Newspapers and Tablets
The majority of the UK press has been vehemently reacting against the recommendations last week of the Leveson report, and in particular reject any kind of government legislation of their industry in spite of the systematic abuse that many titles have treated members of the public.
But as they do that, one wonders - with a great deal of concern - what the ultimate future of the printed press is. And to a greater extent, serious journalism overall. Are they fiddling while Rome burns?
Today we learnt that News Corporation is shutting down its fledgling tablet publication The Daily.
So far what we have learnt is that:
- Paywalls don't work
- Giving everything away free and using advertising doesn't work
- Trying to use a single form of distribution - even tablets - doesn't work
Being the critical resource in a specialised area and doing most of the above does work. Or at least it does if you're the FT (or WSJ). And breaking the shackles of a store proprietor who wants 30% just for listing you is probably no bad thing (FT again).
Perhaps I'm being a little unfair with my bullets, but I think that's fairly much the case to date. And well done if you're breaking that mould.
Let me talk about my own news requirements for a moment.
I'm a paid up subscriber to The Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer. For a discounted rate, I buy tokens in advance that let me pick up printed papers at newsagents. Remember, this is the newspaper group that already puts all its editorial up online free of charge.
So why do I pay? Well for two reasons in the main. One, I know that if nobody buys their paper editions, then there won't be a free ad-supported online version because the sums don't yet add up. And two, I like paper. Aside from anything the editors of printed papers provide an excellent mechanism to give me a broad church of stories to read. My natural online tendency is not to stray too far from the Media Guardian section of their website, but the paper copy gives me a broader selection of stories, and I read things that I'd have never strayed across online.
So despite frequently reading stories online the night before I take physical ownership of the paper version, I still feel that I'm getting excellent value.
That said, I certainly could see myself moving to a digital edition, were I able to.
You see my subscription also entitles me to the iPad version of the paper. But that's of no use to me. I don't own an iPad (and have no intention of getting into the walled garden of apps that Apple deigns to let me install on a device that I have to pay for).
I do, however, have a Nexus 7 that I've become rather attached to it. Yet The Guardian doesn't have an Android tablet app. So I'm left out. Yes there's a generic mobile app. But it's not optimised for a tablet form factor, and is essentially a mobile-optimised version of the website, without essential functionality like offline caching.
To be fair, there are hardly any mainstream Android apps for UK newspapers. That is to say, ones that are truly optimised to make use of the larger screen size, and feature essential functionality such as offline reading, and a scheduler for getting editorial delivered to the device.
The one exception seems to be The Times. I've not subscribed to it, so have no real experience of it working, having only used their standard mobile app on my phone. But I do find it very interesting that they're currently offering a deal to let you pay £50 for a Nexus 7 if you subscribe for 18 months to The Times and Sunday Times for £4 a week (or £17.33 a month).
It's got to be said that this sounds like an excellent deal, since that's for the full 32GB version of a device that retails for £199. You end up paying a further £193 or just under £11 a month for your newspaper. And it's cheaper still if you pay up front for the lot - £299.
This is precisely the kind of deal that I suggested newspapers should be making two and a half years ago.
I'd like to see a newspaper group really do something clever. A deal to give me a free iPad (or similar - because we all know that the iPad is vastly over-priced) if I take up a two year subscription - like my mobile phone company does.
Perhaps it has only been with the advent of inexpensive yet powerful tablets like the Nexus 7, that such deals become possible?
Which brings me onto my next issue. The lack of Android support - The Times excepted - across the newspaper industry. With the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire surely flying off shelves this Christmas, the likelihood is that they're going to rapidly take a significant market share.
As a user, I believe that the 7 inch format is a much convenient one for travelling with and reading on the go. It slips into pockets and bags much more easily than 10 inch tablets do, and the price point makes it affordable to a much larger range of consumers.
Where once upon a time, it was entirely understandable that companies developed for the iPad first and then considered their options before moving onto another platform, it seems to me that it's actually essential that today they develop in parallel for Android. Indeed, such is the state of play currently, they'll probably have more standout in the Google Play Store than they will in Apple's iTunes Store.
Newspapers are simply missing a trick by not pushing fully featured Android applications out.
Even worse - sometimes when they do it's that most awful of things, an exclusive partner tie-up. Take for example The Guardian's Eyewitness app. It's available to buy on iTunes for £1.49 and presents a range of stunning photos in tablet form that builds from what's available in the paper and online. One of the reasons I love the printed paper is the massive Eyewitness photos usually spread over the centre pages.The power of a photograph can never be underestimated.
Sadly, for what are clearly marketing purposes, The Guardian has only released an Android version of its Eyewitness app to users of the Amazon Kindle Fire. Despite being essentially an Android platform, it's exclusively available for users of that device.
I'm waiting over here to pay good money for the app, but they don't want it (or rather, they probably prefer Amazon's slightly larger cheque). Ironically, because The Guardian has APIs, someone else has written an Android app that takes the available photos (not the full range that the paid apps deliver) and presents them to users in such a way as you might not realise that there was a premium app available.
Getting back to the start, what the closure of The Daily shows us is that solely appearing on tablets was a bit too much too soon. But that doesn't mean that tablets - in some form or another - aren't perhaps the most preferred way for newspaper to prosper in a digital age. The paper was clearly generating real revenue, as this excellent piece at the Nieman Journalism Lab points out. But the model didn't work in a tablet-only environment. Multi-platform is essential for the scale to make paying for those journalists achievable.
Again, I've not read The Daily, because even though there seemingly was an Android version, I never heard about it. But I do know that if you're not offering more than I can already get in the Metro or on websites built around agency copy, then you've not got a hope.
Put the resource in, and build good apps - for both iOS and Android. Ideally launching them simultaneously (it's notable that Rovio launched the iOS and Android versions of Angry Birds Star Wars together, just as Xbox 360 and PS3 titles arrive together).
Use it to support your print proposition.
Be creative in how you market your offering. Heavily discounting devices is a great idea.
There still could be money to made here. Because if there isn't, the industry really is in trouble.