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February 03 2011

16:26

iPhone or Android? Key Tips for Publishers Considering Apps

2011 is already seeing Android and Apple battle it out for ascendancy in sales of smartphones and tablets and, more interestingly, in the world of apps and app makers. Media organizations navigating this terrain have a lot of factors to weigh before taking the plunge and creating a serious presence on these increasingly important platforms.

Thanks to some hard-won experience from PRX's own successful iOS and Android adventures, I'm going to tackle common questions and concepts related to media apps. (This post is Part 1 of a two-part story.) For a deeper technical dive I recommend visiting labs.prx.org, where our developers hold forth.

Why go 'Native'? Won't the mobile web win out?

These questions are part of an active debate that is constantly revisited as the landscape shifts, and answers also depend on who is asking. Game developers, e-commerce sites, photo services and media publishers have different needs.

Native apps use code written specifically for a device and operating system, and are able to take advantage of built-in features like multi-touch screens and GPS. Good native apps are more usable overall, make best use of the included functionality (which in Apple's case includes in-app payments, other than donations), are more discoverable through app stores, and offer more distinct branding and identity than a bookmarked web page.

The downside is that good native apps require a significant investment to develop and maintain, and you have to build different ones for each platform. Android has the additional challenge of fragmentation across devices and carriers, meaning in some cases you have to worry about optimizing an app for particularly problematic combinations. Check out Wikipedia's rundown of the proliferating universe of Android devices.

While there are a variety of emerging low-cost templatized services for app development -- Josh Benton built his own for the Nieman Lab for $624, and RedFoundry has some smart stuff in the works -- genuine specific custom app development is a costly and time-consuming affair. Developers are in high demand and a freelance contract could run you $125 per hour, with a solid app costing anywhere from $10,000 on the simple side to upwards of $100,000 for more complex projects, plus ongoing maintenance, support, improvements. (I'll talk about ways to recoup these costs in Part 2 of this story).

Meantime, HTML5 and the mobile web are advancing, and at a minimum offer a compelling way to optimize your web presence for mobile. No one knows if or when HTML5 might suffice and custom apps are rendered unnecessary, but my guess is there will remain a critical gap for years to come.

Ultimately, if you want a distinct offering on iOS and Android, but also want something accessible for the hundreds of other mobile platforms now web-enabled, you'll need to take on all of the above.

iOS or Android? Do I have to do both?

Market share alone would argue for addressing both, and depending on your target audience there's RIM, Windows, Symbian, etc. (Check your current analytics to see which platforms are already hitting your site.) Media organizations with existing online audiences will quickly learn that launching on iOS only will provoke an impatient if not hostile reaction from growing legions of Android users. (Be prepared -- the pitched battle of tech giants Apple and Google is somehow subconsciously absorbed into their users' feelings about how they are treated by app developers.)

Unfortunately for the native path, there's really no such thing as "porting" an app from iOS to Android. These are different beasts -- from deep code, to UI conventions, to user habits, to app store navigation and discovery.

In PRX's experience, our partners tend to want to start with an iPhone app, followed by Android, followed by an iPad app that does more than just offer a bigger version of the first.

That's all for Part 1. In Part 2, I'll talk more about app strategy, monetization, impact, and hopes for the future.

August 13 2010

14:00

This Week in Review: TBD takes off, Demand Media’s profit-less past, and Google’s open-web backlash

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A high-profile entry into the local news scene: One of the most anticipated new news organizations in journalism’s recent history launched this week in the form of TBD, a site owned by Allbritton Communications (the folks behind Politico) covering local news in Washington, D.C. As The Huffington Post’s Jack Mirkinson wrote, TBD is “something of a canary in the coal mine” of the future of journalism, being the protoype of a locally focused, community-driven, online-only news model whose effectiveness everyone’s eager to gauge. For the basics of the project, here are two local profiles from DCist and the more skeptical Washington Post, a paidContent interview with Robert Allbritton, a Poynter chat with TBD’s Jim Brady and Steve Buttry, and an Online Journalism Review interview with Buttry.

After TBD gave its media preview last Friday, quite a few people listed plenty of reasons to keep an eye on the site: Ken Doctor liked the “out of the box” nature of TBD’s pro-am/social/mobile/multimedia efforts; Jeff Jarvis liked the collaborative, link-centric philosophy; the Lab’s Laura McGann called attention to TBD’s interactivity and collaboration through local blogs and social media; and Kevin Anderson was impressed by the project’s commitment to profitability.

