There are no magic wands in the digital transition. Everything has to be built slowly and surely, as with legacy media. And failure is as likely, maybe even more likely, than in the analog world. But you have to keep trying because cell phones, the first true mass digital channel in Africa, are getting faster and smarter; if you don’t exploit the power of the new channel, you’re toast because others will and are.

Grocott’s Mail has been serving the small community of Grahamstown, South Africa with local news and information for a long time (140 years precisely on May 11). Grocott’s Online — which got going properly a year ago — caters to those who prefer pixels to paper, but until now, locals with mobile phones haven’t had a comprehensive way of being informed about what’s on the go in Grahamstown.

Launch of Grahamstown NOW

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Enter Grahamstown NOW, the first concerted attempt by Grocott’s Mail to provide news and real-time information to Grahamstonians on a mobile platform. It’s part of the Knight-funded Iindaba Ziyafika project and is led by Michael Salzwedel, New Media Editor at Grocott’s Mail. Here’s what Michael emailed me when I asked for some info about the technical side of the project:

It’s not fancy or shiny – on the surface it appears to be just another mobisite. But there’s a lot of depth below that surface. What it lacks in glitz and glam, it makes up for in its ability to serve up a snapshot at any given point in time of what’s just happened, currently happening, or about to happen in Grahamstown.

Grahamstown NOW focuses on providing practical, immediately usable information directly related to the living out of the daily lives of people in Grahamstown. The idea is that Grahamstown NOW should become the central aggregator of as much as possible of Grahamstown’s news and informational content, ultimately enabling citizens to make more considered decisions.

The launch version of Grahamstown NOW provides the following content:

  • Event listings: These are pulled in from the Grocott’s online events calendar. Users can submit their own events directly from their phones.
  • Business specials: What’s currently on special (at registered businesses) at any given time in Grahamstown, and how much longer those specials are on for (or time until they start).
  • News items: The latest and most popular stories from Grocott’s Online.
  • Webcam snapshots: Users can see current views from a number of webcams across Grahamstown. This will include “stream cam” that captures the queues at the local source of fresh spring water. With Grahamstown experiencing both drought and water quality problems, rich and poor are queuing for hours to supplement their municipal supply at the spring. It would great to be able to check on your phone for a real-time lull in the queue!
  • Movie screenings: What’s coming up next at the local cinema.
  • Radio shows: What’s on now and coming up next on local radio stations.
  • Weather conditions: Should you grab a jacket or an umbrella? Check on Grahamstown NOW.
  • Tweets: Latest tweets from @grocotts, and the latest tweets mentioning Grahamstown.
  • SMSes: Latest SMSes received by Grocott’s Online (MMS support coming soon).
  • Ride offers/requests: A simple matching service.

The emphasis is on time and timing of events and specials and happenings around town. There is also an emphasis on freshness and “nowness.” So while many sites allow you to see what’s on in the next few days or weeks, or tomorrow’s weather, Grahamstown NOW focuses only on today’s happenings, weather, shows and commercial specials. If you want to know what’s on tomorrow, check in with us again closer to that time.

All About Now

This approach might not work for congenitally forward-planning people, but it is, in testing at least, proving to be a great way to cut through the clutter of most sites, and curate information and news through the singular lens of currentness. Grahamstown NOW only gives you the very latest news story or two, not all of them. If you want to know what’s coming up next on the local radio station, we’ll tell you — but not about the show after that.

Instead of comprehensiveness, Grahamstown NOW is much more like Twitter or a Facebook wall. It’s about the latest, most current information. If you snooze, you lose that part of the stream.

Michael and his team are enthusiastic about how useful this could be.

“Most of the above can be displayed according to time (countdown until something begins or ends), so the home page and section pages are dynamic and never look the same,” he said. “Users might see that a jazz concert is starting in an hour and 30 minutes, or that a 2-for-1 pizza special at a local restaurant started two hours ago, or that the next showing of a certain movie begins in 20 minutes, or that a public council meeting is scheduled for two days’ time.”

Grahamstown NOW is primarily meant to be accessed with a mobile phone, but there’s also a desktop version. For now, that’s simply the mobile version contained within a mobile phone graphic, with additional Javascript and AJAX functionality to enhance the user experience by allowing easier inputs and no page reloads. We are debating ‘converging’ our Grahamstown NOW website and the Grocott’s Online Website.

Users can also interact with the site by leaving “chirps” (comments), submitting their own events and ride offers, and easily sharing content with friends via email or WAP pushes.

Integration With Nika

I asked Michael to outline why Grahamstown NOW will work in our small town, and how it fits in with what we’re trying to do with the Nika system we developed. He replied:

The average Grahamstownian is not rich, does not have an expensive phone, and is very conscious of how much they’re spending on data. Thus, the first version of Grahamstown NOW has been designed to be accessed on even the simplest of Internet-enabled phones, and the HTML has been ‘minified’ to reduce bandwidth consumption.

Later in the year, Grahamstown NOW will be integrated with Nika. The aim is for Nika to become the central CMS for all Grocott’s Mail’s offerings: The print edition, Grocott’s Mail Online, Grahamstown NOW, our SMS headline service and our upcoming instant messaging offerings (which will include selected Grahamstown NOW content).

Nika 2.0, which is now available as a free download, is evolving into a more comprehensive and mobile-orientated CMS. At its heart Nika is an editing workflow suite and digital content manager; but Nika also has additional functionality for community newspapers in that it can take SMS and instant messages directly into editing streams, and send SMS and IMs back to cell phones. Overall, Nika is great for generating user generated content and for easily getting headlines (and soon whole stories) back out to users’ cell phones.

Future versions of Grahamstown NOW will have more differentiation between what is served up to PCs and to mobile phones, will include geo-location functionality so users can see business or event locations on a map or tag their social networking interactions or content submissions with their location, and will have tighter integration with Facebook.

For now, we think Grahamstown NOW offers immediate benefits for citizens — with a particular emphasis on “immediate.” Grahamstown NOW will launch officially in mid June 2010.

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