News on the Move: Mobile Apps

By: Gretchen A. Peck

News on the Move: Mobile Apps

There’s a scene in filmmaker Chris Foster’s Black & White and Dead All Over—a documentary that chronicles the painful gutting of the newspaper industry, our raw and recent past—when newspersons offer perspective narration about the advent of digital publishing. “Lemmings” is how one hard-nosed journalist refers to publishers at that moment in time when they heavily invested resources into design and deployment of their websites—as another pointed out, without any clear vision or understanding of the business models.            

And, so here we are again, faced with the challenge of a new publishing model—mobile—and all the dilemmas associated with devices and content and advertising, oh my!            

“I spend a lot of time talking to people at organizations, with the exact same kind of struggle,” said David Book, founder of Buzztouch is an open source “app engine” that powers tens of thousands of iPhone, iPad and Android applications. “They ask, ‘What do we do?’ The organization might be a university, a local government, a school, or a newspaper publisher, but everybody is sort of throwing their hands up in the air, because it has a Wild West feeling right now, with all this mobile stuff.”            

Book, long ago, saw the mobile train gaining speed.            

“In 2007,” he recalled, “when [Steve] Jobs introduced the iPhone, I immediately had thoughts, and assumed correctly as it turned out, that lots and lots of people were going to want to put content into these phones, but they’re not going to know how.”            

Book noted that today’s feeling of trepidation about how to distribute content on mobile technologies is familiar. “If you look back into the history of the Internet and what the Web represented, when it was seen as a threat,” he said. “You can fight it, resist it; or you can embrace it. … But if you resist it, you’re going to struggle, and you are going to spend a lot of time and a lot of brain power trying to stop something that you can’t stop.”            

That’s not to say that publishers should forge ahead toward mobile with reckless abandon. “There’s almost a sense of desperation,” Book said. “You’re standing in an elevator with someone who asks, ‘Do you have an app?’ and you want to say, ‘Yes’. You feel pressured to say, ‘Of course we have an app!’ And then you run out and get one, but it’s ill conceived. It’s just something thrown together and put up in a store. And it fails horribly—often, because the company hasn’t put the right staff behind it, or they haven’t marketed the app, as they need to. It’s just another app in the store, and very few publishers are better off this way.”            

Robyn Tomlin is the editor of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome. She’s on the mobile front lines, and reported that perhaps as an industry, we’ve been asking the wrong questions about how to distribute content across platforms.            

“When it comes to mobile, I don’t think readers are interested in newspapers, per se,” she suggested. “They’re thinking about meeting a need, and the question that we as publishers should answer is: Can we meet that need? … When a person picks up the cell phone or tablet, that person is usually trying to solve a problem.”            

Figuring out what those problems or questions may be—and then determining whether a publication has the content to resolve them—is only half the battle, according to Tomlin.            

“What user experience do we need to create to help them to solve it in a way that’s useful to them?” she added. “If you’re simply shoveling content from one place to another—while that may be somewhat useful—I don’t think it’s going to be a long-term solution.”            

MediaPost Communications’ Erik Sass gave some context to a recent Scarborough Research and Newspaper Association of America (NAA) study, which surmised that more than half of newspaper readers in the U.S. still prefer print, and a mere 10 percent read their favorite newspapers on a mobile device. In his analysis, “Print Still Dominates Local Newspaper Reading,” Sass said, “Given all these numbers, it’s easy to deduce that the digital-only newspaper audience (including people who avoid print and only read newspapers online, via mobile devices, or both) actually remains fairly small.”            

Numbers being numbers, they don’t inherently mislead, but publishers that look at these statistics and resolve themselves to feeding only the platforms that are high-performing in the moment may find themselves choking on others’ dust.            

“There has been a fairly fast transition from desktop and laptop to mobile, and particularly to smartphones,” noted Rick Edmonds, media business analyst and leader of news transformation at The Poynter Institute. “Tablets are going strong, too, but smartphones are doing really well, especially with the younger generation. They have their phones with them all the time. So in terms of audience play, it’s in the interest of publishers. They need to be there in some way, and the ones that have a little more money and moxie—like The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and others, are going beyond just getting their material to display on an iPhone.”            