Several TBD analyses focused particularly on TBD’s interactive and collaborative news efforts, with Journalism Lives, Mashable, and Poynter providing good area-by-area breakdowns. Mark Potts, who’s starting up a similar blog-network effort, Growthspur, wrote a thoughtful piece about the importance of TBD’s own network of local blogs: “TBD is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious effort yet to create a new paradigm for local news coverage of a major metropolitan area,” he wrote.

Poynter’s Steve Myers also touched on an distinct aspect of TBD’s operation — it also includes an Allbritton-owned all-news local cable channel that will be branded TBD TV. He examined how a web-TV converged newsroom operates, and Cory Bergman of Lost Remote (a local TV and hyperlocal news veteran himself) wondered if we might see more TV-local online news partnerships. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor took a detailed look at the economics of TBD’s web-TV synergy, centering on its pioneering broadcast and online advertising hybrid. Meanwhile, David Rothman had some detailed advice for TBD’s competitors.

The site officially launched Monday, and the initial reviews were mostly positive. Rothman and Suzanne Yada had the most detailed ones; both were impressed by the site’s presentation and several of its features, though both were concerned about how much local news content the site would actually be able to produce. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer liked the smooth design, too, but wanted to see more out of the site’s locally personalized features. Jack Shafer of Slate loved the way the site was mobile, direct and useful, especially its focus on those local-TV staples of weather, traffic, and sports.

The New York Times’ David Carr (“extremely functional…kind of ugly”) and Mediaite’s Michael Triplett (“off to a good start,” despite “thin and D.C.-centric” content) also offered quicker reviews. The most thoughtful review belongs to Lost Remote’s Bergman, who noted that while many of the ideas are old, their implementation is new. “This is the first time that a local media group — especially in the TV space — has wrapped these ideas together and aggressively launched them with an investment to back it up,” he wrote.

Demand Media’s filings raise questionsDemand Media, the new-media lightning rod du jour, filed for an IPO last Friday, giving us the first detailed financial look inside the private company. Several sites took cracks at sifting through the numbers for significant bits, but two pieces stood out: One, Demand Media has yet to make a profit, losing $22 million this year; and two, 26 percent of its revenue comes from cost-per-click advertising deals with Yahoo.

That’s a pretty sizable chunk of Demand Media’s income, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram examined one of the company’s reported risk factors — that Google could use its own search expertise to create a search-driven content company to compete with Demand. Ingram pointed out that Google already has a patent for a process that identifies “underserved” search content. All Things Digital noted that Demand’s heavy reliance on Google “could torpedo the company” if Google changes its search formula or changes its contract with Demand, but it also countered that every web publisher is dependent on Google.

Then there’s the whole matter of profitability. The Wall Street Journal’s Scott Austin contrasted the numbers in Demand’s filing with its executives’ numerous past descriptions of the company as profitable, as a reminder that “no one outside the company can verify a start-up’s financial claims.” Slate’s James Ledbetter also noticed an inexplicably large and sudden drop in Quantcast traffic to Demand’s sites a few weeks ago and wondered what was behind it. Meanwhile, the Journal also profiled Demand Media’s efforts to court big-time advertisers on the web.

A proposal to carve up the open web: A week after reports emerged that Google and Verizon were near a deal that would more or less mark the end of net neutrality, the two companies came forward this week not with a deal, but with a policy proposal. As for whether that would mark the end of net neutrality, well, it depends on who you ask. Google and Verizon called their plan a “proposal for an open Internet,” and their CEOs co-authored a Washington Post op-ed arguing that their proposal “empowers an informed consumer, ensures the robust growth of the open Internet and provides incentives to strengthen the networks that carry Internet traffic.” The proposal has quite a few moving parts, but it essentially prohibits Internet service providers from discriminating against or prioritizing “lawful Internet content,” while excepting wireless networks and some unspecified future services from that regulation.

The tech blog Engadget broke down the proposal, noting that would set something close to the status quo into formal policy, rendering the U.S. Federal Communications Commission powerless to change policy as the Internet changes. Most of the web was quite a bit harsher in its  judgment, calling it an open attack on net neutrality by excluding its fastest growing part, wireless. CNET and The New York Times put together good summaries of the backlash, but here are some of the most to-the-point examples: Free Press’ Craig Aaron (“one massive loophole that sets the stage for the corporate takeover of the Internet”), the Electronic Freedom Foundation (it limits net neutrality to “lawful” content, leaving “lawful” to be defined) Siva Vaidhyanathan (it gives Verizon control of the most exciting parts of the web) Public Knowledge’s John Bergmayer (it divides the Internet into several public and non-public parts) Ars Technica (its rules “will become meaningless as 4G sweeps the country”) Salon’s Dan Gillmor (“a Trojan Horse for a modern age”) Susan Crawford (future services is “a giant, enormous, science-fiction-quality loophole”) and Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain (makes way for “an impenetrable web of contracts and fees”).

