Canada’s Postmedia newspaper chain reinvents its smartphone and tablet app strategy

October 27, 2014
Category: Uncategorized

At 6 a.m. on Oct. 21, print subscribers to the Montreal Gazette received a new-look newspaper focused on news analysis. At 6 p.m., they read the first edition of a magazine-style iPad app. In-between, they were able to access a smartphone app geared toward millennials with short snippets of local news, as well as a new responsive website.

The four relaunched products constitute an effort by Canadian newspaper chain Postmedia to reach audiences it sees as distinct based on audience research:

  • Smartphone users, age 18-34
  • Tablet users, age 35-49
  • Print readers, age 50-64
  • Web users, age 18 and up
The old Montreal Gazette in print, left, and its new look, right.

The old Montreal Gazette in print, left, and its new look, right.

Postmedia used a research firm to survey 17,000 people across Canada, with more than 2,000 of them located in Montreal, to determine what readers wanted from the four platforms. It rolled out its first big newspaper transformation at the Ottawa Citizen in May, launching smartphone and iPad apps and differentiating content based on audience profiles developed from the research.

The Gazette is the second Postmedia newspaper to get the treatment. Lou Clancy, Postmedia’s senior vice president for content, said the Citizen has seen an 18 percent increase in time spent since launching the “2.0” versions of their mobile apps, but he couldn’t break that down by platform yet.

One key lesson the Gazette learned from the Citizen being the first to debut reimagined mobile and iPad apps: Readers were upset about losing the old versions of the apps. So those “1.0” versions will remain active but automated at the Gazette, Clancy said. The new apps are curated experiences, whereas the old ones mostly displayed content from the Web and didn’t target content to specific audiences.

“There are very different characteristics for each platform, but there is a line of continuity,” Clancy said. Much of that continuity comes from the design of the products, as Mario Garcia has blogged. The goal: experiences that are separate but complementary.

“People who are the most engaged with print are probably not the people who are most engaged with smartphones,” said Lucinda Chodan, the Gazette’s editor-in-chief.

Reinventing workflow

“We’re no longer focused on doing stories for print at 11 o’clock at night,” said Clancy. “We’re focused on getting things ready first thing in the morning for the mobile phone and deciding which stories will go in the tablet that day.”

Chodan added that she expects some workflow hiccups as the staff adjusts to new deadlines and figures out best practices for publishing content on two new mobile products every day. No, reporters don’t have to write four separate versions of their stories, but a major challenge is making sure each platform gets what it needs from reporters. Each platform team has an executive producer to champion for that platform in the newsroom.

Newsroom transformation comes with some new efficiencies, too. For example, the national and international content in the new iPad apps will be produced in Toronto and shared across all newspapers once they launch their reimagined products. Also, each Postmedia newsroom will have a “super city desk,” Clancy said, allowing all four platform teams to work near each other.

The risk of this content-differentiation approach, as Mathew Ingram pointed out when he looked at the Citizen’s relaunch, is that the suite of products segments the audience to the point of confusion. Will each audience segment use the apps with enough frequency to justify the dedicated teams of six FTEs for the tablet app and 3.6 FTEs for the smartphone app?

Here’s a closer look at Postmedia’s editorial app strategy:

Mobile app

The new Gazette app is available for iOS and Android. Reader research convinced Postmedia that millennial readers want news throughout the day in a quickly readable form.

“It’s not a shock to find out that younger people tend to use mobile phones more than others in terms of things going on right now and things to do today,” Clancy said. “We weren’t surprised by that, but it certainly reinforced our approach.”

These three iPhone screenshots show the goals for story length — and tone — in the Gazette's new smartphone app.

These three iPhone screenshots show the goals for story length — and tone — in the Gazette’s new smartphone app.

The short, paginated snippets of news resemble Circa’s app (and it has a feature for following stories like Circa does, too). But the writing is conversational. The trick, Chodan said, is to be informal while remaining authoritative and trustworthy. Stories are written exclusively for the app.

From the app’s welcome page: “We’ve designed this app to appeal to you: Montrealers on the move. Skimmers. Sharers. Readers who are never far from their smartphones.” Breaking news is updated from 6 a.m. to midnight, and the app includes weather info and roundups of “the Montreal Twitterverse.” Everything is local. The app is free.

iPad app

The target audience is mid-30s to late-40s, people who don’t have a daily newspaper habit but are very interested in lifestyle and entertainment news. “What we built a profile of is people who are not deep, traditional newspaper readers,” Clancy said, but who still want a more immersive experience than the Web tends to provide.

The iPad app also includes sports stories, but not game stories from the previous night. Instead, because the iPad edition is published at 6 p.m., the night’s upcoming games are previewed. (The tablet does have a news ticker that jumps readers to the website.)

The front page of Thursday's edition of the Gazette iPad app.

The front page of Thursday’s edition of the Gazette iPad app.

Enough news happens on a schedule, Chodan said, that the evening iPad edition can often be planned in advance. Content that originally runs for the iPad at 6 p.m. can be repurposed from the Web, and then repurposed again to fit the next morning’s newspaper.

Among the featured in Thursday's iPad edition of the Gazette: an interactive map with pop-ups tracing the path taken by a gunman in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Among the featured in Thursday’s iPad edition of the Gazette: an interactive map with pop-ups tracing the path taken by a gunman in Ottawa on Wednesday.

The Orange County Register made a similar bet on an “evening edition” iPad app. It folded in 2012. Other tablet magazine failures include News Corp’s The Daily, of course, and the format in general has been slow to grow.

The website still has a metered paywall, but the Gazette’s evening app is free thanks to a three-month sponsorship. The company doesn’t know how it will monetize the tablet app beyond that; of course, it has to see how readers respond first. (Postmedia reported a quarterly net loss of $49.8 million on Friday.)

The “evening edition” concept has some throwback, counterintuitive appeal, but will it find a large enough audience? Although design templates and shared resources with other Postmedia papers will facilitate production of the app, thriving in Apple’s iOS Newsstand is a huge challenge. Readers have to remember to seek it out, and they have to be willing to put up with large downloads. But Postmedia is trying, and other newspapers should keep an eye on the company’s tablet strategy as the industry try to figure out what place these devices should have in our lives.


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