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Can iPhone widgets make news apps cool again?

The Financial Times notably embraces HTML5 web apps — and print! — over mobile apps. Quartz, perhaps the most widely praised new media site of the last year or so, is similarly app-less. Vox and FiveThirtyEight launched this year without native apps, and the Gawker network gets by without them just fine, too, thank you very much. The tech-savvy folks at The Verge just killed theirs.

A native app can be expensive to develop and maintain, and unless your push notification strategy manages to provide real utility rather than sporadic annoyances, the only way a reader ever enters it is by deliberately searching for the icon — perhaps buried on the third page of a home screen or inside the dreaded Newsstand on iPhones — with no idea what content awaits.

In other words, iPhone apps have never included a “shop window,” as Edward Roussel, head of products for Dow Jones, put it – a place for people to see beyond the logo.

Visiting an iPhone app has been like visiting a homepage — and we all know what’s happening to homepages thanks to social “side doors.”

But now comes the release of iOS 8, which gives third-party app developers access to the “Today” view of the iPhone’s Notification Center. It’s where you can get a quick glance at your calendar, the weather and stock quotes — and now, links to BuzzFeed and Wall Street Journal content that deliver you straight to their apps.

These “widgets,” just a swipe away, present news organizations with a new way of enticing readers into “walled garden” apps; they “take the friction out of apps,” Roussel said. Even BuzzFeed, despite its sleek mobile app Jailbreak iPhone 6, has historically received a great majority of its mobile traffic from the web, according to Digiday. BuzzFeed, which is so good at enticing readers to its website via social media, now has a new way to begin enticing readers to its app.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks about iOS 8 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, in June 2. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks about iOS 8 at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, in June 2. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Those who use Android devices will point out that this widget functionality has existed for years on their phones. Ryan Johnson, BuzzFeed’s head of mobile, said the BuzzFeed widget is important to its Android strategy: “Anecdotally, it’s used a surprising amount,” he said, but he couldn’t give specifics on that (BuzzFeed’s iOS audience is twice the size of its Android audience, and Android use is growing more quickly). Roussel said the Journal hasn’t experimented heavily with Android widgets, but that makes sense because 85 percent of the Journal’s app use comes via iOS devices. (Roussel does point out that major updates to the Journal’s Android apps are on the way later this year.)

The BuzzFeed widget for iOS 8 includes a large image to entice readers into the app, while The Wall Street Journal's widget is a more conservative list of headlines.

The BuzzFeed widget for iOS 8 includes a large image to entice readers into the app, while The Wall Street Journal’s widget is a more conservative list of headlines.

It makes sense that news organizations seem excited by the prospect of offering readers new entryways into apps. Users of BuzzFeed’s app share three times as much content as mobile web visitors do, according to Johnson. Roussel told me Journal app users view an average of 20 to 25 pages of content, while visitors to the mobile Web — many who likely arrive on a whim via social — view two or three. That behavior obviously makes apps more appealing to advertisers, too, he said. Breaking News and Yahoo News Digest have also added widgets to their iOS apps.

Apple has the market share, influential users, and cachet — particularly in the U.S. — to popularize features that others have offered first. If iOS opening up “Today” in the Notification Center to third-party developers fundamentally alters the way people use iPhones — as Roussel suspects is possible — those news organizations holding out on offering mobile apps might find reason to reconsider.

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Tim Cook; iPhone 6; iPhone 6 Plus

Apple’s iPhone Plus doesn’t spell doom for tablet design

Critics have long groused about the death of the tablet’s use in news design. Jon Lund pronounced tablet magazines “a failure” in a 2013 GigaOM article, declaring that the “app-based tablet approach to magazines leads straight to oblivion.”

When News Corp’s iPad newspaper, The Daily, was discontinued in 2012, Tech Crunch ran an article titled “Why magazine apps suck” that rattled off a list of problems plaguing tablet publications: large file sizes, lack of imagination from developers and a failure to reach the sizable audience of iPad readers.