Noted Google watcher Jeff Jarvis had the most colorful response, illustrating the proposal’s potential danger to the open web by presenting a future scenario with two Internets, the old “Internet” with everything pre-2010 and the new “Schminternet,” with everything mobile and post-2010. “Mobile is the internet,” he wrote. “Mobile will very soon become a meaningless word when — well, if telcos allow it, that is — we are connected everywhere all the time.” Meanwhile, Wired gets credit for the most fun phrase — “carrier-humping, net neutrality surrender monkey” — in its explanation of how Google got to that point.

Google issued a response to the criticism on Thursday, arguing that it’s not actually leaving wireless networks free from net neutrality oversight, though GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham picked apart that defense, too.

Reading Roundup: A few final items to send you off for the weekend:

— Mashable’s Vadim Lavrusik has a smart overview of the shift toward personalized, socially driven news distribution, with a suggestion for a credibility and trust index to help sort through it all.

— Facebook has launched a media page and is pushing for more collaboration with media companies. PBS MediaShift’s Mark Glaser has an informative Q&A with Justin Osofsky, head of Facebook’s media partnership team.

— Google engineering intern Lyn Headley has written the first of a series of posts explaining the rationale behind his new Rapid News Awards. It’s a short, thoughtful take on aggregation, accountability and transparency.

— Finally, some (possibly) positive news: Spot.Us’ David Cohn takes a look at the data and notes that the wave of job cuts at America’s newspapers has largely subsided. Cohn wonders if it means newspapers are bouncing back, or if they’ve just cut down to the bone. I fear it’s more of the latter.

May 24 2010

14:00

Consumer Reports rolling out paid content mobile strategy, taps potential users to set prices

The journalism world is still grappling with to-charge-or-not-to-charge, but it’s clear charging has the momentum — particularly on mobile devices. The New York Times is moving ahead with its January paywall plans and has put only a limited selection of stories in its iPad app. The Wall Street Journal is hunkering down with its paid-content model. The Washington Post waded in a few months ago with a 99-cent iPhone app. But the decision to charge is really two decisions: whether to charge and, if so, how much to charge.

One longstanding news outlet — Consumer Reports — made the first decision long ago and, true to its roots, keeps doing tests on the second. It accepts no advertising and is funded almost entirely by the sales of its publications and donations. Those funds support a staff of more than 600 people and runs a compound with multiple labs testing everything from cereal to toilets, plus a separate track and offroad track where it tests cars and SUVs. “‘Free’ is something we don’t like to use around here very often,” Jerry Steinbrink, its vice president of publishing, told me. Readers have to cover the cost of producing the content, and no project can operate at a loss, he said.

Strategic pricing

The magazine is strategic about setting prices, often borrowing from its own editorial practices. In determining how to charge for its new mobile website, for example, it ran tests with potential users. The magazine is in the process of testing out pricing plans for its “next-generation” iPhone app, which is still in development. (Their current app provides only limited access to CR content.) One group of app testers will be asked how much they’d pay for the tool; another group will be asked to react to some suggested prices.

“Because we are Consumer Reports, we test everything,” Steinbrink told me. “We depend a lot on focus groups. We’re trying to determine, with user input, what an acceptable price point would be.” Steinbrink wasn’t prepared to give a likely figure for the Consumer Reports iPhone app, but considering its functionality — it allows you to take a picture of any barcode, which will pull up all data Consumer Reports has on the product — and CR’s business model, don’t expect it to be a run-of-the-mill 99-cent app. Steinbrink thinks it might require a subscription fee that is renewed a few times a year, perhaps putting it in the range of their website which costs $26 per year.

Mobile strategy

Their new mobile site, which works on any web-enabled mobile device, lets users look up product information and compare items. (The barcode feature will only be available in the app.) For now, that site costs 99 cents for a 24-hour pass, or $4.99 for a month. Subscribers to the Consumer Reports website ($26 per year) can access the mobile site for free, but magazine subscribers ($29 per year) still must pay for web access, just like non-subscribers. By mid-summer, Consumer Reports expects to eliminate the 99-cent option, and lower the monthly fee to $3.99. Subscriptions are a better model for Consumer Reports, Steinbrink said, because they offer the magazine a more predictable, consistent income.

