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July 19 2011

14:30

Tackable, BANG collaborate on a location-based digital newspaper

Ever since he was a beat reporter at the Palo Alto Daily News and the Contra Costa Times, Luke Stangel has been thinking about how to improve finding and consuming news by adding more specific location data to news content.

Last year, he co-founded (with Ed Lucero) a company called Tackable to develop his ideas, and in February, we described here Tackable’s first product: a pair of iPhone apps that Tackable envisions as the basis for a social network that “organizes media on a map.”

Now Tackable has rolled out, in partnership with the newspapers of the Bay Area News Group, something much more complex and ambitious: an iPad app called TapIn BayArea, which Stangel describes as “the world’s first location-aware digital newspaper.” TapIn, at launch, is already an impressive, sophisticated product that shows potential to evolve in multiple ways. And its ability to engage users at various levels bodes well for its capacity to generate revenue.

The collaboration with BANG, the San-Francisco area cluster of the California Newspaper Partnership led by MediaNews Group, includes incubation space for the Tackable crew at the San Jose Mercury News. Jeff Herr, CNP’s VP/Digital, describes it as a “strategic partnership, with both partners sharing costs and both having a stake in the potential outcomes, which include expanding the product to other units of MediaNews Group and beyond.

TapIn is the first product that aims for a space envisioned by Ken Doctor here in his recent Lab post, “The Newsonomics of the Swift Street Courtyard,” in which he asked, “Imagine a world in which consumers can move their finger around a magic tablet surface, watching, listening, reading reviews and more?” TapIn may not completely fulfill Doctor’s vision, but it’s aiming to go there. After the launch, Doctor wrote on his blog: ” Potentially — and I cannot emphasize that word too much — it may become a prototypical product for the news industry, pointing a new way out of the hollowing-out landscape into which the news industry has meandered.”

Checking the reviews

During the Lab’s summer hiatus last week, a number of good descriptions of TapIn’s functionality were posted elsewhere, and rather than reinvent the wheel I’ll give you those links and move on to my impressions of where TapIn could be headed:

Not every user is going to be thrilled with the map as the basic navigational interface. The idea that men navigate with cardinal directions, while women navigate by landmarks, has scientific backing and implications for hardware and software design. Is it possible that some people (not necessarily women) will resist the map-based UI? Stangel says, “That was one of the things that came up in our focus groups. The ultimate goal is to produce a product that delights.” To that end, users can choose to access data via one of several views, with or without maps, including OnTap, a mix of the top six things that TapIn thinks you’re going to like. “We’re finding that people are clicking on OnTap a lot,” says Stangel. Right now, OnTap’s content is ranked mainly according to human editorial judgments, but eventually, the rankings will also be influenced by the crowd — frequently-shared material will bubble up — and by user customization in which users list preferences to get more personalized content. (“I want pizza but not Italian restaurants,” or “I like this sports team but not that one.”)

Down the road, Stangel has visions for upgrades ranging from version 1.1 all the way to 2.0. The ultimate goal, he says, is “a product that delights,” and the envisioned upgrades will aim for improvements in localization, personalization and customization, for all of which Stangel offers intriguing possibilities.

For example, TapIn is likely to accumulate many more optional layers of information organized on maps, which users will toggle on and off at will. In fact, Tackable plans to provide an API later this year so that third-party developers can add such layers — essentially apps within the app — catering to niche interests. Some of these layers could begin to appear in the next version, says Stangel, who paints a picture of layers focused on real estate, classifieds, sports scores, crime reports, and user interests like wine or gardening, all location-specific, all capable of generating topical conversations. (Herr also suggests fishing conditions as a map layer; and I can imagine more esoteric-interest layers like spelunking and underground urban exploration.)

To me, this potential multi-dimensional, data-rich, customizable environment is the flip side of concerns about comfort levels with the map interface. There is simply too much mappable news and information out there not to try this.

Leaving user input fuzzy

TapIn’s social layer is based on Gigs, a feature borrowed from the original Tackable phone app. Deliberately non-specific, Gigs simply allows users to place a red pin on the map and attach a post of some kind. This could be a restaurant recommendation or comment, but most intriguingly, it could be a question — “I’m here and have an hour to kill, anything cool to do nearby?” or “Does anybody know why traffic on this road is tied up?” or “What’s the story behind this interesting-looking building,” or “Can someone recommend a plumber who will come out here on a weekend?” “Post what you need and see who can deliver,” Herr says. “[We're] definitely just nibbling at the edges of a new marketplace like that.”

Indeed. I’m often struck by how quickly location-specific questions like, How do I kill 6 hours at the Denver airport are answered on Q&A sites like Ask Metafilter (and, not quite so quickly yet, on Quora). With local critical mass (how large?) the quality of such answers could be even better and faster on TapIn.