In recent weeks, rumors of a new iPhone with a larger screen began circulating in advance of today’s Apple event, prompting industry watchers to forecast dark days ahead for the tablet. Marketwatch’s Quentin Fottrell called the new phone “a big risk for Apple,” quoting an analyst who said the larger screen might cannibalize the iPad market. The Motley Fool’s Tim Brugger agreed, writing that large-screen phones might eat into the sales of tablets and mini-tablets. Read more


ComScore: Users spend 60 percent of their digital media time with mobile platforms

— ComScore data indicates users spend 60 percent of their digital media time with mobile platforms, up from 50 percent last year. And “time spent on mobile apps is higher than any other digital medium, coming in at 51 percent,” CNET’s Dara Kerr writes.

— Version 2.0 of Jason Calacanis’ Inside app is here, Capital New York’s Johana Bhuiyan writes, with the realization that the real competition is Twitter, not other mobile news aggregators: “Out with the idea of a Pandora for news; in with readers ability to ‘follow’ topics they choose.”

— The Washington Post program to provide digital access to subscribers of other papers has an early success story, Michael Depp writes at NetNewsCheck: “The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that 7,000 of its subscribers signed on for free access to the Post’s digital content after only five days and one promotional email.”

— Rumor has it the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 – and maybe a 5.5-inch version, too — will launch Sept. 19, according to MacRumors.

— WaPo removed this requirement from a social media job posting this week: “ability to explain to those twice your age what Reddit or Snapchat or Whisper or Fark is.” The Post told American Journalism Review’s Lisa Rossi that the first ad was a “draft.”

— Digiday’s Lucia Moses explains GE’s news site, Pressing, which publishes stories from Vox and other news outlets as well as custom content from Atlantic Media Strategies. Nieman Lab’s Caroline O’Donovan notes the amazing extent to which GE is promoting its brand by jumping into sponsored content and custom publishing.

— GigaOM’s Lauren Hockenson highlights Buffer’s new app, Daily, which it bills as a “Tinder for news.”

// Read more

Press members photograph the Nokia Lumia 1020 during a Nokia event in July (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Nokia/AP Images).

What mobile journalists should have on their holiday shopping lists

Here are a few ideas for the mobile journalist’s holiday wish list as news production increasingly relies less on expensive, high-end cameras and laptops. Read more


Photographer designs watermarking iPhone app to ward off copyright theft

British Journal of Photography
Photojournalist John D McHugh said battling against people sharing your photos on social media is a fight that “can’t be fought.” So he designed Marksta, an iOS app that lets photographers add their name, logo or other information to a photo.

In an email interview, McHugh said other watermarking apps he tried “were very basic, and looked like they were either designed for kids, or by kids!” (You can decide that for yourself.) Marksta, he notes, lets photographers position a templated watermark anywhere they’d like on their photos, which frees them from worrying about whether their photos are being used without credit. Read more

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WTOP reporter Neal Augenstein is donating this iPhone and a custom microphone stand he designed to hold it at press conferences.

WTOP ‘mojo’ pioneer donates iPhone to the Newseum

WTOP radio’s mobile-journalism pioneer Neal Augenstein covers D.C.-area news using only his iPhone. Today, Augenstein and WTOP are donating his iPhone 4S to the Newseum, which welcomes it as an artifact of the new era of mobile-empowered reporting.

“I’m delighted the Newseum is recognizing that mobile journalism is taking its place along legacy reporting tools,” Augenstein told me via email. “Being able to record and edit audio and video, take and edit pictures, write Web stories, and do social networking on a single device has revolutionized my job.” Read more

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Study: iPhones reach more news audience than Android phones by every measure

Reynolds Journalism Institute
Although a greater percentage of people own Android smartphones, those who own Apple iPhones are the most attractive audience for news publishers, according to new research from Roger Fidler at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

In fact, iPhone owners bested Android phone owners in every news-related category.

IPhone owners are more likely to subscribe to a local newspaper:
Read more


News apps are starting to update content when users change location

Instapaper | News.me | Apple
A trendy new feature is starting to spread in iPhone news apps: Automatic downloading of the latest content based on a user’s location.

News.me’s Paperboy feature lets a user designate his home location, and updates the content automatically whenever he leaves home.

