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French Media Talk Difficult Future of Mobile News

Posted: 19/11/2012 16:13

From news radio networks to respected newspapers to pure players, French media find mobile "difficult" and "complicated".

This morning at a hip co-working space for startups in the heart of Paris, leaders from the French media participated in a round table discussion of the future of the media on mobile. The panel was moderated by the associate dean of the Journalism School at Sciences Po, Alice Antheuame (@alicanth), who defined three themes for the morning:

  1. How do we consume news on mobile in France?
  2. What editorial strategy should we put in place for this consumption pattern?
  3. How do we organise our teams around this editorial strategy?

The panel participants represented a varied cross section of the French media, with both established players and relative newcomers.

  • Edouard Andrieu, Head of digital product development for daily newspaper Le Monde (@EdouardAndrieu)
  • Yann Guegan, Associate editor at online news outlet Rue 89 (@yannguegan)
  • Olivier Friesse, Technical director of new media at public network Radio France (@noisetteprod)
  • Baptiste Bénezet, CEO at mobile development firm Applidium (@Ba_B)


How do we consume news on mobile in France?

Amongst the panelists, there was general agreement on the habits of mobile readers, with audience peaks at around 7 in the morning, then again at lunch time around 12, and a final smaller peak as readers get off work around 6pm. This was true for all but Andrieu at Le Monde, who pointed out that the paper's news alerts, sent in the form of push notifications, are now primary drivers of mobile traffic, and so mobile consumption no longer follows the standard patterns. Andrieu elaborated on this alerts strategy, describing a system Le Monde has that allows the team to chose whether an alert is also accompanied by a sound or not. The paper therefore sends silent alerts to readers during the night and early morning, he added. This is an interesting way for Le Monde to reach French expats who are consuming its journalism in other time zones, and something worth considering for other global news brands.

For Radio France, alerts also play a big role in its strategy, however Friesse was quick to flag up the significant delay his team has tracked between sending a push alert, and it being received by RF's 8 million mobile users. According to their data, it takes 2-3 minutes to submit an alert to Apple, and anywhere from 20-30 minutes for Apple to push that alert out to the recipients. Rue 89 has not integrated push alerts into its mobile strategy yet, although Guegan said the outlet would not be using pushes for breaking news like the other panelists.

This first theme finished up with Andrieu sharing that although results show the mobile audience is younger and more urban, he's skeptical of the stats, and thinks it's too early to tell exact demographics. What they have been able to determine is that mobile readers scan many titles quickly, but some spend even longer reading individual articles on mobile than online. This seems paradoxical when the general assumption is that mobile consumption takes place while users are mobile, leading to more skimming and less deep dives into content.

What editorial strategy should we put in place for this consumption pattern?

From a production standpoint, mobile has changed the timing of Rue89's publishing, as it tries to keep a balance between what readers "need" to be informed of in the mornings, and what readers "want" to read about in the evenings. The editorial team also had to change their news cycle, which was previously in line with regular office hours, because they realised that mobile readers were checking for updates before they got into the office, and still seeing headlines from the night before.

Both Andrieu and Guegan, one from an established media group and the other from a younger news operation, admitted that their apps were more or less simple feed readers for their journalism produced for the web. At Radio France, there was a similar parallel, "we try to preserve our radio programs in their original formats and not segment them", explained Friesse. There seemed to be a pronounced lack of innovation on the panel when it came to rethinking news production for a mobile audience. Bénezet of Applidium made a powerful comparison to describe the situation:

"I think publishers are committing that same error with mobile now that they did in the early 2000s: just taking newspaper articles and putting them online." - Bénezet of Applidium

Refreshingly, the panelists weren't shy in discussing their failures with mobile apps. Andrieu mentioned a sports-themed app released by Le Monde that "had an unexpected complexity that made it very hard to maintain". Friesse spoke of a special app Radio France released for the French elections that didn't attract the size of audience they were hoping for, although users that actually used the app consumed a good deal of news. Bénezet mentioned how contributing content, be it photos or text, is still difficult for users of mobile apps due to the limitations associated with touch screens.

How do we organise teams around this editorial strategy?

Aside from the mention above about the slight shift in the news cycle for Rue89, this question wasn't really addressed. Instead, Antheuame tried to coax the panel into revealing some figures about the costs and time associated with developing mobile apps. After a healthy amount of evasive maneuvering from the panelists, Friesse finally revealed that the budget for redoing the Radio France app for 3 OS's was €500,000 with a 2 year time to market. Bénezet also shared that the France Télé app took about 3-5 months to develop, "but it's complicated", he added.

When asked by an audience member if the panelists could share traffic numbers for mobile versus online, the speakers were even less forthcoming. It seems none of them had prepared those figures for the panel called "the future of the media on mobile".

Take aways

Despite some lack of transparency from the panelists (let's chalk it up to competitive instincts and the perhaps more traditional French media culture) there were some important points made, and collective issues surfaced.

The key word of the discussion had to be "difficult", or "complicated". It seems many of the panelists had trouble with their mobile operations in general, whether this was finding novel formats for mobile news, developing applications in a timely and cost-effective manner, or going beyond the basic features of a "feed reader" style app. Another area of complication was responsive design, a topic which has recently become popular amongst major media houses internationally. Surprisingly, the panel did not touch on responsive design organically, it was raised by a question from the audience, to which Andrieu responded, "It was *extremely complicated* to be responsive and maintain good performance. " Andrieu rightly continued that Le Monde is currently exploring responsive design options, but performance is the priority.

All in all, there wasn't much discussion of the future of the media on mobile platforms this morning, but more of a focus on the obstacles the participants faced in getting where they are today. While I was hoping to hear an enthusiastic discussion about the bright future of mobile news from these media outlets, what we got instead was perhaps to be expected. After all, these panelists come from a particularly troubled media industry, and a country where not a single national daily newspaper was profitable last year despite close to €1.2 billion in government subsidies.

 

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