The choice to build both a mobile site and an app was deliberate, Matthew Goldfeder, director of mobile products told me. “Mobile use is going up, and will only continue to go up,” he said, predicting that some of the “sexyness” of apps may wear off as mobile web browsing improves.

There’s also another strategy at play. Consumer Reports hopes the mobile site will get new users to subscribe to the full website, which has many more features and more information than the mobile version. Both Consumer Reports’ site and the magazine skew older; the typical site user is a white male in his early 50s. They’d like to get younger users — say, recent college graduates buying electronics — to identify with a brand they associate with their parents. When that recent grad eventually buys a first house, hopefully Consumer Reports will come to mind. The magazine wants to give users “the kind of content that goes with their life cycle,” Goldfeder told me.

From niche to news

Consumer Reports is more like some of the niche sites we’ve written about recently than a traditional American newspaper. Sites in the niches offer unique and valued information that a certain readership is willing to pay good money to read.

Duke economist Jay Hamilton divides information into four categories: producer information (info that lets you do your job better), consumer information (info that helps you make a better purchasing decision), entertainment information (fun), and civic information (info to make you a smarter voter and citizen). Hamilton says the first three categories have it relatively easy, but the fourth one will always have trouble charging. Just as The Wall Street Journal fits nicely into Category 1, Consumer Reports slides obviously into Category 2.

Still, Steinbrink said there are some lessons general news publishers could learn from Consumer Reports. Shrinking ad revenue “forces editors to look at their content and produce the kind of quality a user will actually pay for.” Just putting a paywall in front of content that used to be free might not be enough.

May 21 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Facebook circles the wagons, leaky paywalls, and digital publishing immersion

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Should Facebook be regulated?: It’s been almost a month since Facebook’s expansion of Open Graph and Instant Personalization, and the concerns about the company’s invasion of privacy continue to roll in. This week’s telling example of how much Facebook information is public comes courtesy of Openbook, a new site that uses Facebook’s API to allow you to search all public Facebook updates. (Of course, you’ll find similarly embarrassing revelations via a Twitter search, but the point is that many of these people don’t know that what they’re posting is public.)

We also got another anti-Facebook diatribe (two, actually) from a web luminary: danah boyd, the Microsoft researcher and social media expert. Boyd, who spends a lot of time talking to young people about social media, noted two observations in her first post: Many users’ mental model of who can see their information doesn’t match up with reality, and people have invested so much time and resources into Facebook that they feel trapped by its changes. In the second post, Boyd proposes that if Facebook is going to refer to itself as a “social utility” (and it’s becoming a utility like water, power or the Internet, she argues), then it needs to be ready to be regulated like other utilities.

The social media blog Mashable has chimed in with a couple of defenses of Facebook (the web is all about sharing information; Facebook has normalized sharing in a way that users want to embrace), but the din has reached Facebook’s ears. The Wall Street Journal reported that the issue has prompted deep disagreements and several days of discussions at Facebook headquarters, and a Facebook spokesman said the company is going to simplify privacy controls soon.

Meanwhile, tech investor and entrepreneur Chris Dixon posited that Facebook is going to use its web-wide Like button to corner the market on online display ads, similar to the way Google did with text ads. Facebook also launched 0.facebook.com, a simple mobile-only site that’s free on some carriers — leading Poynter’s Steve Myers to wonder whether it’s going to become the default mobile web for feature phones (a.k.a. “dumb” phones). But The New York Times argued that when it comes to social data, Facebook still can’t hold a candle to the good, old-fashioned open web.

Are iPad apps worth it?: The iPad’s sales haven’t slowed down yet — it’s been projected to outsell the Mac, and one in five Americans say they might get one — but there are still conflicting opinions over how deeply publishers should get involved with it. Slate Group head Jacob Weisberg was the latest to weigh in, arguing that iPad apps won’t help magazines and newspapers like they think it will. He makes a couple of arguments we’ve seen several times over the past month or two: App producers are entering an Apple-controlled marketplace that’s been characterized by censorship, and apps are retrograde attempts to replicate the print experience.

“They’re claustrophobic walled gardens within Apple’s walled garden, lacking the basic functionality we now expect with electronic journalism: the opportunity to comment, the integration of social media, the ability to select text and paste it elsewhere, and finally the most basic function of all: links to other sources,” Weisberg says. GQ magazine didn’t get off to a particularly encouraging start with its iPad offerings, selling just 365 copies of its $2.99 Men of the Year iPad issue.