News.me pioneered the approach last month with a feature nicknamed “Paperboy,” which lets a user set her home location so the app can download the latest stories whenever she heads out. Now Instapaper has incorporated a similar feature that lets readers set up to 10 locations (home, work, gym, etc.) that should trigger the app to download any newly saved articles.

Why is that useful? It ensures a user has the latest content on her device before she gets on a subway, airplane or other places with no connectivity. It also gets around Apple’s once-a-day limit on how often apps can download new content “in the background” on a device. With this approach, background downloading can happen multiple times as a user travels.

Location-based downloading takes advantage of “geofencing” technology built into iOS since version 4.0. With a user’s permission, an iPhone or iPad app can define a virtual fence around certain geographic regions (a central point plus a given radius). iOS automatically monitors the device’s location, and whenever one of the boundaries is crossed, it triggers a desired action, such as downloading content or reminding a user to pick up his dry cleaning nearby.

Related: Developer documentation on using iOS geofencing (Apple) | How location-based social network Foursquare is about to reinvent itself (TechCrunch) || Earlier: iPhone 4 could accelerate “geofencing” (Poynter) | News orgs should build apps that solve problems, not just republish content (Poynter) Read more


iPad 3′s Retina display will make news apps stand out, present new challenges for news orgs

Apple announced its latest iPad today, which features a much higher resolution display that’s perfect for reading and for news apps.

The new iPad could finally elevate the text reading experience on a tablet to something much more akin to reading a printed newspaper, magazine or book. Most major news organizations have released iPad apps, but the blurry, pixelated text from the relatively low-resolution iPad 1 and 2 always stood out. iPad news apps may have great looking photos, videos and interactive graphics, but text — often the core of what a news organization produces — doesn’t look that good, especially in comparison to what humans have been able to enjoy for hundreds of years.

Today that changes for the tablet market. This change could be a great opportunity for aggressive news organizations to push more users to purchase and use iPad apps. The new iPad will allow news apps to look much closer to the printed text found in a glossy news magazine, but apps will need to be rewritten to look proper on this new display, and all art assets will have to be redone as well.

Taking advantage of better resolution

The iPad 1 and 2 both had a 1024 x 768 resolution 9.7-inch display with a pixel density of 132 pixels per inch (PPI).The new iPad has a 2048 x 1536 resolution 9.7-inch display with a pixel density of 264 PPI. Everything will appear the same size on the new iPad but will have double the resolution (four times as many pixels). This is big news for the printed word.

Text on computing displays doesn’t look as good as printed text. Computer text is often jaggy, pixelated and blurry and can cause eye strain and fatigue due to its lack of crispness. Many people may not know why they don’t like reading long articles of text on computers, but they know they just don’t enjoy the experience as much as reading printed text.

“A high-resolution display can significantly increase comfort and reduce eye strain,” said Shaun Kane, assistant professor of human-centered computing at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “iPad users with low vision, who often use the iPad in large-text mode, will likely notice that text quality is less blocky and easier to read. It’s also possible that an improved display would feature better contrast, which could help users with a wide range of visual ability.”

Everything on a computer is made up of tiny pixels, usually squares. The rounded edge of a G, for instance, may appear at a distance to be curved on a display, but up close it is actually a series of block pixels that are typically square. To make text easier to read, text is anti-aliased to make contours look smoother and more natural.

Whereas aliased text would abruptly go from black pixels to white pixels, anti-aliased text would go from black to gray and then to white. This stair-step approach creates smoother looking text, albeit blurrier text.

Compare a newspaper or a book to an iPad. The text of the print publication is incredibly sharp without a jaggy edge. You can even bring it right up to your nose, and it will still look great. Forget bringing an iPad 1 or 2 close to your face; the text looks pixelated from a normal viewing distance.

This isn’t an issue, however, if a computing display has a high enough pixel density. The amount of pixels per inch (PPI) greatly impacts how good text looks on computers, smartphones and TVs. The new iPad doubles the pixel density of the iPad 1 and 2, making individual pixels indiscernible from a normal operating distance. All of the sudden text pops like printed text, making reading more enjoyable and easier on the eyes.

