Building a car-friendly news environment

A 2011 post by Steve Buttry has been gnawing a hole in my consciousness for a few weeks now. It’s called “Newspapers don’t need new ideas; here are lots of ideas for new revenue streams.”

In the post, Steve talks about some of the money-left-on-the-table scenarios in the local news publishing space, but the first one really hit home:

Develop the must-have driving app for your communityI first outlined this idea two years ago in my Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection. I am not aware that any news organization (or anyone else) has tried it yet. Mutter notes that the newspaper ad decline has been most severe in automobile advertising, falling from $5 billion in 2004 to $1.1 billion last year. Auto manufacturers and dealers have built better tools than the newspaper want ads section for selling cars.

Buying a car is a job most people need help with only every few years. It was an easy job to disrupt. But driving is a task many of us do daily, and it presents abundant opportunity. Community news organizations are well-positioned to offer one place where drivers can compare gas prices, buy insurance, find parking spaces, check the traffic, get emergency service, schedule maintenance, rent a car and download coupons for tires and service. And if you develop that app that drivers can use daily, it may also be the best vehicle for advertising auto sales.

That’s an outstanding idea, as far as it goes. But it got me thinking further. In most local communities around the U.S., the daily commute is done in a car, as Steve notes. But, while this certainly offers a great context-appropriate environment for car- and commute-related news and information, there may be an even bigger opportunity here, one which the march of mobile technology makes so much easier to pull off here in 2012 than even a year or two ago: car-friendly news delivery.

Imagine how useful this could be:

  • An app-like mobile browser experience, with larger buttons/identifying text for one-glance control of the in-car site. Safety first! (Yes, this can be an app, also. But let’s make it work first without the need to download anything.)
  • Tight integration with a traffic-alert system, customized to my commute pattern AND my current location.
  • An easy means for users to post news from their commute, in photos, video, pre-written text snippets or, for passengers in the car, free-form text. For an outstanding example of how this can be implemented, look at the Reports function in the social-traffic service, Waze.
  • Original audio programming, both live and podcast. Streaming audio is cheap to the consumer; downloaded audio is effectively free.
  • Dial-in capability for the full talk-radio experience.
  • Read-aloud versions of selected stories and the latest breaking news. Yes, this is that bad idea from the early 2000s, dressed up in new clothes simply because the quality of machine-read content is finally catching up with our aspirations. It’s not James Earl Jones, true, but it’ll do, used sparingly.
  • The ability to pin articles and related content to a user’s private space for later retrieval.
  • Here’s what it’s not: Yet another wrapper or skin for the full content of the local news service. For this to work well, it needs to be tightly curated and updated; it can’t simply be a mass regurgitation of everything that’s on the homepage of the mothership. It’s just enough news, carefully selected and presented with a mobile- and audio-first bias.

Remember: As of this year, more than half the cell phones in use in the USA are smartphones. Presenting app-like web pages, knowing a user’s location, playing audio and video — it’s all in there just waiting to be accessed intelligently by users and the local news organizations who love them.

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Creative Commons License

Tim Windsor

VP, Content & Conversion at LendingPoint LLC
I lead media companies and other organizations that want to develop and improve their mobile and digital strategies and technologies, grow audience, and build sustainable digital revenue.