Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The app is not the savior of news

The iPad is now one Christmas old and with the benefit of more devices in more hands publishers are readjusting their projections and re-evaluating the success metrics.

The weight of expectation of a whole industry is a lot for one small device to bear. So how is it holding up?

The iPad is doing just fine, thank you very much. But it doesn't look like it is going to singlehandedly save the media publishing industry any time soon.

To get a feel for how apps are being received by consumers, I did a small, informal survey of recent iPad converts, including a few longer term users. Of the ten people I spoke to, all are high consumers of news in other formats, and range in age from their twenties to seventies.

The verdict, unsurprisingly, is that everyone loves their iPad. Some use it more than others, but each said they were spending more time online as a result of it.

But they remain underwhelmed by the available news apps and the device hasn't made any real difference to their media consumption habits yet, nor has it convinced them to pay for news where they had previously not been doing so.

There appear to be two elements at work here. One is that the iPad provides an adequate web browsing experience. It's not perfect, and there are plenty of sites that, for example use Flash extensively, that don't work properly on the iPad's Safari browser. But by and large it is a satisfactory news browsing experience.

The other element is that news apps just aren't up to scratch. Most of the survey sample had tried one or other of the available paid news apps but had dropped the subscription after an initial period of trialling it, making do with the available free versions.

The complaints were fairly consistent. All felt that while they were willing to pay for news, they resented having to pay for something they felt was sub-standard The complaints ranged from "It doesn't have everything that's in the paper" to "It's too slow, the news is out of date" to "It looks too much like a paper", there was some criticism of the technology as slow or buggy.

Breadth and timeliness of news delivery was the most important element. The web has taught consumers to expect instant breaking news, and the expectation is that the app will deliver the same, as well as being a luxurious reading experience. The app is seen as potentially combining the best attributes of print and online.

Early iPad news app usage data pointed to early morning and late evening activity. I expect we will see that change as the tablet finds its way into the routine of people's lives. The expectation follows that we should see increased audience numbers and more frequent session times.

But that puts a spotlight back on the real motivation of publishers in producing iPad apps. Are publishers still defending print circulations, or are we honestly trying to build new audiences with our iPad apps? My small survey group felt the publishers really want them to go back to buying the newspaper. Why else, they argue, would an app look and feel so much like a print product, or even in one case look exactly like a replica of a newspaper?

And why would it be so slow with the news? Queensland's flood and cyclone disasters were a case in point. Major rolling news stories were not available on some news apps as fast as they were on news web sites. Paying customers were right to feel ripped off.

Much was written in 2010 about publishers' embracing the tablet as a way of reviving the habit of paying for news. At the same time the consensus was that the new offering needed to be compelling enough to encourage the habit. With a little bit of time and plenty of apps in the app store, it is painfully obvious that few, if any of the news apps currently available are compelling enough to attract and keep paying readers.

The message from the market is - Yes, we'll pay for it, but it had better be good.

First published in the PANPA Bulletin February 2011.