The iPhone 4 ushered in the original Retina display that made blurry, jagged, pixelated text a thing of the past. In fact, the iPhone 4 display is so impressive that it makes looking at an iPad 1 or iPad 2 display jarring. Retina display is Apple’s term for a display that you can’t make out individual pixels on when held at normal operating distance. The pixel density required to reach a Retina display therefore varies based on how you use each device.

But apps and websites won’t automatically look better and more print-like on the new iPad. Apps will need higher resolution assets at double the resolution. Images will need to be bigger, and video will need to be higher resolution. In fact, existing apps will look worse on the new iPad because lower resolution assets will be displayed on a higher resolution device. Try watching standard definition content on your high definition TV.

All interface elements of news apps will need to scaled up 2x to make them look crisp and sharp. Images will need to be twice as big (or even bigger if a news app and website uses low resolution photos). Because of the moving nature of video pixels, videos won’t have to run at the new iPad’s native resolution, which is above 1080p, but higher resolution video will look better. Many news organizations still put tiny, highly compressed video on their websites and into their apps. Encoding video at 720p will work fine on the new device, but lower quality video will look bad, especially when shown in full-screen.

Figuring out whether text in your news app needs to be changed

Depending on how an app is designed, text may or may not need to be changed. Any app that renders text natively, and according to best practices for usability and accessibility, will be fine. Many apps, however, don’t render text natively, and instead render text as images. Apps such as Wired, and others built with Adobe InDesign and its iPad export tool, render text as images. Forgetting the accessibility issues with this method, this text will look blurry on the new iPad. In fact, it will look worse on the new iPad than it does on the old iPad.

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as making these images of text twice as big. Wired and other apps that render text as images have very large issue sizes because images take up much more space than native text. Doubling the size of the images that render text will make this already large issue even bigger, filling up limited space on people’s iPads.

Kane of the University of Maryland said one of the side effects of a higher resolution display that requires higher resolution assets is that download times will increase and more storage will be used. Even websites will need higher resolution assets to look good on the new iPad, and those will take longer to download.

There are subtler issues that may need to be addressed. Typefaces are designed for different screen sizes and pixel densities. A font that looks good on the the iPad 1 and 2’s 132 PPI screen may not look nearly as good on the new iPad’s 264 PPI screen.

Apple changed the default font for the original Retina Display iPhone 4 to Helvetica Neue from the Helvetica that the first three iPhones used. Even though the iPhone 4 came out almost two years ago, iPads still continue to ship with Helvetica. The new iPad will most likely get Helvetica Neue, a font that just looks better on high pixel density displays, but not as good on lower pixel density displays.

Some apps with forward-thinking developers already have higher resolution assets. Marco Arment has shipped higher resolution assets with Instapaper from version 4.0 on because he and others believed it was only a matter of time until Apple launched a double resolution iPad.

Websites will also need adjustments to look good on the new iPad. HTML text will automatically look great on the new iPad. That’s the beauty of using native text over images to render text. But photos that work on websites built for 1024-pixel wide screens will look blurry on the new iPad, especially when users try to pinch and zoom in on images. If publishers want their photos and graphics to look good on the new iPad, they’ll have to start using versions at double the resolution.

Even a standard website logo will look bad on the new iPad, especially when zoomed in. News organization still get much more traffic through websites than through apps, and if they want their websites to look good on the new display, they’ll have to redo all graphical assets at 2x resolution. Read more


AP, USA Today release rebuilt news apps

The Associated Press | USA Today
The AP released a rebuilt version of its AP Mobile news app for iPhone and iPad today. In addition to a new look (especially on the iPad, which formerly had an awkward timeline-browsing interface), the app adds a “Big Stories” section with multimedia coverage of major stories, and now includes select local stories from partner news orgs. It also sports the new AP logo in the wild for the first time. USA Today also released version 2.0 of its iPhone app, including photo and video enhancements among many tweaks. || Earlier: News.me and Readability each launched their first iPhone apps; soon, so will Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Read more

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