Appnoyance — why newspapers have still not got their minds round digital publishing

It’s getting worse. It really is. You’re on your iPhone, or your iPad, or whatever hand-held app-compatible device it is you like to use, and you go to look at some interesting article which you’ve seen on, or through Google reader, or through a websearch, or recommended to you on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or whatever.

Instead of going straight to the page, you’re offered the opportunity to download the newspaper’s app. “It will look much better”, the ad might tell you. Or it will explain that it’s ‘optimized’ (usually with a ‘z’) for your device. And so on.

The thing is, what would make a newspaper publisher imagine that I would want to have an app of their publication on my phone?

Given that I’ve found their article by doing some kind of search or browse that works with the way I do internet, what possible advantage is there to me in going to the App Store, or Google Play, or whatever it is, entering my password, waiting for the download, and then shuffling through to try to find the article I was after in the first place? Especially since, based on the limited number of these kind of apps that I have tried, they don’t pick up the fact that you are linking to an article and plonk you straight onto the front page.
Offering the customer something that the customer doesn’t want, and which is inferior to what they do want but better for the supplier, is a sure sign of a business that has lost some of its marketing focus. But it’s not just one or two newspapers. These things are popping up more and more. Why?
The underlying answer is that newspapers are still struggling with the problem of how to monetize their content in a world where most news is free, and where the unique selling points of particular papers are fading quickly. Or that’s part of the answer. The rest is that they can now do it, and therefore feel they should.
Let’s look at the ‘can’ first. Since version 9, QuarkXpress, the mainstay of the newspaper industry, notwithstanding the incursions of InDesign, has offered its own App Studio, which enables you to turn your print publication straight into an iPad or iPhone App. Actually, ‘straight into’ isn’t quite right. It’s a bit of a business, and if you want to make it more worth reading than, say, web pages which can also be automatically generated through Quark Publishing, you need to spend a bit of time on the interactivity. To add insult to injury, Quark charges you every time you publish an edition of your app, whether you’re a national daily paper with a readership of 1 million, or the parish magazine of Twistleton-under-Wickham. The economics are such that, if you’re a big publisher, it’s essentially free to publish an app, whereas if you’re a small, free producer, it’s ruinously expensive.
Quark App Studio, though, is by no means the only way to app your content. If you’re a WordPress blogger, at the other end of the scale, there are several plugins which will punch your content through a free portal, create an app from it, and submit it to the App store(s) so that whatever you put on your website appears in a device-friendly format whenever you blog new content. Between these two extremes are many, many ways to app your content.
The problem with all of this, though, is the question of what’s in it for the user. The only news app I ever downloaded which was restricted to a single publisher was the BBC news app. The BBC recommended it because their website was heavily flash-based, and didn’t run on iDevices. Even with all the BBC’s content power, the app was nowhere near as good as the website, and I abandoned it within a few weeks. Not many months later, the BBC switched their video content to non-flash.
My willingness to go with the BBC’s app — for a while — but not the others reflects the fact that the BBC is the only site I regularly browse for news, rather than just looking at the stories that interest me based on aggregators, recommendations and web searches. Newspaper proprietors have complained bitterly that the BBC is eating their lunch: it has more journalists, a bigger reach, better content, and a reputation for neutrality which (shall we admit?) most newspapers don’t share.
For the rest, do I really want the Daily Mail’s app sitting on my phone? Or some American newspaper which I’m going to read once and never go to again? Of course not. But the problem persists: newspapers feel that they need to develop a loyal readership, and the only way to get that loyalty is by somehow binding the reader in.
Apps aren’t the worst. The Guardian — once the pioneer of web publishing — has a particularly nasty Facebook application. The idea is that when you read an article, you share it on Facebook, and then other readers can read it too. Great — except that when you click on the interesting-looking article, it doesn’t take you to the Guardian website, it takes you to a Facebook App installer, which, if you install it, then puts the article you just read on your Facebook update. That’s a charge across the privacy line which I, personally, can’t stomach. I read one article, deleted the app, deleted the Facebook update, and still felt as though someone had come into my personal space and run their fingers through my possessions.
The future of news on the web will see news providers competing on a per article basis for readers. There are no two ways about this. If you allows your pages to be Google searched, people will go there because what you are saying appears interesting. If you don’t allow it – for example by having a pay-to-register site — then you will simply not attract those readers, who will therefore not see the ads on your page, not click on them, and therefore not support your revenue stream.
There will always be a place for pay-to-access sites. The only one I’ve ever paid to join is, largely because it gave me (and still gives me) access to expertise I can’t get elsewhere. In a certain sense I also pay to be able to access the Chartered Institute of Public Relations member area, because I pay my annual subscription, and the same with British Fencing. The reality, though, is that the CIPR and British Fencing sites are spin-off benefits of membership. Still, if I earned my living by researching a particular scientific or medical discipline, I would consider it money well spent to be able to access materials behind a walled garden that weren’t generally available.
For general news, though, it’s going to be on a free news site such as the BBC sooner or later. If a newspaper’s version of the story is earlier, or more insightful, I’ll probably click on it. But I won’t pay to click on it, and I won’t install an app to keep bringing me back to that site.
Mercifully, at the moment, most newspapers and magazines only offer you their app: they don’t force you to take it or not view their pages on your device.
I don’t have the answer to how the news business can keep its head above water in the 21st century. The internet is not going to go away, and neither is the increasingly promiscuous news-reading behaviour of the weborati. It’s going to have to be competition on the basis of stories, and it’s going to mean that news publishers will have to find value-added style, or analysis, or something which gives them a competitive edge. It’s not — unless these apps get an awful lot more compelling — going to be app based. Apps do things, they allow me to interact, to engage with the world in a different way, play games, make calculations, edit pictures. You know, stuff.
If I just want to read, I have a perfectly adequate web-browser.
Enough with the appnoyance. Newspaper digital editors, please remove them from your pages.

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