Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review-Journal Plans To Charge For App

A couple weeks ago, I chatted with the new Review-Journal editor, Michael Hengel, who in December took over following the ousters of both the paper's longtime editor and publisher. I just posted a slightly trimmed, 18-minute version of that discussion in the podcast feed, and you can hear it by clicking here. Also, you can right-click here to download it and listen whenever you wish.

The headline from the interview, however, was that sometime in the next few weeks, the R-J will unveil a smart-phone app that, Hengel said, they expect to charge for in some manner.

Here's that exchange, which started after I noted to Hengel that my reporting showed that one of the things he was known for at the Pine Bluff newspaper was instituting a paywall, meaning readers had to pay for access to some or all of the news content:

Friess: Are you looking at a paywall for the Review-Journal?
Hengel: Not on the website.
Friess: Ok…
Hengel: First of all, you’ve got to understand, and I think you do, it’s not just my decision on something like that. It’s primarily not my decision. But some of the things being considered are everything mobile, everything other than what you see on the website may at some point have some pay element to that. Right now it’s all fluid.
Friess: When you say everything other than the website, what are you referring to?
Hengel: Like mobile, an app, an iPad, an Android, a Kindle, phones…
Friess: You don’t see anywhere where the R-J will have a paywall similar to what The New York Times just started?
Hengel: I wouldn’t go so far as to say never, but I don’t see that in the immediate future, no. We’re not talking about that right now.
Friess: The Las Vegas Sun already has a mobile version of their website. If you look up their site on an iPhone, you get their mobile site. You don’t do that with the R-J site. Will that be coming?
Hengel: Yes.
Friess: When?
Hengel: Real soon. Within weeks.
Friess: What about an app?
Hengel: Yes.
Friess: Is it already in development?
Hengel: Yes.
Friess: And when will we see that?
Hengel: That’s also the same time. We don’t have a date, but it will be within weeks.
Friess: What will the app be? What will we get on it? And if you’re a home subscriber, do you get it for free? Is there any deal for that?
Hengel: Well, I can’t answer that right now. I’m sure there’s going to be some cost, I don’t know whether the cost will be for the app itself or for the app and some kind of subscription. That hasn’t been decided. But under consideration, Steve, is the fact that we’ll charge for some of those.
Friess: Will you charge for the mobile version of the website or just the app? They’re two different things.
Hengel: I know. They’re similar. They’ll look a lot the same, but… I’m not trying to dodge you, I just don’t know.
Friess: Are there newspaper applications you’ve looked at that are models for what they R-J’s one would be?
Hengel: Yeah.
Friess: Which one?
Hengel: The Associated Press.
Friess: They have an app people pay for?
Hengel: No. But that’s the look and the feel. Made by the same company.

So, obviously, the next thing I did was download the AP's free app and it's actually pretty awesome. But I do wonder how practical it is for the R-J to charge for a mobile app that does much the same thing when the AP's also has a "LOCAL" tab that then lists all of the R-J's stories, too. See?

Can they tell the AP to kill the Vegas section of their app? That would kind of ruin some of the charm and convenience of the AP's app, which I've grown to love since Hengel pointed me to it.

Clearly, they're still figuring this out, as the entire news industry is. It's just so great that they're finally on the case, anyhow. At a luncheon speech I attended two days before our interview, Hengel spoke smartly about the importance of being mobile, citing data that indicated half of all news consumed online came from referral via social media. He gets it.

While we're on this topic, though, I have to say that the crack Web staff at the Sun is bafflingly absent on this. Yeah, there's already a mobile version of the website, but where's the Sun app?!? So far as I can see, the only app Greenspun Media Group has put out there is the Las Vegas Weekly's, and it contains absolutely no news content from the magazine or site. Really, it should just be called the Vegas.Com app, since it's a city guide, not anything relevant to the Weekly as a publication. My editor, Sarah Feldberg, is awful cute in this explainer video, though it's ironically only available in iPhone-hated Flash:

See what I just did there? I took their video and presented it to you here. But I can't do that with any of the video on the R-J's website, and Hengel unfortunately doesn't think that's a problem. I noted to him that I can't download it or subscribe to it or embed it or any of the other means we are all accustomed to consuming and sharing such material. "We don’t have any changes planned for video," he answered.

Then there was this:

Friess: How much longer are you going to have Nate Tannenbaum doing that daily thing that he does?
Hengel: I have no plans to change anything.
Friess: Is it popular? Do people look at it?
Hengel: Yeah.

