By CrossCut News
SAN FRANCISCO — The thud of the morning newspaper landing on front porches may one day be replaced with the beep of downloads onto a cellphone.
Verve Wireless believes it can save the dying local newspaper by making it mobile. It offers publishers the technology to create Web sites for cellphones. The company, based in Encinitas, Calif., already provides mobile versions of 4,000 newspapers from 140 publishers, including Freedom Communications, the McClatchy Company and The New York Times Company’s Regional Media Group. The Associated Press, its biggest customer, is betting that Verve has the solution to the nagging problem of dwindling print readership. It led a $3 million round of financing in Verve, a rare investment for the news organization.
People are increasingly using their phones to surf the Web. Of the 95 million mobile Internet subscribers in the United States, 40 million actively use their phones to go online, twice the number of two years ago, according to Nielsen Mobile. After portal sites and e-mail services, newspaper content — weather, news, politics, city guides, sports and entertainment — is most popular among mobile users.
Verve’s chief executive, Art Howe, says he is convinced that people will always want local news and information — just not in the format of a print newspaper. But to be useful to readers, mobile versions of Web sites “cannot just be Internet lite,” Mr. Howe warned. The A.P. recently released a popular iPhone application developed by Verve that lets users scan the day’s headlines, send articles to friends and save articles to read later.
“Mobile is actually a better way to reach people than print or even Web. It’s versatile, immediate, travels and is just as compelling,” said Mr. Howe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter and former owner of 50 local papers.
The problem, said Verve’s president, Tom Kenney, is that local papers do not have the resources, expertise or relationships with cellphone carriers to build mobile sites themselves. Verve does it for them, in exchange for a cut of ad revenue.
Publishers can upload local ads to their cellphone sites using Verve’s software or have Verve place national ad campaigns on their sites. Verve can deliver a particular ad to, say, people age 21 to 30 who live downtown and have searched for articles about the bar scene. Philadelphia Magazine, for example, sent readers of its Verve-developed Web site a text message offering $4 grapefruit cocktails and half-price appetizers at a local bar.
Mobile companies hope that this kind of ad customization could persuade advertisers to pay more for ads on cellphones than they do for Web ads. So far, few do. Advertisers will spend only $1.6 billion on mobile ads this year, while spending $26 billion online, predicts eMarketer, a marketing research firm
Media General, which runs newspapers and television stations, mostly in the Southeast, uses Verve for 79 mobile Web sites. Tim Repsher, who oversees Media General’s mobile products, said he chose Verve because he would not have to hire new staff members to figure out how to publish newspapers on cellphones. Mobile readership quadrupled in a year, with readers using the site to read breaking news and hurricane reports and get updates during power failures.
Newspapers cannot afford to be late to cellphones, said Greg Sterling, who studies the mobile Internet for Opus Research, a consulting firm. “It’s important and smart for newspapers to get out in front on the mobile phenomenon and not make the mistake they made in waiting too long to embrace the Internet.”