Why newspapers should stop chasing app gold

Part II of yesterday’s rant  – why newspapers are wrong to think news “app” gold will save them.

As it happens, with the iPad launching this Friday, I am not alone.

Peter Preston, in the Observer, points out some sums from Enders Analysis that show up iPad app revenue as more of a trickle than a stream.

The FT has a mixed bag on the device – an interview with the team behind iPad Alice (book publishers beware), a piece on the Marvel Comics iPad app and how European publishers are cautious about developing standalone apps for a device big enough to use a browser comfortably.

The caution is understandable and probably advisable, because newspaper executives still do not look like they really understand the web.

Ignore my iPad-baiting for a moment – there are few laptop, PC or mobile phone manufacturers not working on some type of tablet device, so the market for tablet-using consumers is definitely set to expand. I did have a whinge yesterday about the Apple-centric approach to the app market, but where I think newspapers have a real problem is in their definition of “app”.

While apps does derive from “applications”, that has itself been contracted, for software purposes at least, from “application program”. In other words, originally, the application was the solution to a problem, not the means of solving it. As a real world example, Google Maps can be used to find a great restaurant. The “application program” or app, is Google Maps, but the application is “a quick, reliable way to find a restaurant”.

Giant news organisations such as the New York Times would be much better placed asking any question in that format: “reader X needs a quick reliable way to find a good Y” and then using their vast database (if it’s properly organised – we’ll get to that later in the week) of highly curated information to answer them.

Say you’re on your way to dinner somewhere and need to pick up a bottle of wine. Is it good? Is it vinegar? Is $30 a good price? Can I get it cheaper across the street?

If your phone has a dressed-up RSS feed from the NYT wine club blog, odds are it will not do reader X much good.

If your phone knows which store reader X is in, if it can recognise a bottle via a barcode scan, if it can tell you in 5 seconds whether the wine is any good, offer you a membership in the paper’s wine club and entice you to join with a QR tag or barcode voucher on your screen that cuts the price of the bottle to $25.50, then you’ve got an app worth paying for. Better yet, you’ve got something that is worth paying for repeatedly.

The model is applicable to almost every area of a newspaper’s output … except news. But it might help pay for you to produce it.

But if you think readers will pay for a list of breaking (read commodity) news that they can get free from the BBC, Guardian, Sky News, Thomson Reuters, NPR, RTE etc. then don’t worry – Apple will let you keep 70 per cent of what you make. If you need to work out 70 per cent of nothing, then there’s probably an app for that. It’s probably even free.

Open or closed web? Newspapers might as well go back to asking Blur or Oasis?

A wonderful brouhaha has blown up between some new media heavy hitters over Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times and her ridiculous notion that iPhones, “apps” and “the gated web” will leave “open Web” users shambling around the digital equivalent of Detroit.

Blanket statements such as “open beats closed” are not enough to dispel the blatant scaremongering of a notion of web-based “white flight”. Heffernan has stretched the already perished “web as city” metaphor beyond its snapping point – maybe she has read a little too much William Gibson or Neal Stephenson and not spent enough time playing with mobile phones.

Stowe Boyd demolishes the usless city metaphor here.

Tim Maly has a pop at her for ignoring the obvious fact that it was the iPhone that brought “open web” browsing to the mobile masses in the first place.

Pat Thornton (@pwthornton on Twitter) found the piece worthless and offensive.

The excellent Dave Winer takes issue with the NYT running a story he says is so devoid of fact. (According to her wikipedia entry, Heffernan used to be a fact checker for the New Yorker.)

The most annoying thing about the piece, for me, is that it ignores that Apple’s is not the most used or fastest growing smartphone OS out there, nor is it the largest smartphone handset maker. I am consistently frustrated as an Android user when organisations announce with fanfare that they have had their “app” published only to find it confined to iPhone users.

Certain newspapers have long been accused of being “Dublin-centric” or “London-centric” – ignoring swathes of their countries’ wider populations for a geographically concentrated audience that they better understand. The massively diminished costs of online publishing were meant to do away with it, but we find that this city-centrism has made way for a type of platform-centric behaviour. There are demographic reasons, I am sure, but none can convince me of the wisdom of taking a general interest product like a newspaper and self-limiting its distribution.

Less annoying, but probably more significant, is that most “apps” are rubbish. I like it when Apple fanboys tout the number of “apps”  available at the App Store as some indicator of quality. I like games and fart noise generators as much as the next man, but it’s not really the hook you think it is.

Even the terminology at work here is interesting – iPhone users go to an App Store, like consumers. Android users go to a Market, instantly conjuring up a place, rightly or wrongly, where commerce takes place.

None of which addresses my real interest in “apps” – the notion that  they are seen in some way as a boon for struggling newspapers, a way of selling “content”. I will have to leave why that is total bullshit until tomorrow.