NYT, WSJ at SXSW ask: Is there a future for branded, native news apps on the iPad?

A year ago, developers for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were working furiously to build native apps for a device that hadn’t hit the market yet.

“I think the assumption was, when the iPad launched a year ago, it only made sense to go this route,” said Jennifer Brook, an information architect for the Times who worked on the iPad app. “At that point I don’t think anyone questioned” whether native apps were preferable to designing iPad-friendly websites.

A year later, though, Brook and Erin Sparling, director of design technology for the Journal, led a discussion at South by Southwest inviting people to question those basic assumptions:

  • What does it mean to develop for a platform that is controlled by another company?
  • How do news organizations weigh the need to spread their content across multiple platforms against their desire to create carefully thought-out experiences?
  • Do you lose control when you develop for a platform like the iPad, or do you potentially gain control by enabling people to use your content in new ways?
  • How important is the design of the news experience compared to the content?
  • Will native apps continue to provide more control over design than the Web?

Most people who spoke during the discussion indicated that they work at companies related to publishing, although just a few had worked on iPad apps. Several people expressed ambivalence about how the iPad is shaping the way they deliver news. And a few wondered aloud about whether native apps will continue to offer more options in presenting information than websites.

“The iPad is a platform, but there are lots of ways to be a player on that platform,” Brook said. For instance, she wondered, what would be the impact of licensing content to third-party RSS readers?

Although native apps are attractive because they enable publishers to provide a cohesive bundle of content, Sparling said, “one question for all of us is: Is there a future for branded apps?”

The future of news may look more like a Flipboard app than a New York Times app and a Wall Street Journal app,” said Josh Clark, a programmer and designer.

Spurred by his comments, and thinking of The Washington Post iPad app, I asked Brook and Sparling why more news apps don’t offer editorially selected content from other sources. My idea didn’t seem to get much traction; one person suggested that this approach would mean “we are surrendering our own content.” (Because the session was set up as an open discussion and people didn’t identify themselves, I didn’t get most people’s names.)

Considering how many people find news through social media and various kinds of recommendations, I have serious doubts as to whether publishers can afford that me-only attitude.

Among other concerns were Apple’s subscription model and the lack of navigation conventions. When one member of the audience asked if news app developers talk to each other about their user interface approaches, Sparling responded, “It feels like we’re talking to each other via the App Store.”

Someone who said he works for Popular Mechanics suggested that magazines care less about Apple’s 30 percent cut of subscriptions than the limitations in building direct relationships with their customers.

“There’s an end-user experience with the product that Apple is selling,” he said, “and the end-user experience of what we are selling.” The two are not the same.

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