A short way down the digital road

Everywhere I look I see newspapers bringing out tablet apps which reflect the daily printed product. This is true in every country and every type of news organisation. the visions that many had of being able to grab hold of the news have not quite yet come to pass.

Looking at the terrain, this is quite understandable – if a little worrying. News media organisations hold an unusual place in the developer community because unlike in most other industries there is a growing urgency to find a way to replace income lost to newer internet spawned ventures. It is clear that there needs to be a solution to the problem of falling revenue from advertising, both display and classified and the drive towards getting breaking news from elsewhere via Google.

This problem drives editors and other senior executives worldwide to seek ways to get the whole print edition, including all the advertising, into a package which on the one hand won’t irreparably damage their print product, but on the other will allow the beginnings of exploration into what is possible in this new medium. In practice the effort in getting out this one product creates inflexible data structures which are little use for creating other apps, and the emphasis on this type of product leaves the production structure relatively unchanged

So whether it be the deadly PDF dragger, which smaller newspapers have often turned to as the cheaper alternative, or something more sophisticated, such as the Times or Telegraph, many have gone for this model: an edition per day, stories do not update, and the whole production system is geared towards that product. News organisations are expending a lot of energy adapting their bespoke production process for iPad production, and as with privatised drug research, the potential gains and savings from sharing experience is being squandered.

The existing newspaper brings with it a complex relationship between news gathering, editing and production, and the need to defend this feeds the perceived need to create core news apps, because to transform this process is to threaten the existing product.

So it turns out that core news apps are a tactic, and a defensive one, arising out of the need to resolve an immediate problem with as little impact on existing practice as possible. In itself it is not a digital strategy. I’m not sure whether any news organisations currently have a clear digital strategy when it comes to mobile apps.

Apple have resonded to the concerns around news apps and the survival of news organisations with Newsstand. This new service enshrines the emerging standards – one daily download, newspaper styled digital products – and builds them into a distibution offshoot of the app store. I’m sure that it will in time adapt to allow more regular updates.

There are some great products built on this model, and others to come, nonetheless I think that a focus solely on daily news apps can lead to a distorted view of the road ahead. Mobile is suited to other kinds of products, and it is these areas that the interesting strategic possibilities begin to emerge. The audience around a newspaper or news organisation is not just organised around news stories. They seek a community, usually around specific inerests, and those interests are not common to all. Vertical or niche apps make a lot of sense. If you build apps aimed at those interest groups, you can gain new revenue streams, and deepen the relationship with your audience.

Initially I thought a news organisation should have developers working on different desks: travel, news etc. At some point in the future this could make sense but at for the time being it makes sense to have much more focussed teams dedicated to building and maintaining these new types of product, and other teams managing the new relationship with the audience.

These are complex things to design and build, every feature request adds a lot of development time and adds to the complexity of what is being built. The blue-sky thinking of someone with little experience of using a smartphone or tablet can be counterproductive. Clear product leadership to filter the ideas, and focus the product team is a prerequisite to making great apps. In that sense an app is closer to the newspaper, the best app experience is one that is heavily edited, curated and focussed.

There needs to be a digital road ahead, a strategy. There are likely to be twists and turns along that road, and this new road will require real investment. If you want to do three apps per year, you will probably need two or more full teams of iOS developers, server side developers, UX and visual designers and above all, product managers – people who build, lead and manage the teams.

Apps need maintenance, which involves design reviews and more coding. This is ongoing. And the app will have an impact on news gathering and production. It is easier to learn from usage of an app which is actively used, and people have proved to be quite vocal about success and failure (through the app store, and direct email). Recruitment of users to test apps, pre-launch and after the user has had some experience with it are also invaluable for understanding success and limitations of the products.

As I said at the start, we seem to be a way off for what we were talking about last year in terms of touching the news, grabbing hold of something and digging deeper.

There is not currently the stomach for the kind of investment needed to experiment in new news forms. I’m sure this will come. It is nonetheless exciting to see what is currently happening.

It will only take one organisation to believe in trying a new approach, simply and elegantly. When the resulting app finds an audience and a way to make money, it’s success will eat away at the fear of investing scant resources in ideas which are untried, and of equipping new individuals with resource and authority to build great products and fail if necessary. When that happens, we will truly have made a start on the future of great news brands on the touch interface device.


3 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Nice article. Are you working on the Guardian iPad app, then? 😉

    • John-Henry,

      Cheers Tom. This article was written in response to a few news apps that I’ve seen in production over the last couple of years, not just the Guardian. Having said that, I was involved in parts of the app – the UX of how articles get closed, the layout of horizontal articles and the flows and designs for the first-time-user, subscription and help-screen process… I also co-designed the website stuff (last section in the menu) and the links on article screens. There are other designs which might see the light of day in future releases…

  2. jay,

    Very interesting to read what yoiu’ve been up to, cheers.

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