The future is mobile: Howard Owens on the sustainability of local online news

By Susan Larson | Oct. 5, 2016

Howard Owens of The Batavian speaks at the LION Publishers 2016 Summit in Chicago on Friday.

When Howard Owens bought his father a tablet, he wasn’t sure how it would be received.  He admits being surprised on a subsequent visit to find his dad reading books and taking photos with his new device.

It’s the ease of use and the superior user experience that leads Owens to believe the future is mobile.

“Online news sites need to orient about mobile,” Owens said during his session on sustainability at the LION Publishers 2016 Summit in Chicago Friday.

“It’s an online news site’s ability to maximize mobile that’s going to make it sustainable,” he said.

He also predicted “mobile will be the final thing that kills newspapers.”

The CEO and publisher of The Batavian in upstate New York, and a cofounder of LION, Owens began his online news site in 1995.  At the time, many publishers were giddy about the potential to reach the world with their news.  Owens had a different outlook.

“Our mission every day is to answer the question, ‘What’s going on in my community right now?’”

The other is to be the champion for local businesses.  “They need someone in the local community who knows digital,” Owens said.

Owens believes the Internet can build stronger local communities, and it’s real-time engagement with those communities on the devices they use that will contribute to the sustainability of the local online news model.

"Vanity metrics don’t get us to where we want to go,” Owens said.  “We need to focus on audience engagement, advertiser engagement, and second and third tier revenue sources, including events and digital services, to see a clear path for growth.”

“If you’re thinking about this as a real business, you’re thinking about what the future holds,” he said

Owens is now building his own mobile app and digital services.  “With most vendors, it’s really hard to get what you want, because they’re building for the whole universe,” he said. 

“Don’t depend on what others have created,” he said.  He advises looking at ways to own the tech, own the data, and own all the relationships.

Check out more entries in our 2016 conference blog »