As soon as the iPad was released in 2010, many in the news industry were heralding tablet technology as a new dawn for print media. Newspapers could create for purchase apps that tablet users would buy to access their news, rather than paying for print subscriptions and profitability would return. Almost three years later, tablets are definitely being used for daily news consumption but it’s not exactly paying off.
In October 2011, the Pew Research Institute (PRI) found that reading the news was one of the most common uses of the tablet, with more than fifty percent of tablet owners consuming news daily. And while at the time of this study only 11 per cent of American adults owned tablets, that number more than doubled to 25 per cent this year. What’s more, many of these people were also seeking out news from a variety of different outlets. A similar 2012 study by PRI found that almost half of tablet owners read more news than before they owned a tablet. In a sense, the tablet has encouraged something of a news boom, but it hasn’t been quite the explosion many in the news industry had hoped for.
That’s partly due to the fact that the tablet demographic is a limited one: “middle-age, higher-income working individuals who follow the news more closely and more frequently than the population overall.” The large amount of news consumed by tablet owners is less about increased general interest and more about substitution. The new technology is simply providing a new way to access more comprehensive and less expensive content. Less expensive is the keyword, as most tablet users admitted they wouldn’t pay for the content if they had to.
Around the time of the iPad’s release, Matthew Ingram said that no one would pay for an app as long as the content was free online. He wasn’t wrong, but things have changed a bit. The New York Times, for example, has added a pay wall to their website, making the content no longer free. And their app is now amongst the most widely used news apps. This is likely largely due to the deep pockets, but brand legacy and quality journalism don’t hurt. Still, with the majority of tablet owners reluctant or unwilling to pay for apps, it’s a hard market to succeed in.
The Peel was an early tablet app for the Orange County Register. As of September, the project was terminated when their parent company came under new ownership. In a blog post, Doug Bennett provided a variety of lessons from his experience at The Peel. One of his conclusions was that transferring the print version of the newspaper into an app was not effective. It was just laborious and time consuming. “Most legacy publishing systems start with a page-layout system that does not understand HTML5 or high-res images; we spent countless hours each day trying to make our desired functionality work within a system that didn’t want to accept it.” His statement is as metaphorical as it is literal. For The Peel, trying to apply the traditional print format to the tablet proved to be like stuffing a round peg into a square hole.
In The Peel’s case, the legacy brand of their newspaper wasn’t helping them. It was first named, blandly, the Orange County Register tablet app, and its main following was those already subscribed to the Register. These users wanted what Bennett found so difficult to produce, the print paper on their tablets. Re-branding the app as The Peel drew a line in the sand between the app and the traditional Register. Not only did it solve the problems of compatibility, it also brought in a whole new audience.
Bennett says the hope was to create a “new way of publishing” that appealed to a younger “subscription averse” audience. This meant new types of content, as they soon realized that they received the most traffic to their “video-focused stories or features.” The fact that they didn’t make it has more to do with financial instability than failure. The Peel was downloaded 125,000 times and they averaged 5,000 unique hits a day. In tough times for print, breaking even isn’t enough, even if you’re attracting a new audience.
In order to stay alive, newspapers need to understand that a different approach is necessary. Some know this, like the New York Times who announced early this month the release of their HTML5 web app through Apple. But this in itself is problematic to profits as Apple made it known in June 2011 that they intended to retain 30 per cent of revenue from all subscriptions sold through iTunes.
The potential for apps to generate money is there for newspapers, but it’s not likely going to come as easily as electronically rendering the original product. Some major outlets can exist without much alteration, but for most, the apps have to be inexpensive or free, content rich, and exist off of advertising revenues. Those creating apps need to look at them as separate entities that can be profitable enough to sustain themselves, but they shouldn’t be relied on to save the newspaper or the industry as a whole.
At least for now.