Mobile is unquestionably becoming part of the culture; smartphones and tablets feel ubiquitous in this, a comparatively privileged society.            

“Today, if you were to ask Zuckerberg, the CEO of this dominant player in our world, ‘Tell me about your mobile team,’ I imagine he’d say, ‘We don’t have a mobile team. Our entire company is the mobile team. We can no longer look at mobile as a separate entity, because it is the way the world is headed,” buzztouch’s Book said.

A Creative Challenge More Than a Technical One
There are a few approaches to mobile news publishing today. The first is simply to repurpose content that would otherwise appear in a print edition or a website. Perhaps that content is complemented by video or some other enhancement. Perhaps the articles are categorized by a hierarchy that the publisher has chosen; or maybe by what appears is user driven and personalized based on reading preferences and behaviors. But essentially, this model is based on content that readers can obtain through the newspaper itself, or the paper’s companion web property.            

And e-editions are fine. They’re great, in fact, because largely the content management systems used to now drive content to print layout or web templates can be retasked to push content to mobile devices just as easily. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the newspaper industry these days who’d disparage the idea of having an e-edition available to phones and tablets. But if you think of the revenue stream—beyond the possibility of mobile advertising—this content doesn’t truly represent something new, and readers are growing accustomed to subscription packages that essentially lump all these platforms in together. If publishers are looking for fresh money, they need to create a fresh mobile experience.            

Tomlin exemplified how some newspaper publishers are beginning to think more creatively about the content they’re packaging for mobile consumption. She recalled a recent visit to St. Louis—known for its breweries and microbrews—and how one of the newspapers in town had created an app that beer aficionados tap to find their favorite libations around town.            

“The paper had been reviewing beer for a long time, so why not publish that? It was a great example of how a publisher determined what the audience may need, and delivered that experience with content designed to meet that need,” Tomlin noted.

All Roads Lead Back to Content
All platforms are not equal, and mobile has a sweet spot. Though publishing to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets is still rather young and tender, some things are known. File sizes matter; whether the content is share- and viral-friendly matters; even how it renders on the screen matters.            

“I’ve learned that what works in print does not always work on the web, and vice versa,” Tomlin said “And what works on mobile does not always work well on the desktop; and what works on the tablet is sometimes very different.”            

The publishing Twittersphere was all, well, a-Twitter over news that Bloomberg View had a little facelift, and that the site redesign seemed to be all about what graphically works well on smartphones and tablets.            

Poynter’s Sam Kirkland, a digital media fellow, opined about the news, “The Bloomberg View site resembles this month’s NBC News redesign, with story cards that stack nicely on smartphones and arrange themselves into four- or five-column girds on the site’s widest, desktop view.”            

Steve Kyler is editor and publisher of Basketball Insiders, a Tampa, Florida-based publisher of all things basketball. The company was founded in 2007 and acquired by Fantasy Sports Ventures not long after, according to Kyler. That acquisition changed the publishing model, which had beforehand included a 64-page four-color magazine, supported both by subscription and advertising. Later, the organization partnered in a two-year deal with Gannett, which prompted the shuttering of the print vehicle, seen as redundant to Gannett’s print publications. That partnership came to an end in January 2014, and Basketball Insiders set out on its own.            

As the years had unfolded, Kyler said that it became increasingly obvious that consumers of the information they created wanted it in digital form. They’d ask, “Why can’t I get this on my smartphone or tablet?’ ” Kyler recalled. Needless to say, feeding the website and now mobile devices is paramount.            

“What we’ve really tried to do with our publication—what our guiding editorial philosophy is—is to give something that you’re not going to get anywhere else, to create some exclusivity. If we’re asking you to pull out the credit card, we can’t just be repackaging what’s on our website,” Kyler remarked, and suggested that his company’s approach has been to create a mobile companion—with all the familiar branding that they can expect from the website or any print publications to come—that is still seen as a standalone proposition.            