Stangel says Gigs was left “intentionally nebulous. We don’t put a lot of rules on what you ask for. You type in what you’re interested it. it could be a request for a photo. It could be simply, I saw something here and want to leave this digital beacon here to tell people about it.” The Gig pin and its associated content disappear after 24 hours — this is a pure real-time feature. People are starting to use it, and Tackable is watching to see how. “Our goal has been to create a robust community of people who live in a particular region and to give them the tools to really easily talk to one another, to ask one another questions, with the idea that they think and share local knowledge,” Stangel says.

In the course of the week since the app went public (on July 12), Stangel says downloads have been picking up exponentially, pushed along by Twitter talk, as well as by stories and promotions in the BANG papers. People are actively using the app and sharing links through it, Stangel says.

Where the money comes from

Herr spoke and emailed with me about the business side of TapIn. The principal revenue stream, of course, is expected to be advertising. “Geo-awareness just drives everything here,” he says. The tablet enables more elegant and engaging ads than prior websites, and Herr aims to use those capabilities. “We hand-selected some of the brightest advertisers in our markets because we need them to help us model out the ideal formulation.”

Clearly, additional revenue streams are possible down the road as well — for example, commissions on ticket sales generated through the app. An expansion of TapIn to the CNP’s southern California group, Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG), and to MediaNews’ Denver Post seems likely if the current rollout takes off with users and advertisers.

“From the start we looked for ways to engage people through game mechanics.”

One revenue stream will come from $4.99 per month user subscriptions (which kick in after a free introductory period during the summer), but a unique feature of Tapin is that active users can easily earn back the cost — and more — by earning credits for clicking on ads, sharing content or other forms of engagement. It’s an idea that might well be considered by other publications that have put up paywalls — just as electric meters can run backwards when homeowners install solar panels, engaged users could earn back their subscription fees by doing what you want them to do. (In the print world, many readers will tell you that the main reason they buy a Sunday paper is that they save more than the cost of the paper just by using some of the manufacturers’ coupons.)

Stangel says that what the team is calling the “earnout” feature came out of the CNP side of the collaboration. Every user action on a web site or app has a value — the user doesn’t know what it is; there’s no visible counter. But the site operator, the newspaper in this case, does. The team realized that “there could be a way for us to quantify the actions that people take on the app to essentially hold on to some of that value and trade it in for other things they find of value on the app,” Stangel says. Currently, they can do that at a store on the TapIn website that offers TapIn gear and merchant gift cards; eventually, this will happen within the app itself with a richer mix of offerings.

Here, too, I believe TapIn is potentially hitting a nerve and turning it to its advantage. As illustrated most recently by the Netflix pricing kerfuffle, whether it’s the slow economy or simply consumer fatique, people are reaching the limits of their willingness to spend more on digital services and content. So, especially when an app is clearly earning money from advertisers targeting me, why not give me a chance to reverse the meter by earning back my costs (and more) when I respond to the ads or engage my friends in the app?

All of this highlights the game-like aspects of TapIn. Herr points out, “From the start we looked for ways to engage people through game mechanics. We found in Tackable a perfect partner given their heritage in the gaming industry. They all worked in leading game-development shops on impressive game projects. I mean, they figured out how to coax couch potatoes up on their feet to jam on air guitars all night long!”

Soon after the introduction of the iPad, I posted here a set of iPad strategies for publishers. There is also a somewhat expanded version on my own blog. In the latter, I urged publishers to recognize that mobile will be ubiquitous; that content needed to be created and formatted specifically with the tablet’s capabilities in mind; to make everything personalized, customized and social; to forget about trying to emulate print with “issues” and “editions” on the tablet and recognize the atomization of content and the native capabilities of the new device; and to find new ways for merchants and brands to interact with consumers.

To me, TapIn hits the bulls-eye of those strategies. I’ll go a little further out on the limb than Ken Doctor’s “potentially” and say that TapIn is, in fact, the prototype (although certainly not the last word) for an innovative new class of apps and sites that can bring news publishers engagement with a brand new generation of consumers.

May 20 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: What Twitter does to us, Google News gets more local, and making links routine

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Twitter on the brain: Last week, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller got a rise out of a lot of folks online with one of the shortest of his 21 career tweets: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss.” Keller revealed the purpose of his social experiment this week in a column arguing, in so many words, that Twitter may be dulling your humanity, and probably making you stupid, too. Here’s the money quote: “But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”

This, as you might imagine, did not go over particularly well online. There were a couple strains of reaction: Business Insider’s Henry Blodget and All Twitter’s Lauren Dugan argued that Twitter may indeed be changing us, but for the good, by helping make previously impossible connections.

Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch and Mike Masnick of Techdirt countered Keller by saying that while Twitter isn’t built for deep conversations, it is quite good at providing an entry point for such discussion: “What you see publicly posted on Twitter and Facebook is just the tip of the conversation iceberg,” Tsotsis said. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, meanwhile, defended Twitter’s true social nature, and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci gave a fantastic breakdown of what Twitter does and doesn’t do culturally and socially.

Two of the most eloquent responses were provided by Nick Bilton, one of Keller’s own employees, and by Gizmodo’s Mat Honan. Bilton pointed out that our brains have shown a remarkable ability to adapt quickly to new technologies without sacrificing old capacities. (Be sure to check out Keller’s response afterward.)

