Why Mobile Can’t ‘Save’ Local News

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Here we go again. Yet another report comes out with the headline “Could Mobile Apps Save_____?” This time, the report is from Localytics and the fill-in-the-blank is local news. Of course, mobile apps are going to save the universe from total destruction. We all know that by now, right? But seriously folks. We need to stop having this conversation. Mobile will save nothing. Local news will save itself, or it won’t. Mobile has little to do with it. Here’s why.

The Localytics research found that people spend a ton of time consuming local news on mobile devices and that the average news app outpeforms Twitter on mobile. That’s not a huge surprise. I’d wager that, since tablets became popular, you are seeing more and more people replace what had previously been reading done on a PC or laptop with leisurely reading of a tablet. Even on smartphones, where the form factor remains poor for truly comfortable reading, apps like Flipboard have adapted to create UIs that make content consumption palatable.

And local content, of course, is something of tremendous interest to people because you like to know what’s happening where you live. Witness the recent impressive bump in traffic on Patch’s network of hyperlocal sites. But local content doesn’t need to come from local news sites — as the CNN article points out. Yelp (YELP), OpenTable (OPEN), Twitter and Foursquare all produce local content that verges on news when viewed through the prism traditional news reporting in areas such as restaurant reviews or on-the-spot news coverage (albeit, in short character format). This is very different than before the Internet, when local news only competed with itself (TV, radio and print) — which allowed for extremely profitable advertising-driven businesses in lightly competed markets. Today growth in the supply of geo-targeted ad slots on mobile is rapidly outstripping growth of available ad impressions. The dynamic is no different than in other parts of the Internet. Infinite supply results in falling prices.

So I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The only thing that saves local news is really good, unique local content and community allegiances that make it clear the news product is more than just a way to make money. The commitment has to be obvious. This is why a handful of mom-and-pop hyperlocal blogs have flourished as lucrative small businesses. And this is why the best growth at Patch is driven by the most committed local editors who weave themselves into the community fabric.

Could mobile provide a cost-effective and pervasive news platform for local publications? Absolutely. But that’s pretty much true for all forms of content and media as the world wholesale shifts to more mobile in the consumption mix. But let’s keep things straight. You are only as good as your content and your community chops. Prowess in those two areas – and not raw traffic numbers – drives revenues because it elevates local news to a “quality-driven” ad buy and not just another entry in an analytics spreadsheet.

I give props to Localytics for putting out really insightful research on the topic and raw consumption data that can help justify a business plan. But mobile is the medium, not the savior. Local news will save itself but mobile, per se, will have little to do with the resurrection.

Alex Salkever is an executive at a cloud computing company and a former technology editor of BusinessWeek.com. The views expressed in his column are his own and not those of his employer. His Personal Fight column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight.