Oklahoman circumvents iTunes store, keeps revenues

The Oklahoman launched a new iPad app earlier this month, and Apple will not be getting a penny of the revenue it generates. And, as David Thompson points out, the newspaper gets to keep a direct relationship with every consumer who buys either a single copy or a subscription to the app’s content.

Thompson, the president of OPUBCO Communications Group and publisher of The Oklahoman, explains, in this edited email interview, how the newspaper developed the new app, how they are handling subscriptions and circumventing the iTunes store and why keeping a direct customer relationship is so important.

Damon Kiesow: Can you briefly describe the features of the app?

David Thompson: The [current] version of the app contains the same editorial sections that you can find in the print edition. That includes the A-section, Metro-State, Sports, Business and Life. We also have separate pages for daily obituaries, death listings and legals, plus a special presentation for a daily weather report.

We built in functionality for multimedia photo and video presentations within each article. The app also allows for offline reading, multiple navigation methods, horizontal and vertical presentations and archived editions for seven days.

DK: Who built the app and the publishing system?

Thompson: The application was developed by the in-house technology team at OPUBCO Communications Group. It was built based on the newest web technologies — HTML 5, CSS 3 and touch-interface javascript — allowing the product to transition smoothly to other tablet and mobile devices that soon will be entering the market.

That was our primary development goal as we embarked on this project. We did not want to limit this experience to just one tablet. It needed to be versatile enough to be used on other platforms. We accomplished that goal.

DK: How long did it take to develop the app?

Thompson: The application was conceptualized, designed and developed by an in-house team. The number of employees and the timeline is difficult to quantify, because it has literally touched all corners of our company, including development, design, editorial, database specialists, server administration, circulation and production.

Plus, we have been constantly refining our article data output from print production over the past few years to meet our growing needs with the variety of devices and experiences we are currently serving.

It’s truly been an evolution. It couldn’t have been accomplished without our refined web CMS, which integrates with our print CMS. Everything we’ve done in the last two years is stacked on the shoulders of 10 years worth of development and knowledge.

DK: What is the publishing process within the newsroom?

Thompson: Our presentation team, which consists of a cross-trained group of traditional copy editors, page designers and online editors, uses our web CMS to build the editorial section fronts. This web CMS is tightly integrated with CCI NewsGate, allowing for automation within our inside pages on the iPad product.

In the end, the Presentation Team within our News and Information Center is able to use familiar tools and integrate the nightly process into its workflow. At the end of the night, the same news editors that are responsible for print oversight are responsible for packaging the edition and making it available for download to the app.

Bottom line, there is no additional labor cost.

DK: What is the publishing schedule for the app relative to the print edition? How is breaking news handled?

Thompson: We are packaging one edition each day. Our current work flow is to package the edition at about 1 a.m., which is about the same time the nightly clean up and final overview of the print product is completed. We do have the ability to push out “extra” editions for coverage of breaking news.

This product is aimed at readers who enjoy the lean-back reading experience that we supply with a newspaper. It’s a finished, packaged daily product that a customer can begin and end.

DK: How are subscriptions handled?

Thompson: Subscriptions are handled through a web-view within the application. Customers are required to have an internet connection (wifi or 3G) to complete the subscription process, since it is being processed on our secure servers and integrated with our customer database within our SAP circulation module.

DK: If sales are integrated with your print circulation database, does Apple get any percentage of your revenues?

Thompson: All of our subscription sales are kept with OPUBCO Communications Group. This was another one of our primary goals in conceptualizing the product.

DK: How important is it the publishers maintain that direct connection with customers?

Thompson: This is a high-priority for us. As the lifestyles of our customers are continuing to evolve, they want to be able to find the state’s No. 1 news source in a way that best fits their needs and their lifestyle. That is different for each customer. We need to be able to connect with our customers across multiple platforms. That doesn’t just mean offering a product on specific devices. It also means being able to connect that customer to their profile on our website, to their subscription account for the newspaper or to their opt-in pre-print package.

As our product offering continues to diversify, this is becoming more and more critical.

DK: Aside from paid circulation – what is the revenue strategy for the app?

Thompson: We intend to keep the iPad edition as a paid subscription model. We do, however, plan to sell premium advertising positions throughout the application. We know this is a great opportunity for potential advertisers to reach willing and active news consumers that are early adopters to new technology. We are actively working with advertising customers to find the right fit for this audience.

DK: How does it fit into the company’s overall readership strategy?

Thompson: We will continue to provide news and information content for our customers when, where and how they want it. This is another avenue we’re providing for a specific customer base that desires this experience.

Our print product is still very strong, our web audience continues to grow year over year and our mobile audience is growing faster than any other segment. We’re available on the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes and Noble Nook and in a digital e-reader format. Plus we have a variety of iPhone and Blackberry apps, with an Android application soon to come. It’s all part of our strategy to reach news consumers any way they want to be reached.

DK:How does your mobile content strategy differ from print? Are consumers looking for different experiences between platforms?

Thompson: Strategically, we view The Oklahoman’s iPad edition as a print-centric product. Branding it as The Oklahoman, rather than our web brand, NewsOK, is intentional. The iPad edition is a polished, packaged news product that consumers can read from front to back. That fits the same objective we seek with our daily print product.

We see that as a separate and distinct audience that we are trying to reach. In some ways, this audience is represented by a traditional newspaper print reader that wants to transfer to a new device. In other ways, this audience is represented by a young professional that has never been a newspaper reader — readers that we’ve lost to a changing culture in the last 20 years.

Regardless, it’s a different audience than our website and mobile customers, who like a breaking news product that’s always changing and evolving. We’re taking a step to target these types of readers and grow our overall audience and revenue potential.

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