June 2, 2011

While some newspapers are tiptoeing into iPad apps with replica editions of their print products, The Orange County Register has developed something quite different: a curated editorial product published late in the day.

The Register’s approach to the iPad is fundamentally different than many newspapers. Instead of asking themselves how to get all their newspaper content onto the iPad, they started from scratch to design a product tailored to the demographics and behaviors of tablet users.

In the process, the app is breaking conventions by publishing in the evening and limiting its scope to a handful of most-desired topics.

The table of contents for the OC Register iPad app shows the day’s hand-picked stories.

The OC Register for iPad app is a “curated experience,” said Doug Bennett, the president of the Freedom Interactive division of Freedom Communications, which owns the Register. It includes hand-picked stories “that we’ve identified as something they [iPad owners] would be interested in.”

The company decided early that its app should not be everything to everyone, and that a reformatted edition of the morning newspaper is not good enough.

“We’ve got plenty of time to do what some of our peers are doing with a replica edition” in order to reach existing newspaper readers, Bennett said. “What we’re after is that new audience that we haven’t necessarily reached in the past 10 or 15 years.”

Research shows that 25- to 44-year-olds are among the leading demographics of iPad owners, and that usage peaks in the evenings as people relax at home. So the OC Register app is released Monday through Saturday at 6 p.m. and is limited to about 60 stories in only six categories that appeal to young adults.

The emphasis on editorial selection and the evening publication time may sound familiar to people who used to read afternoon newspapers. But the Register app is much different than a pixelized newspaper.

Not just newspaper content

The app creators were guided by a focus on the audience: Who owns iPads, what do they want, and when do they want it?

Bennett said research showed interest in celebrities, trending topics, sports, things to do and photos. So the app features those categories, along with local and business news. The 35-44-year-old demographic didn’t show enough interest in traditional newspaper subjects, such as politics, commentary, classifieds or obituaries, so they’re not included.

The stories within those six sections each day also are specifically chosen by their expected appeal to the iPad demographic. So the story that leads the newspaper one day may not be in the app if it doesn’t appeal to the right audience.

Other news apps also are trying curation of topics and stories. The Washington Post iPad app, for example, picks a few big “live topics” that include Post stories, selected headlines from other sites, Facebook comments and Twitter feeds. Other apps, such as News.me or Zite, try to automatically curate content from many sources based on a user’s personal interests.

The Register newsroom has embraced the app because “they wanted to know they have a future,” Bennett said. But the app will not rely solely on content produced by the Register newsroom. Its aim is to have great stories fill its six categories every day, regardless of their source.

“As we evolve, we do believe that somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of our content will start to come from third-party vendors or other feeds or other sources, because we want to make sure that we’re really strong in those topics that these audiences like. And we can never count on our content center [the newsroom] to be 100 percent great in every aspect our audience is after,” Bennett said.

The company is discussing partnerships with bloggers and other sites to enable it to feature some of their content in the app, Bennett said. Those partnerships probably will involve a fee or revenue share with the content producers.

The iPad staff adds customized design and multimedia to featured stories.

Freedom Interactive created a six-person iPad team to choose each day’s stories and produce the app, including original interactive features and multimedia. Although the team works with people in the Register newsroom, they are separate from the newsroom and only work on the iPad product. Two people come from TV and movie production backgrounds, two are designers skilled in HTML5, one is a video producer and a publishing editor coordinates content.

The path to profit

That dedicated staff and purchased content is an aggressive investment for Freedom Communications.

Bennett received backing for his plans last year from Freedom Communications’ new president and CEO, Mitchell Stern, who came to the company in July from DirecTV.

Despite facing the financial strains common to news publishers these days, Stern was firm in devoting resources to the iPad product as a key to the company’s future, Bennett said.

An entirely rebuilt, beta version of app is in the iTunes App Store now; it will be formally launched and promoted starting Tuesday, Bennett said.

The target for financial success is 50,000 downloads in the first 12 months. Keeping a significant portion of those as regular readers should make the app profitable, Bennett said.

The app is marketed as free “for a limited time,” and it can be switched to a subscription model. But the company has no plans to do so until it sees demonstrated financial success from other subscription news apps.

Instead, Bennett is banking on the continued growth of mobile advertising and the premium quality of iPad ads.

All of the ads are custom designed with interactive experiences or video.

“It’s really almost content instead of an advertisement,” Bennett said. For example, he described a jewelry ad with an interactive model the user can rotate to examine. Advertisers love the rich interactive format, and readers seem to be engaging and paying attention to the ads, he said.

Most iPad apps seem to find their best ad market is for high-minded, magazine style branding campaigns rather than specific promotions.

In this early beta period, the company has sold ads by a flat fee while telling advertisers what kind of audience and demographics the app is expected to deliver. Response has been strong so far, Bennett said, with prices equivalent to a $35 to $40 CPM.

The financial success of the app will have to be evaluated over time, but I am glad to see a news organization taking a new approach to a tablet product, and committing significant ongoing resources to it, based on the actual use of the device.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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