Apps present challenges and solutions for newspaper publishers

Oct 7, 2010
Tech

Newspapers continue to struggle to find a reliable way of making money on the Internet. The expanded competition online makes generating revenue from advertising difficult, and sites struggle with trying to optimize their search engine results to pull readers in and keep them wandering their sites. Instapaper, a $4.99 app available for the iPhone and […]

Newspapers continue to struggle to find a reliable way of making money on the Internet. The expanded competition online makes generating revenue from advertising difficult, and sites struggle with trying to optimize their search engine results to pull readers in and keep them wandering their sites.

Instapaper, a $4.99 app available for the iPhone and iPad (there’s a free version, too), would theoretically be an irritation to publishers. The app allows users to bookmark articles from their browser onto a list, and then sync that list to their mobile devices. Instapaper removes all the extra noise from those articles, stripping out superfluous ads, links and photos, making the text easy and inviting to read, even offline.

But even Instapaper needs to generate money. The app itself includes some ads within it, and its creator, Marco Arment, recently announced he was starting a subscription service for Instapaper that would allow users to get their ads removed, while giving access to some minor feature improvements. But the $3 for three months subscription is actually more like a donation – if you like Instapaper, help support it, just like with PBS or NPR. The benefits of the subscription are pretty minimal, but Arment is banking on the fact that he made a good product, and people like to reward other people who make good products.

For newspapers, it’s not quite that easy. Subscriptions and pay walls are systems that publications have tried, but none are very successful. The Associated Press has been threatening to start suing people who pass its content around the Internet through links and blogs. One wonders if the AP could ever really enforce those restrictions, however, since by its nature, the service is about sharing news, and because it has been letting its content go for free for so long now.

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Mobile apps offer a new way to look at the struggle to make money online. Many newspapers offer apps of their own – New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, to name two, but also papers that generally cover smaller areas, like the Detroit Free Press – that funnel down their content into a well-designed format that makes it easy to navigate. And they’re generally free to everyone, with subscribers getting better or fuller access.

U.S. consumers can now access the Economist’s Intelligent Life as an app

The Economist, an international business and news publication out of London, is taking app use one step further by releasing its quarterly magazine Intelligent Life exclusively on the iPad in the U.S. Readers in the states can’t get the magazine any other way, except by ordering a subscription from London. Users downloading the Intelligent Life app get the autumn issue for free with a preview of older content, which is available for in-app purchase. From the sounds of things, future issues would be purchased or available for subscription as well.

For Instapaper’s part, publishers mostly seem to like the idea of giving their readers an easier way of reading their content. Arment has said many want to add buttons to articles on their sites to link to his service directly.

If Instapaper continues to be successful – the app appears on many best-of iPhone lists – it could signal publishers that finding new and simple ways of making content available, specifically just good, clean writing, is still a good way to make more money. At the moment, the mobile app field for publishing seems to suggest that options are critical: readers like their NYT mobile app for all its extra features, but NYT articles are also the most bookmarked in Instapaper.

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Creating good content is the key, and making it available to readers in a variety of ways – and maybe with a variety of apps – seems to be the way reading the news is headed when it comes to being mobile.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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