By: Alan D. Mutter
Two years after the debut of the iPad, most newspaper publishers still are fretting and fumbling over what to do about it.
Even though the iPad 2 was one of the most popular items last Christmas and the third-generation version of the product is likely to turn up well before Santa returns this year, many newspapers have yet to develop their very first app. Of the publishers who took the plunge, most were so unclear on their concept that they shouldn’t have bothered.
Publishers have to start doing better, because iPad owners, who represent the vast bulk of the tablet computing market, look an awful lot like newspaper readers.
In a study released last year, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 90 percent of tablet owners — who are concentrated among wealthy, highly educated adults between the ages of 30 and 49 — regularly use the gizmos to consume news. Significantly, 59 percent of respondents said the tablet has taken the place of “what they used to get” from a print newspaper.
In other words, tablet users represent not just a potentially valuable audience for publishers, but also one they can’t afford to lose.
Notwithstanding the stakes, publishers have been anything but nimble in addressing the best medium yet for transitioning the traditional print experience to a truly compelling, lean-back digital platform.
Because newspapers seldom invest in creating bespoke digital content for their apps, their iPad offerings pale in comparison to those produced by any number of competing magazines, broadcasters, and native digital publishers, including — to name just a few — Bloomberg BusinessWeek, France24, BBC, and News Corp.’s The Daily, which, though journalistically anemic, is headed in the right direction. All of these apps, like most of the 140,000 others available at the Apple store, feature interactive tools, rich graphics, audio, video, maps, and much more. That is to say: They fully leverage the power of this new medium.
Newspapers, on the other hand, largely have punted, letting readers use the incumbent Safari Web browser on the iPad to plumb the dense, user-unfriendly websites where publishers dump their print output for consumption on the Web. In contrast to the crisp, graphically engaging and highly interactive apps flooding the Apple store, the typical newspaper site is filled with gray, meandering columns of text requiring multiple swipes to get to the bottom of the page. That is to say: Newspapers don’t come close to leveraging the power of this new medium.
The few newspaper publishers who ventured into app development tripped themselves up. While The New York Times is one of the few publishers successfully charging for access to its digital content, its text-centric iPad app offers only a limited sample of the material available in print. The sparseness of the news report combined with the paucity of interactive content make for a distinctly tepid experience.
In Silicon Valley of all places, the San Francisco Chronicle concocted a paid app that includes a smattering of up-to-date news and sports, but relies heavily on such archival material as old — and I do mean old — columns from the late, great Herb Caen, who died in 1997, pounding his Loyal Royal typewriter to the end. How could the paper be more out of touch?
The Philadelphia Inquirer produced an app consisting of a clunky, slowto- load, scarcely interactive PDF of its broadsheet. Then, hoping to build a base of dedicated users for this lessthan- scintillating experience, the publisher loaded the app on 5,000 tablets manufactured by some no-name company in France. At last report, a fair number of those no-name tablets were gathering dust in a warehouse.
There is one bright spot:
OCRegister The Peel app launched by The Orange County Register, which is updated in the early evening each day when iPad use is known to peak. Built from inception as a dedicated app, the easy-to-navigate Peel includes not just the latest news, traffic, weather, and sports, but also splashy pictures, interesting video, and other elements that make it visually appealing, quick to read, and fun.
The Peel doesn’t look, feel, or act like a newspaper, because it is not supposed to. And that’s the point:
The key to successful iPad development is not to reprise the newspaper but to leverage the platform to create new experiences for audiences you are trying to attract, be they football fans, barbecue aficionados, or architecture buffs.
Beyond selling advertising, a successful app can get consumers to subscribe to unique, premium content. Although Pew discovered that four out of five people won’t buy news on the iPad, Zynga’s $7 billion IPO valuation proves consumers will spend money on something they care about.
Tapping into consumer passions is the way to win in AppVille.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor who became a Silicon Valley CEO and now consults for the media industry. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).