Mobile apps are now used more than mobile web browsers. eMarketer estimated that in 2022, the average American spent over four hours a day on mobile devices, and over 90% of that time spent was using a mobile app.
This ubiquity of mobile apps in everyday digital habits presents both risks and opportunities for news publishers. While websites remain important touchpoints, failing to understand and invest in mobile apps risks ceding ground to aggregators again. Yet, done right, apps provide publishers with a potent means of deepening reader relationships and revenue in an increasingly mobile-centric world. Publishers have been slow to embrace the change 16 years after the introduction of the smartphone. A mid-2021 Pew Research Center audit of the 97 most trafficked news outlets showed that only 66% had mobile iOS and Android apps.
The benefits of controlling the full user experience
Unlike websites, apps allow publishers to control the full user experience in a seamless, branded environment. Native app experiences can be tailored to optimize content discovery and engagement. For example, apps can showcase different types of stories via dedicated feeds or tabs — like breaking news alerts, sports scores, lifestyle features and other content.
Video and audio content can be embedded natively within apps, facilitating immersive digital storytelling. Interactive graphics, quizzes and other gamified formats are also app-friendly. Push notifications enable publishers to deliver breaking news in real time. All of these engage readers in ways impersonal websites struggle to match.
Website design and development has made great strides using responsive design and progressive web app, or PWA, technology. However, the strength of a native mobile app is its position in a publisher’s media portfolio — having one of its most loyal audiences. Native mobile apps attract a very different consumer, and perhaps that’s a reflection of the past decades’ focus on “pageviews at any price” audience strategy, where publishers focused on search engine optimization and social posting to grow their web traffic.
In my former role as head of mobile product and strategy at a media company (that no longer exists), we compared an aggregate of five different properties' digital audience data. I’ve since validated similar numbers with other publishers and mobile tech vendors. I encourage you to take a look at your data through a similar lens:
We also looked at the adoption rate as a percentage of total digital monthly active users, meaning monthly unique visitors, to project the number of users that would convert to monthly native mobile active users. The adoption rate was 1.03%; it was a very tight range, with the highest being 2.5%
Content strategies for engaging mobile users
News publishers must view a mobile app as an information tool for its readers, emphasizing the platform's immediacy. Push notifications and geolocation should be used to deliver breaking news and announce local events and expiring subscriber deals. Many national outlets have attempted this, but no one has as deep local business relationships as local publishers.
I’m a huge believer in curation over creation. Publishers’ apps should be tools that aggregate relevant information for the user.
Beyond engagement, native apps unlock appealing monetization models for publishers. Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) 2023 Digital News Report found that 21% of U.S. adults pay for some form of digital news product, with local news subscriptions showing particular momentum. Apps provide a natural “home” for managing these subscriptions and accessing gated content.
Apps also enable innovative native advertising formats. For instance, sponsored content can be blended into news feeds reminiscent of social media marketing. Segmented push notifications can help drive engagement with ads. Such native formats outperform banner ads on webpages.
The number of ad opportunities in native mobile — due to the high engagement and dwell time — dwarfs any other digital media except streaming video and audio. Publishers should be aware of this unique advantage native apps offer.
Ceding ground to aggregators
Of course, publishers are not the only ones capitalizing on the news app ecosystem. Aggregators like Newsbreak, SmartNews and Apple News are gaining significant market share. Newsbreak hit 100 million monthly active users in 2021, and SmartNews surpassed 20 million U.S. users by late 2022.
According to Similarweb and based on store downloads and installs, the top three news apps are Newsbreak from Particle Media, SmartNews and Google News’ Daily Headlines. A few things to note: both NewsBreak and SmartNews focus on local news, and NewsBreak just launched a self-service ad manager akin to Google and Facebook's ad portal.
These platforms leverage algorithms to surface relevant headlines from a variety of sources. The personalized curation provides convenience readers appreciate. Yet for publishers, aggregators present an existential threat long-term. Relying on aggregators means losing control over branding, analytics and monetization.
Worse, aggregators have little incentive to drive subscriptions back to publishers’ owned outlets. Over time, ceding app ground to intermediaries will undermine vital reader relationships and revenue streams.
This sounds really familiar again.
Making native apps a strategic priority
For news publishers seeking sustainable futures, the implications are clear. Native mobile apps can no longer be an afterthought or “nice-to-have” product. They must become a strategic priority integrated across the organization.
What does this look like? First, publishers should ensure apps target specific user needs, like localized news and special interests and be highly useful. Trying to replicate an entire website experience diminishes the app’s purpose. Design, content and features should optimize for mobile use cases.
Second, while apps require dedicated resources, today’s landscape may warrant more investment into user acquisition and analytics over product development. App vendors like BLOX Digital and Whiz Technologies offer quality and affordable app solutions. Low-code solutions provide affordable alternatives to custom-developed apps.
The core mobile competency for publishers is now understanding their app users and effectively promoting the app, not necessarily building it from scratch. Focus on the unique use cases and advantages mobile apps offer.
Ultimately, the future of news is mobile, and thus, it lies in thoughtfully designed apps that reach loyal audiences. Publishers who seize this opportunity now will reap the benefits for years to come through deeper reader ties and revenue. But those who continue prioritizing websites risk losing the mobile news battle — and, with it, their long-term viability. The strategic imperative is clear: to thrive in today’s digital landscape, investing in app experiences must be publishers’ top priority.
Guy Tasaka is a seasoned media professional with a 35-year track record of leading change in the industry. He has collaborated with renowned organizations such as Macworld Magazine, Ziff-Davis and The New York Times, where he honed his expertise in research, strategy, marketing and product management. As the former chief digital officer at Calkins Media, Guy was acknowledged as the Local Media Association's Innovator of the Year for his work in advancing OTT and digital video platforms for local news organizations. He is also the founder and managing partner of Tasaka Digital, specializing in helping media and technology companies navigate business transformations using his extensive experience and forward-thinking approach. Guy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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