Mobilizing Mobile Technology for Alt-Weeklies

A look at how a few papers are moving way beyond websites in their digital operations.

It’s as simple as sending a text message. In fact, it’s exactly like sending a text message.

Just text the name of your local alt-weekly and you can receive on your phone a wealth of valuable information — restaurant listings, upcoming concerts, movies, festivals, and pretty much any other event you’d find within the pages of a typical A&E section.

It may be a foreign concept to some, but for mobile proponents, the development of such technology was a no-brainer.

“The cell phone is the largest selling electronic device in human history,” says Bruce Dobie, former editor and co-owner of the Nashville Scene. Dobie is the founder of Evie, one of the companies currently working with alt-weeklies to provide mobile content for readers. “Everyone is fidgeting with them all day long and people are increasingly using them to get information. So it makes sense to figure out a way to help content owners distribute their content on this new screen.”

Checking a cell phone to view a paper’s listings rather than just opening up the paper itself may seem a bit gratuitous, but Dobie is right.

They’re everywhere — bars, clubs, Laundromats, post offices, even churches: people busily typing away on the small keypads that are built into the various phones, Sidekicks, Blackberries, Treos and PDAs without which they couldn’t survive. And now, alt-weeklies throughout the country are making it easier than ever for this new mobile set to find something worth doing on a Saturday night.

Readers of many alt-weeklies can now access on their mobile devices event listings and other content in a format easily viewed and navigable on a small two-inch screen.

It works for anyone who has mobile web — a feature with which nearly all cell phones now come equipped — and in some cases, you just need text-messaging capabilities.

Through Evie, readers subscribe to a mobile content service by texting a participating paper’s designated name to a specified five-digit code — readers of Cincinnati CityBeat, for example, would type “CBEAT.” They can then enter a club or performer’s name, or even a type of music or event, and have sent back to their phones all the paper’s information pertaining to their query.

Right now, the monthly cost to users is $2.50 (with revenue split between Evie and the paper), but could be made free once advertising revenue starts to kick in, Dobie says. There is no cost to the paper partnering with Evie.

So far, Evie has partnered with more than 10 AAN member papers, in addition to other media outlets. Another wireless-content company, the California-based Verve Wireless, is currently working with roughly 150 publications — daily newspapers, city magazines and a variety of alt-weeklies including Creative Loafing (Atlanta), the Chicago Reader, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and The Stranger. Like with Evie, the paper incurs no cost when using Verve.

“The opportunity for alt-weeklies is confirmed by the large cell phone carriers who are eager to connect their users to alternative newspapers because they see the content as a way to appear young, hip and different from their competitors,” says Tom Kenney, president of Verve. “The folks at the carriers we talk to all read alt-weeklies and can see them playing a big part in the future of mobile content.”

Indeed, some alt-weeklies have already had success in the mobile sphere. The Austin Chronicle, which partners with Austin-based vendor CitizenPod, has turned thousands of readers on to the mobile web, especially during the city’s annual SXSW festival.

Each week, CitizenPod formats the Chronicle’s listings database into a mobile-friendly version that readers can access simply by typing in a URL on their mobile browser. According to the Chronicle’s production and web manager Karen Barry, the feature has been utilized considerably.

During the six-week period between Feb. 5 and March 27, the Chronicle’s mobile local-resource guides were accessed a total of 3,300 times; its mobile film listings 5,500 times; and its mobile music listings 7,200 times. Of course, those numbers make up only a small percentage of the website’s overall traffic, but as Barry points out, “Anything new is going to have a slow adoption rate, but once people get ahead of you and you’re scurrying to catch up, it becomes a lot harder. We’re trying to get ahead on some of this stuff and be ready for the future.”

The Chronicle’s future, Barry notes, includes the mobile execution of full-length articles, which could come as soon as three months down the line. But not all alt-weeklies are expanding into the mobile world so aggressively. Some, like Burlington’s Seven Days, are taking a more cautious approach, testing the waters to gauge how well mobile content would work for them.

As a first step, Seven Days, which partners with Verve, is starting to roll out its restaurant, music and movie listings, and may next offer a mobile dining guide. Beyond labor, there’s no cost to create the listings. And as Bob Kilpatrick, the paper’s director of digital development notes, there are revenue-generating possibilities, though he says it’s too early to speculate how significant they would be.

“I don’t see 2007 as a year we will get too far or make any real money with mobile, but at the same time I know that [mobile content] is coming up fast, and will become a big part of the different things we need to do,” he says. “So I wanted to get our feet wet and try to experiment a little, and become familiar with the space.”

Part of the hesitation derives from the fact that a lot of people still don’t use the mobile web, at least not yet. A January Ipsos survey of 1,000 “online adults” revealed that only 10 percent of respondents had surfed the web on a mobile phone in the past 30 days, though 29 percent said they intended to do so in the future.

For this reason, some alt-weeklies are keeping their mobile content as simple as possible, developing applications on their own rather than partnering with outside vendors.

Orlando Weekly, which shares its web development efforts with sister publications Baltimore City Paper, Detroit’s Metro Times, and the San Antonio Current, will send out its calendar listings (due to launch by May) via simple scripts free of any JavaScript or “fancy graphics” that IT manager and web editor Ian Monroe says could “mug up mobile phones.” As is the case with Verve and CitizenPod, readers would simply access a special URL to bring up the listings, which they could then click on to view more detailed information.

For Monroe, who recognizes that mobile data access will “play a large part in everybody’s future,” it’s all about keeping the paper’s experiments “cheap and easy,” and presenting them at a reasonable pace.

“I don’t think we’re getting behind, but rather letting other people make some mistakes for us, so that when we eventually do roll out a full implementation of mobile data services, we’re prepared,” he says.

Joe Pompeo is a freelance reporter living in Jersey City. A frequent contributor to the New York Press, his writing has appeared in various publications throughout New York and New Jersey.