“If anything, we want to be perceived as over-serving you with valuable content,” Kyler concluded.            

Complicating matters further for newspaper publishers is advertising, and how significant a role that objective plays in the mobile space. Like with web traffic data, information about how customers are consuming content on smartphones and tablets is “extraordinarily valuable,” according to Tomlin.            

“I read a stat the other day about the amount of money that’s being spent right now on mobile advertising, and how these massive entities like Google and Facebook are getting about 90 percent of that money, and that scares me, because it means that we’re not being smart about staying connected to our advertisers—some of whom we’ve had relationships with for generations. But they’re moving to digital. They’re spending their money there, and we have not yet convinced them that we have [mobile] products of value.”            

Edmonds refers to mobile advertising as “the big hitch” for publishers. “To the extent that newspapers have had a hard time making web advertising work … it’s just that much harder with mobile. … They are competing against the Facebooks and Googles of the world,” he said.

Making Mobile Investments
“There’s the assumption that everybody is going to want to buy my app,” Book remarked. “The only way they’re going to want to download that app is if you offer unique content that, as a reader, they need to get from you. If it’s content that’s been regurgitated in 10,000 other free places, why would they want your app? Why would they even want to read your newspaper?”            

Inspiring someone to download an app is really only the first hurdle in a long-distance race, Book pointed out.            

“Let’s say you already have the app. It’s in the app store. Now the two biggest challenges are: How do I get my audience to want the thing, to be inspired to download it? How to make it cool or beautiful or all the things that people expect of an app now,” Book pondered.            

“Then, how do I keep it useful? There is a trend showing that people often download apps, eventually stop using them, and just throw them away, because they don’t want to clutter up their phones. That remains a challenge: How do I keep it fresh?”            

All this requires commitment and capital from all echelons of the news organization. Management and investors have to buy into this endeavor.            

To colleagues who may be resistant to meaningfully investing in their mobile initiatives, Tomlin cautioned: “I would tell them to check out the Nielson numbers that came out in the past month, which said that mobile now exceeds web usage. That, to me, is all you should need to say. We’re seeing audiences move from one place to another, and we’ve seen this happen before. We’ve watched this story unfold before, and we were slow to figure out the right way to handle it. So I think anybody who isn’t watching those numbers is short-sighted.”            

But staffing does appear to be a critical stepping stone along the path to the coveted revenue stream. Tomlin noted that it’s important to have someone—at least some one—to champion the journey and lead the way. “It’s great if that champion is the editor,” she suggested.            

“That’s not to say that you have to have somebody exclusively dedicated to mobile. A lot of publishers just can’t do that,” Tomlin continued. “But they need to invest enough—maybe in one, two, or three people—who are thinking about it, and take the position in the planning meetings in which they’re asking those questions that force us all to think about how the story is going to play on mobile, and whether it can take some new life form there.”

Aggregators Are Your Friends
Certainly as competition for advertising dollars, social media sites and news aggregators may seem like daunting enemies. That’s one way to look at it. Or, publishers can get some closure with that notion and rethink how best to leverage these potential partners. After all, Edmonds said, “I don’t think you can opt out of it. It is the way people find a whole lot of content.”            

AppMachine USA’s Managing Director Joe Monastiero concurred, and offered some additional perspective: “The way social media is being distributed on all social networks is an indication of what the world is interested in, both in format and content. If you combine Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, for example, and add the more compelling media assets and editorial capabilities that the better publications offer, I believe that is where the opportunities lie.”            

“If you think of applications like Flipboard, they feel like a threat, because in effect, they’re using your content, publishing it, and drawing readers,” acknowledged. “But the bottom line is this: People want to consume it that way, because it’s fun. It’s loose. It’s comfortable. The reader is in control. And if you think about it, there is all kinds of time that I can spend in front of Flipboard that I would never spend on a classic newspaper website or app.”            

Think of news aggregators and social media sites as the networks to your TV show, Monastiero said.            

