Tablets: Should Newspapers Jump in, or Play the Waiting Game?

By: Jim Rosenberg

In the days before the launch of the Apple iPad, the biggest newspapers in America — USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times — contended to be first out of the gate with an app. It seemed inevitable they would be followed by dozens of metro dailies.
 
That hasn’t happened. And the surprising thing is, some of the most respected digital experts in the newspaper industry say that’s a good thing — at least for now.
 
“In the short term, only the top-tier U.S. newspapers have the resources and perceived need to produce custom editions for multiple devices,” says Roger Fidler, digital publishing director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute. For everybody else, he says, “waiting a year or so may be the best advice.”
 
Consultant Amy Webb recommends the same caution, urging newspapers to look carefully at their audience and the media the audience actually uses. Right now, she says, it might be better to design for smartphones, not tablets — especially, she says, if executives are making decisions “based on fear, not analysis.”
 
Newspapers have been burned like this before, she notes. Because newspapers didn’t really know their audiences, they designed for iPhones — only to find most readers were using Blackberrys.
 
“We are now seeing the exact same thing with the tablets,” Webb says. A better plan of attack? She recommends going beyond demographic surveys with daily monitoring of a paper’s brand by a knowledgeable staff through new and nontraditional media.
 
Newspapers are constantly playing catch-up, Webb says. With mobile adoption set to exceed that of PCs in less than 12 months, she says surveys show that “of the top paid applications, news was nowhere there, [and] didn’t make the cut among free applications, either.” Yet, even though they “can’t give away their apps,” the most popular kinds of content examined originated with newspapers. By the time they implement good ideas, she adds, the new-media world has changed.
 
So before reaching out for technical help, Webb recommends working up a requirements document: 50 to 100 pages detailing how everything is expected to work, following through each possible step and outcome — a product of a dedicated in-house team or consultant, not just a few quick meetings.
 
The urge to jump into tablets is understandable given the rapid proliferation of devices, fueled by Apple’s iPad, which sold a million units in is first four week — eclipsing the remarkable launch of the iPhone, which took 10 weeks to reach that mark. That fever will only grow in the coming weeks with the launch of two tablets with newspaper ties and announced partnerships, PlasticLogic’s Que proReader and a device from Hearst subsidiary Skiff.
 
Gannett Co. worked with Plastic Logic on usability, navigation and design of the Que, says Craig McKinnis, head of the flagship USA Today’s content licensing project. Promoting storage and management of publications and other documents, Que takes aim at USA Today’s target, business travelers.
 
But even a heavyweight like Gannett may see sense in Fidler’s advice to go slow on developing apps for multiple devices. “We only have the bandwidth to do so many build-outs a year,” says McKinnis. Gannett regularly talks “to every e-reader and tablet company on earth,” he says, but knows that “not every platform is going to have a chance at making it.”
 
Gannett Digital Vice President Matt Jones advises judging devices by market penetration, level of interest, and what a given business deal will look like. While Gannett plunged into developing for the iPad, Jones says it still awaits a better idea of how widespread its adoption will be. The iPad, he says, is an  “additive” product that replaces nothing: “Nobody needs to have this device; everybody needs to have a phone.”
 
Others also are watching, even pausing. Last September, “our company strategy was to be device-agnostic,” says Los Angeles Times Editorial Business and Planning Director Sean Reily, who looked to publish to several devices. The Times already had an iPhone app, but with the iPad’s arrival, it decided “to regroup and rethink the strategy,” he says. By then, the Times was among the Que store’s titles. His paper will still look at multiple devices. “This isn’t a retreat at all,” he says. “The world has changed in just the last eight months.”
 

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