March 30, 2011

In the newspaper tablet app race, the replicas are winning.

My informal review of news iPad apps released in March reveals that the majority are PDFs or PDF-like recreations of the print edition, dominated by a few vendors and newspaper groups.

Tecnavia developed apps released by four different newspaper chains this month, while Presteligence, NewsSynergy and Paperlit backed another handful of offerings. Among the apps I found, only the Tulsa World and The Daily developed their apps in-house.

The Daily is an outlier because its new Elizabeth Taylor Tribute Magazine paid app is meant as a one-time offering and was built using the framework of the daily publication.

Among the other 20 apps I found, the trend toward vendor-supported replica apps is both promising and troubling. Only the Greensboro News-Record and the Brainerd (Minnesota) Dispatch could be classified as “interactive” — resembling a traditional Web experience as opposed to a static representation of a printed page. Some replica apps also include breaking news updates and other limited Web-like features.

But, it is good that papers smaller than the New York Times and Wall Street Journal – among the early tablet adopters — are pursuing tablet audiences.

However, the use of PDF apps also points to an industry-wide failure to capitalize on the new opportunities mobile touch-screen tablet devices allow. Replica apps have their place in a portfolio of mobile offerings, but they cannot and should not be viewed as anything other than niche and transitional models.

Some segment of the current print audience will want and value replica apps on tablet devices. Using a vendor to serve those readers is fairly easy and a worthwhile strategy.

But to attract new consumers to local journalism, newspapers will need to develop more interactive, tablet-native experiences, including digital-only features and content.

And, more importantly, mobile and tablet platforms will soon be core to the news distribution business. To understand these devices, how to create engaging experiences on them, and how to create content for them, requires newspapers to develop new competencies in-house. Outsourcing these efforts to a vendor is a short-term solution that could have long-term negative consequences if an organization fails to learn these skills now.

Certainly, in some cases these replica-only apps are only a first step for newsrooms. I know several organizations have launched replica editions because of the low development costs and speed-to-market, and they are already planning more interactive versions.

The Tulsa World is one. According to president John Bair, the paper started planning its next iPad app the day the current version was approved in the iTunes store.

“Nothing we have ever done or are currently doing represents a final outcome. We are always evolving, as will our apps,” he wrote in an email. “To believe our first app on this device represents a final presentation is incorrect. The feedback we get from users, coupled with new technological offerings and capabilities, will dictate future offerings.”

For the month of March, here are the news apps I discovered, arranged by publisher and vendor or developer. This is not a comprehensive list. If I missed any, please leave a comment below.

These first three apps are interactive or Web-like offerings, the rest are more replica or PDF-like:

The Daily
Elizabeth Taylor Tribute Magazine

Landmark Media Enterprises (Xtern Software)
Greensboro News-Record

Morris Communications (NewsSynergy)
Brainerd Dispatch

World Publishing Co.
Tulsa World

MaineToday Media (Paperlit)
Kennebec Journal
Morning Sentinel
The Portland Press Herald

GateHouse Media (Presteligence)
The Repository

Lee Enterprises (Tecnavia)
Arizona Daily Star

Media General (Tecnavia)
The Tampa Tribune
News & Messenger

SourceMedia Group (Tecnavia)
The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette

MediaNews (Tecnavia)
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Pasadena Star-News
Whittier Daily News
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Redlands Daily Facts
Torrance Daily Breeze
Long Beach Press-Telegram
Los Angeles Daily News
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Broomfield (Colorado) Daily Enterprise

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