Honan made a similar argument: Keller, he said, is confusing the medium with the message, and Twitter, like any technology, is what you make it. “If you choose to do superficial things there, you will have superficial experiences. If you use it to communicate with others on a deeper level, you can have more meaningful experiences that make you smarter, build lasting relationships, and generally enhance your life,” Honan wrote.

Google gets more local with news: Google News unveiled a few interesting changes in the past week, starting with the launch of “News near you.” Google has sorted news by location for a while now, but this feature will allow smartphone users to automatically get local news wherever they are. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski explained why newspapers should be worried about Google moving further onto their local-news turf, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram criticized newspapers for not coming up with like this themselves.

Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, on the other hand, said Google’s feature is still in need of some human curation to go with its algorithmic aggregation. That’s an area in which local newspapers can still dominate, he said, but it’ll require some technological catchup, as well as a willingness to get over fears about linking to competitors.

Another change, not publicized by Google News but spotted by the folks at Search Engine Land, was the addition of an option to allow users to filter out blogs and press releases from their results. This raised the question, what exactly does Google consider a blog? Google told Search Engine Land it relies on a variety of factors to make that decision, especially self-identification. Mathew Ingram ripped this classification, and urged Google to put everything that contains news together in Google News and let readers sort it out. (Former Lab writer Zach Seward wrote about the problems with Google News’ blog label back in 2009.)

Fitting linking into news’ workflow: A discussion about linking has been simmering on Twitter on and off over the past few weeks, and it began to come together into something useful this week. This round of the conversation started with a post by web thinker and scholar Doc Searls, who wondered why news organizations don’t link out more often. In the comments, the Chicago Tribune’s Brian Boyer suggested that one reason is that many newspapers’ CMS’s and workflows are print-centric, making linking logistically difficult.

CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson responded that the workflow issue isn’t much of an excuse, saying, as he put it on Twitter: “At this point ‘linking’ has been around for twenty years. The fact that this is STILL a workflow issue is almost worse than not caring.” This kicked off a sprawling debate on Twitter, aptly chronicled via Storify by Mathew Ingram and Alex Byers. Ingram also wrote a post responding to a few of the themes of resistance of links, particularly the notion that information on the web is inferior to information gained by old-fashioned reporting.

British journalist Kevin Anderson took on the workflow issue in particular, noting how outdated many newspaper CMS’s are and challenging them to catch up technologically: “It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist.” Publish2′s Scott Karp gave an idea for a solution to the CMS mess.

AOL’s continued makeover: Another week, another slew of personnel moves at AOL. PaidContent’s David Kaplan reported that AOL is hiring “a bunch” of new (paid) editors and shuffling some current employees around after its layoff of hundreds this spring. Overall, Kaplan wrote, this is part of the continued effort to put the Huffington Post’s stamp on AOL’s editorial products.

One of the AOL entities most affected by the shifts is Seed, which had been a freelance network, but will now fall under AOL’s advertising area as a business-to-business product. Saul Hansell, who was hired in 2009 to run Seed, is moving to HuffPo to edit its new “Big News” features. In a blog post, Hansell talked about what this means for HuffPo and for Seed.

Meanwhile, the company is also rolling out AOL Industry, a set of B2B sites covering energy, defense, and government. But wait, that’s not all: AOL’s Patch is launching 33 new sites in states targeting the 2012 election. The hyperlocal news site Street Fight also reported that Patch is urging its editors to post more often, and a group of independent local news sites is banding together to tell the world that they are not Patch, nor anything like it.

Reading roundup: As always, plenty of other stuff to get to this week.

— We mentioned a Pew report’s reference to the Drudge Report’s influence in last week’s review, and this week The New York Times’ David Carr marveled at Drudge’s continued success without many new-media bells and whistles. Poynter’s Julie Moos looked at Drudge’s traffic over the years, while the Washington Post disputed Pew’s numbers. ZDNet’s David Gewirtz had five lessons Drudge can teach the rest of the media world.

— A few paid-content items: A Nielsen survey on what people are willing to pay for various mobile services, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds on The New York Times’ events marketing for its pay plan, and the Lab’s Justin Ellis on paid-content lessons from small newspapers.

— A couple of tablet-related items: Next Issue Media, a joint effort of five publishers to sell magazines on tablets, released its first set of magazines on Google Android-powered Samsung Galaxy. And here at the Lab, Ken Doctor expounded on the iPad as the “missing link” in news’ digital evolution.

— Columbia University announced it will launch a local news site this summer focusing on accountability journalism, and the Lab’s Megan Garber gave some more details about what Columbia’s doing with it.

— The Columbia Journalism Review’s Lauren Kirchner had an interesting conversation with Slate’s David Plotz about Slate’s aggregation efforts, and in response, Reuters’ Felix Salmon made the case for valuing aggregation skills in journalists.

— This weekend’s think piece is a musing by Maria Bustillos at The Awl on Wikipedia, Marshall McLuhan, communal knowledge-making, and the fate of the expert. Enjoy.

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