“If I was a publisher, I’d rather spend my resources trying to help Flipboard, Google, and others trying to curate this content. I’d rather spend my resources helping them to understand that I make the best content; therefore, they should assist me in serving it to the highest number of people. And my quality journalism is going to help your Google Search, your Flipboard landing page, your Yahoo news site.”            

“Make content that’s professional, relevant, timely, honest, and high-quality, and the search sites [and aggregators], which are exceptional at differentiating between good stuff and bad stuff, will want to show your stuff to their users,” Book advised. “Focusing on high-quality journalism and reporting, in the case of news, always trumps how you deliver it.”

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Mobile Apps: The New Intranet
At their core, mobile apps are designed not only to distribute content and create experiences, but to also communicate information. Naturally, they can also be crafted to facilitate business practices for on-the-go newspersons.            

AppMachine USA’s Managing Director Joe Monastiero aptly noted, “Yesterday’s and today’s desktop intranets are tomorrow’s apps. Every material organization should, and likely will, have an internal app within five years or so. … Think about collaboration opportunity, at the minimum. Efficiency, communication, remote participation, cost reduction, chat, Skype, customer problem resolution, remote admin, account management, etcetera.” —GAP

                                                                                      •  •  •

Mobile Enablers
The march to mobile appears to have inspired no shortage of developers and aggregators that are eager to partner up with publishers. Here are a few noteworthy names:

AppMachine USA,
From small business to large enterprises, AppMachine delivers internal- and external-facing native apps, at a fraction of the cost and typical time to deliver, according to the developer. It allows non-technical app builders to deliver “full-custom, high-performance native apps in hours and days, rather than weeks and months.” A new Pro version of the solution was introduced this year, for “power users” that wish to combine variable data from Excel files with the page layout manager            
Platforms: iOS, Android, Amazon Kindle, Windows Phone 8, HTML5 Web app
Pricing: Annual or monthly plans, ranging from $35/mo to $1,600/yr.

Appy Pie, Inc.,
Appy Pie provides mobile-app development and delivers a rich user interface for a mobile app by using HTML5 with JavaScript and CSS.            
Pricing: App design is free; costs are associated with publishing the app, and tiered in a Basic, Gold, and Platinum
Buzztouch is an open-source “app engine” that powers tens of thousands of iPhone, iPad, and Android applications. It enables users—even first-time app creators—to design simple or complex apps

DoApp Inc.,
Targeting publishing and real estate, DoApps’s motto is, “We make apps people love.” DoApp promises a solution for managing multiple apps across platforms and the Web; gather data about performance and audience behaviors; and leverage ad networks for advertising.            
Customers: Aspen Times; Imperial Valley Press News; Arlington Times            
Platforms: iOS; Windows Mobile; Android; Web

Mediapectrum, Inc.,
Mediaspectrum Adrenalin enables the creation of apps, including digital publications, sales tools, retail and hospitality apps, and more.            
Customers: Trinity Daily Mirror; Gannett

PageSuite, Inc.,
PageSuite Live offers publishers a unique way to design and create beautiful, branded apps for multiple platforms from existing content feeds. These apps are optimized for mobile and tablet devices and support both portrait and landscape formats. The apps can feature interactive puzzles, live weather feeds, image galleries, videos, and animation, for a truly engaging and interactive reading experience.            
Platforms: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire            
Value-Adds: Product training; a dedicated account manager; and an in-house support team.            
Customers: The London Evening Standard, Irish Independent, Waitrose Kitchen Magazine

Pressmart Media Ltd.,
With its software platform ePaper, Pressmart takes publishers’ prepress-ready PDF files via FTP, and converts them to online editions and/or HTML5-optimized files for Android and iOS devices. Apps may be replicas or formatted as dynamic content.            
Pricing: Scaled based on publication frequency and number of pages.            
Customers: Central Florida Communication Group, LLC; Findlay Publishing; Jackson Hole News & Guide, Inc.; Manhattan Mercury; The Philadelphia Inquirer
—Gretchen A. Peck

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