So I went back to take a look and, you know, it's a much-improved product. It's certainly a smoother, more sophisticated production and there's a lot less of staring a Nate and his see-through dress shirts. (Sorry! Nothing happens when you click above. See the problem?)

But I still don't get it. These videos are teasers to what's coming in the newspaper the next day, right? Wouldn't it make sense to allow people to get it as a podcast or to find it in places other than the R-J website? If you're watching it on the site, you're already, umm, on the site and you've already seen the headlines. It's not like they're putting links to the stories discussed within some vicinity of the video. The entire enterprise is mystifying.

There's much more in my Hengel interview, which you can hear for yourself as I mentioned. We talked about the albatross he bears trying to convince the community that the paper's news coverage is not tainted by right-wing bias, his perspective on the odd Sun-RJ relationship, how he reacts to all of the Pulitzer talk surrounding the competition. (This interview was done three days before the Sun was a Pulitzer finalist, so I was asking in order to have some comments in my back pocket in case the Sun won.)

Just one last nugget, though. I noted to Hengel that since he and Brown took over, there's been a notable and welcome absence of petty personal attacks going back and forth between the R-J and the Sun and others. I also noted that neither he nor Brown had taken a column, as Frederick and Mitchell had. His response:

If you’re going to write, you’ve got to do some reporting. If you’re going to be a columnist, you’ve got to do some reporting. There aren't very many columnists who can just offer opinions and be really compelling. So if you’re not going to do any reporting, that’s what you’re left with.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

* * *

One final amusing and tangentially related note. This is the info on iTunes for the AP's news app.

I love that! "Rated 9+ for "Infrequent/Mild Realistic Violence." This is an app that presents news, photos and videos about wars, disasters, the most horrific crimes. Something tells me the violence is somewhat more than "infrequent" and "mild." As for being "realistic," I've always thought reality was about as realistic as you can get, but what do I know?


Anonymous said...

Good luck to them. My guess is that they will need it.

While I read the RJ daily online, the New York Times they are not and to watch the high-wire act the Times has had to play with their subscription offerings, well, I have little hope for a newspaper without much digital agility to pull it off.

Regarding the AP app, I know some folks that worked on it. Nice chaps.

-- Hunter


Hunter...I actually suspect that it will be LOCAL publications that have more success charging than big ones. The NYT's content is on a wire service and, thus, easy to find in other places. It also has to compete with other papers and news sources of its level. The RJ's problem is that it does have competition -- the Sun as well as the local TV stations. But I can see where in even smaller, more localized markets with no real competition, it has a better shot.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic / comment.

You might be right that local papers have a better chance with this stuff than nationals. I have no idea, really - is there any data to back that up? Probably depends on what type of content... Also, are home delivery subscribers willing to pay again for content in an app? Even the NYT, with their bizarre set of subscription plans, doesn't ask home delivery subscribers to pay a second time.

If they don't make people pay for the Web site and they don't make existing subscribers pay (guessing on that second one but it sounds crazy to try), who is going to be the customer? The LVRJ would have to have an awesome iPad app to make that work and based on everything I know about them, I have doubts. Won't people just visit the Web site for free?

If they do digital subscriptions with Apple (the only way to offer that type of commerce in an iPhone or iPad app), they will have to give the fruit company 30% and potentially give up access to subscriber details like address and phone info (valuable data commonly resold to marketing firms and a big source of traditional publisher profit). Are they willing to do that? Some publications have balked (Financial Times) and some have welcomed the source of potential new customers with open arms (NYT, WashPo, Business Week, WSJ). I think it's yet to be determined if Apple's gamble for a significant portion of subscriptions will work or not.

As an aside, for my own edification - is all of the NYT content on a wire service or just a subset? From my own experience and from what I've read, they (NYT) have really approached their paywall half-heartedly.

The paywall is incredibly simple to bypass for a semi-technical person and includes a ton of exceptions for non-technical users. It's almost like they don't want to give up the general access pageviews that justify their $54 million / quarter (2011 Q1) digital advertising biz. Even at 100k subscribers, display ads are way more valuable than subs - they want to have their cake and eat it, charging folks on both ends.

I guess I just don't have much faith in the RJ pulling off anything but a giant digital bellyflop. We shall see.

-- Hunter

Michael said...

Nice discussion on the potential app. I can sort of understand why the RJ may look at charging for it or a subscription, I guess it's too early to decide though on whether it's the correct move for them or price.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an app, which is for the website cleveland.com and combines the Plain Dealer and small local Sun News. It's worth checking out, while not anything groundbreaking, it is free, and seems to be moving in the right direction for the company.