what we’re trying to do.”

“It was a problem everytown, everycommunity U.S.A. was experiencing,” he continued. “Community level news and information was really sparse, fragmented, disorganized and in a bunch of level, archaic.”

That’s going to change–through the moble phone future. Taking a pit stop at the coffee shop? Your hand-held device will find restaurant reviews from the newspaper, along with syndicated content from user-generated review sites like Yelp to get suggestions on the best espresso flavor from your friends.

As you climb out of the subway at 23rd and Broadway, you’ll get a Wikipedia entry on the Flatiron building, with historical facts and figures, along with recent articles reporting on the latest news—including office space opening up, crimes in Madison Square Park, and the redesign of Shake Shack’s Web site for those already thinking about getting a hamburger fix from chef Danny Meyer’s version of a fast food joint.

After work, local happy hours and drink specials will be pinged to your phone as soon as you step back outside. This kind of feature is already being developed by small New York-based startup Coovents. In fact, most of these features are already available in various iPhone applications, but perhaps newspapers should start partnering with the start-ups making these new applications so they can add the data sets to their Web and mobile libraries.

A combination of local news and location-based technology has the capacity to be the foundation of this kind of distribution system. It hasn’t worked that well on the Web, but on the mobile Web, the first to become a local essential “app” on a phone is the first to unlock whatever ad dollars are out there.