News organizations should build apps that solve problems, not just republish content

News organizations whose mobile apps only provide users with their articles or videos are missing a big opportunity.

An application, by definition, should be applied to perform a task, to solve a problem. Most news doesn’t do that.

Rather than just feed readers recent stories you wrote about their problems, apps can provide tools and data that enable users to actually solve their problems. When you solve problems, you get more loyal users and a chance to make more money. Here’s how.

Define a reader problem, then solve it

Start with an audience-first focus. Instead of thinking about what your organization produces (news articles) and how to fit that into an app, start from scratch and consider your audience. Who are they, and what problems do they face? Use your imagination, do some role playing with colleagues, and actually talk to some real people.

Go through this exercise with specific case studies: Who is the user? What is she trying to accomplish? What obstacles stand in her way? What apps or other tools already exist to solve this problem, and is there an unmet need? Once you have done that, you’re ready to consider what tools and features your app can offer to solve her problem. And those solutions probably have little or nothing to do with repackaging news articles.

Here are some hypothetical examples:

  • Perhaps in a coastal town your audience would like daily information on tides and surf conditions, sunrise and sunset. You could build that into your app.
  • In a thriving downtown environment, maybe young professionals need leads on the best places for happy hour or dinner. You can include searchable listings in your app, instead of just an occasional feature story about a restaurant.
  • In a suburban setting many people may be interested in publicizing and finding garage sales by location and time.
  • In a crowded metro area people need quick, timely data about the public transit system. You can build train and bus times into your app.
  • In a smoggy city like Los Angeles maybe people want air-quality advisories to decide whether their kids should spend all day outside. Your app can show them the current conditions for their location.

These examples illustrate the challenge: to really solve problems you need to work with data and create tools for the user. This means news organizations will need to develop these skills in their technologist staffs or outsource projects like this to capable firms.

Examples in action

The iPhone and Android apps we built when I was at TBD are a good example of this. The apps have four main sections, only one of which consists of news headlines. The other three sections contain live data and information for the on-the-go smartphone user: weather, Metro train times and alerts, and traffic delays and incidents.

The RedEye Chicago app has four main sections, only one of which is for reading news stories.

Another example is RedEye, the app for the Chicago Tribune’s commuter-focused publication on culture and entertainment. The app’s top section has data for getting around by train, bus or taxi, and the second section has information on dining and drinking options. There is a standard news section. And the final section invites users to read and post “missed connections” — strangers they saw and would like to meet.

The Washington Post built a Going Out Guide iPhone app that does just what it says — helps people find bars, clubs and restaurants. The New York Times built The Scoop, an app that helps New Yorkers find restaurants, bars, coffee shops, events, stores and more. And the Times has a Real Estate app to search, browse and save property listings.

These apps are all about solving problems and enabling the user to take an action — go to this bar, shop at that boutique, rent this apartment. These are the apps that build loyal audiences because they help people get things done instead of just presenting another thing they feel obligated to do (keep up with news stories).

That is valuable not only for users, but for advertisers as well.

Many businesses want to reach consumers at these decision points. Restaurants, stores and property managers will be eager to advertise to the people who have one hand on their wallets and the other on their smartphones, using your app to decide where to eat, shop or live.

Some data sources are available publicly, or can be purchased or licensed from data companies. In other cases, news organizations may have to think differently about their content. How can some of the information you already compile — real estate listings, reviews, crime reports — be turned into searchable, sortable data for an app?

Building mobile tools with data isn’t as easy as importing an XML feed of your latest headlines. But if you’re going to spend thousands of dollars developing a mobile app anyway, you might as well spend a little more to build a real application that helps solve problems and makes advertisers take notice.

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