A few other folks are saying that the iPad is ushering in fundamental changes in the way we consume personal media: At Ars Technica, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps notes that the iPad is radically different from what people say they want in a PC, but they’re still more than willing to buy it because it makes complex computing simple. (The term Forrester is using to describe the tablet era, curated computing, seems like a stretch, though.) Norwegian digital journalist John Einar Sandvand offers a similar take, saying that tablets’ distinctive convenience will further weaken print newspapers’ position. And the Lab’s Josh Benton says the iPad could have an effect on the way we write, too.

Slipping through the Times’ and WSJ’s paywalls: New York Times editor Bill Keller gave an update late last week on the plans for his paper’s much-anticipated paywall — he didn’t really tell us anything new, but did indicate the Times’ solidified plans for the wall’s implementation. In reiterating the fact that he wasn’t breaking any news, though, Keller gave Media Matters’ Joe Strupp a bit of a clearer picture about how loose the Times’ metered model will be: “Those who mainly come to the website via search engines or links from blogs, and those who only come sporadically — in short, the bulk of our traffic — may never be asked to pay at all,” Keller wrote.

In the meantime, digital media consultant Mark Potts found another leaky paywall at The Wall Street Journal. Potts canceled his WSJ.com subscription (after 15 years!) and found that he’s still able to access for free almost everything he had previously paid for with only a few URL changes and the most basic of Google skills. And even much of that information, he argues, is readily available from other sources for free, damaging the value of the venerable Journal paywall. “Even the Journal can’t enforce the kind of exclusivity that would make it worth paying for — it’s too easy to look elsewhere,” Potts writes.

Another Times-related story to note: The paper’s managing editor for news, Jill Abramson, will leave her position for six months to become immersed in the digital side of the Times’ operation. The New York Observer tries out a few possible explanations for the move.

Going all-in on digital publishing: Speaking of immersion, two publishers in the past two weeks have tried a fascinating experiment: producing an issue entirely through new-media tools. The first was 48 Hour, a new San Francisco-based magazine that puts together each issue from beginning to end in two days. The magazine’s editors announced a theme, solicited submissions via email and Twitter, received 1,500 submissions, then put together the magazine, all in 48 hours. Several who saw the finished product were fairly impressed, but CBS’s lawyers were a little less pleased about the whole ‘48 Hour’ name. Gizmodo had a Q&A with the mag’s editors (all webzine vets) and PBS MediaShift and the BBC took a closer look at the editorial process.

Second, the Journal Register Company newspaper chain finished the Ben Franklin Project, an experiment in producing a daily and weekly newspaper and website using only free, web-based tools. Two small Ohio newspapers accomplished the feat this week, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore took a look inside the effort. What she uncovered should be an inspiration for people looking to implement change in newsrooms, especially ones that might be resistant to digital media. A quote from the daily paper’s managing editor sums it up: “When we started out, we said, ‘We’re going to do what? How are we going to do this?’ Now we’re showing ourselves that we can operate in a world that, even six months ago, used to be foreign to us.”

Reading roundup: This week, I’ve got two developments and a handful of other pieces to think on:

— Yahoo bought the online content producer Associated Content for $100 million this week. News business analyst Ken Doctor examined what this deal means for Yahoo (it’s big, he says), and considers the demand-and-advertising-driven model employed by Associated Content and others like Demand Media.

— If you follow NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter, you’ve heard a ton about fact-checking over the past couple of months. A couple more interesting tidbits on the subject this week: Fact-checks are consistently the AP’s most popular pieces online, and Minnesota Public Radio has unveiled PoliGraph, its own fact-checking effort.

— Poynter’s Rick Edmonds compares two of the more talked-about local news startups launching this summer, Washington D.C.’s TBD and Hawaii’s Honolulu Civil Beat. He’s got some great details on both. Poynter also put together a list of 200 moments over the last decade that transformed journalism.

— If you’re up for a quick, deep thought, the Lab’s Josh Benton muses on the need for news to structure and shrink its users’ world. “I think it’s journalists who need to take up that challenge,” he says, “to learn how to spin something coherent and absorbing and contained and in-the-moment and satisfying from the chaos of the world around us.”

— And once you’re done with that, head into the weekend laughing at The Onion’s parody of newspapers’ coverage of social media startups.

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