Friday, May 07, 2010

MSM earn middling marks on first iPad apps

The mainstream media have earned only middling grades from consumers for their initial iPad applications, leaving plenty of room for improvement.

A quick survey at the iTunes Store found that the average user rating of the 10 most popular news applications was 2.8 out of a possible 5 stars. Key findings:

:: As detailed in the table below, two of the three most popular apps came from Europe, not the United States.

:: Perhaps benefitting from the rich-media assets available to them, apps produced by broadcasters beat those from legacy print publishers.

:: Pay apps proved to be distinctly unpopular. Anti-pay sentiments may have been stoked by the aggressive prices charged by the two publishers who put pay walls around their apps.


France 24, an international television news channel funded by the French government, produced the only four-star entry. Its free and graphically appealing app delivers news in French, English and Arabic, while aggregating local coverage using the GPS feature of the iPad. The app, which many users called the best of the bunch, elegantly balances an exciting look and feel with a well-modulated, well-organized view of the news.

The next most popular apps, earning 3.5 stars apiece, were produced by BBC and NPR. Both free apps organize news in dense but good-looking grids that enable users to quickly click through to full stories and, often, video and audio programming. The apps benefit from the rich cross-media content produced by their parents, which in both cases are supported in part by public funding.

USA Today and Reuters each got three stars from iPad users. USA, which Apple rates as the most downloaded news app since the iPad was introduced about a month ago, skillfully recycles much content from the newspaper, but, as noted by several of the early tech adopters who bought iPads, inexplicably left out technology news. The free Reuters app is all business, featuring interactive tools to chart stocks and a nifty currency calculator. Reuters is an “excellent app that really showcases what developers can do with a little thought,” said one user.


Time Magazine got the absolute worst score, netting only 1.5 stars for an app requiring payment of $4.99 to view each issue. Summing up the discontent, one user stated: “Only $260 a year to get content freely available on the web or delivered to your door in print for a fifth of that.” Adding insult to injury, some customers complained about billing and technical issues.

Several users spanked the Wall Street Journal for charging $3.99 a week for its app, which garnered 2.5 stars. The app, which you can download for free but must pay to update, looks and feels a lot like the print product, augmented by a few videos. The format is either a plus or a minus, depending on whether you are looking for a faithfully rendered e-version of the print product or an exciting take on business news that leverages the power of the iPad. It succeeds as the former but fails as the latter.

The free Associated Press entry earned two stars for an idiosyncratic user interface that looks like a scrapbook assembled by a fifth grader instead of a well organized view of the world presented by a premiere news organization. Most users hated it, especially as it was bedeviled by numerous technical glitches. “The AP,” said one consumer, “has shot themselves in the foot.”

The free China Daily app, which netted two stars, is nothing more than an iPad version of its rudimentary iPhone app. Neither is close to the state of the art.

In the middle

Earning 2.5 stars, the free New York Times app came in exactly in the middle of the pack, taking criticism from several quarters for limiting the content in what it calls an “Editors’ Choice” edition (whose name is grammatically correct but goofy to look at).

Without identifying any sources, Gawker reported that Apple boss Steve Jobs irately dropped promotion of the app because it provided only limited content. Yet, the app is featured on several screen shots throughout the Apple website. In all likelihood NYT “Lite” is a placeholder for a more elaborate paid app, so there will be more on this story to come.


Although the inaugural iPad efforts are not all stellar, it would be unfair to judge publishers too harshly. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

For one thing, most publishers didn’t get much notice before having to deliver their first iPad apps. The notoriously secretive Apple gave them minimal insight into the new platform and only a brief time to build their apps.

For another thing, it made sense for resource-constrained publishers to wait to see how popular the iPad would be. There was no sense putting major effort into building apps if the iPad proved to be a dud.

If the first month is any indication, however, the iPad could be a bigger hit than the iPhone. Apple said it sold 1 million units in the first 30 days, as compared with the 74 days it took to sell the first million iPhones. And a new study shows iPad users are twice as likley to be interested in general, financial and sports news than the average American.

Now that it looks as though publishers are playing with live ammo, they need to get serious about planning iPad strategies. That means going well beyond the look, feel and content contained in their legacy publications.

One of the clearest lessons they can take from the early going is that they can’t start charging for iPad apps just because they feel like it. Consumers are smart enough to tell when a publisher slaps a premium price on recycled print or web content – and they won’t go for it.

Premium apps must have premium features and services to have a prayer of succeeding.

This is the latest in a series of Newsosaur posts providing publishers with actionable revenue and content strategies for the tablet platform. The entire collection of prior articles, which has been packaged in a convenient 10-page PDF, is available here for immediate download for $1.99.


Blogger Steve Ross said...

A pdf for $1.99? why not sell it as an app?

7:34 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I love the WSJ app - after 20 years of subscribing to the print edition, I think I am going to drop it because the app is just as good, maybe better. I agree with the note about the NYT "Lite" edition - if I want the NYT (which I do) I don't want a Readers' Digest version.

3:49 AM  
Blogger Robert Holmgren said...

Since the NYT free online version (also available to read on iPad) provides much more that the editor selected iPad app version, I don't understand why I'd want to download it for the opportunity to read less.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Publishers should not take the "marathon, not sprint" approach. Consumer habits are changing quickly, and those habits will be harder to change later. The iPad can provide print content in a way that bridges to the legacy version better than any smartphone or other device. Use it now to keep your readers linked to your brand.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Mr Max said...

If they have sold 1 million units, that is .3% of the population.

If the newspaper circ is 100,000 why spend time building and application 330 people can access, assuming they choose to.

If 1/2 the people in the circ area owned an IPAD decided to read the product, that would be around 165.

thats a tough sell no matter how you look at it. Even if Apple sold 10 times the amount. How do you sell ads on less that 2000 readers?

12:22 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

iPAD has sold into about 1% of all US households, and is heading for 3% or more this year. These households are proven early adapters who can afford to buy techie toys. So large newspapers being discussed, circulating to 1 million households, will see a quick bump of 10,000 to 30,000 in this new medium -- admittedly often an overlap to existing readers. The media organization will not have to spend $700+ a year to physically deliver a slivers-of-dead-trees product to each of them. That leaves real money on the table to do a good job on the app, if the organization can recognize a good job when it sees one.

4:12 PM  

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