Thursday, February 4, 2010

Local news apps for mobile media: a look at DoApp; preparing your content and your team to go mobile

Using a third party application developer to build your mobile news app is a matter of making hard choices. For most companies, the idea of spending thousands of dollars to have a software developer write a custom app to for the iPhone, then doing it again to have your content appear on an Android phone, is a non-starter. Then there are the restrictions inherent in opting for an out-of-the-box mobile solution.
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Because of demand, there is a rush of new companies entering the market eager to provide mobile media solutions for newspapers and magazines, including one to be discussed here, DoApp.

But first, there are some questions a publisher should ponder:

  • do you simply want to port over your news content to a mobile device? or you are considering new content? a new brand? and are you currently creating the RSS feeds necessary to do this properly?
  • is there a special reader need you feel your mobile app can fill? or alternatively, is there anything unique about your market that your mobile app needs to take into account?
  • is your editorial team on board, and will they take your mobile app into consideration when working on stories, tagging copy, and the like, just as they do now (we presume) for the paper's web site? (The New York Times, for instance, already produces 164 separate RSS feeds. Each, if desired, could be the source of a new online or mobile product.)
  • how will you monetize this new mobile media product? are you involving your sales team upfront? will you create a new P&L, or roll this up into your interactive budget? (you have an interactive budget, right?)
My experience at newspapers with Hearst, Copley and McGraw-Hill would make me concerned about championing a mobile media solution because getting projects through the bureaucracy of a newspaper can be daunting, with different interest groups from editorial and sales, to billing and production wanting to slow things down.  Having a product manager approach could speed up the process considerably. If you are the publisher things become a bit easier, I suppose. But in the end, if both editorial and sales are not on board, a publisher could end up with a nice app, but little to no revenue, and a product that readers do not find useful.

The beauty of working with an outside vendor is that they provide one-stop shop solutions, making the process of getting your mobile app created, approved and up on iTunes easier and quicker.

DoApp Inc., a Rochester, Minnesota based developer, currently has over 100 apps on the iTunes store, most from local newspapers and television stations.  I downloaded the app for the Daily Herald, a Chicago suburban newspaper owned by Paddock Publications Inc., and took it for a test ride.

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The user interface is clean and well designed, making it very easy and intuitive for readers to get to the news they desire. The key to the experience is the ability of the newspaper to provide logical and clean feeds. In this case, the Daily Herald's news may not be well tagged (I assume) because a local dog show photo appeared as the main story under "Nation/World", as well as under the proper local category. But generally each major news areas contained appropriate local content.

On the Daily Herald web site I could find only one RSS feed available to subscribe to. Creating a mobile app may be a good opportunity to rethink the kinds of feeds you want to have and offer to the public. These will come in handy should you need them for a tablet publishing solution, as well.

One of the biggest disadvantages to working with a third party vendor is that customization of the interface is prohibited or discouraged. In the case of DoApp, though, there seems to be enough variables included in their app that it should work for most newspapers. For instance, in the case of the Daily Herald, the newspaper serves several different counties, so the paper obviously considers it important to have news is broken out by location. The UI makes this a snap.

DoApp's news app also contains a nice citizen journalist feature: the ability to contribute photos and videos. The reader can click the submit banner located on the top of every page news home page and enter a new page. The reader uploads the image or video, enters their name and e-mail address, and composes a description -- basically writing the story.  I would think this would be very handy in covering high school sports -- an area notoriously difficult and cumbersome for many newspapers. My first thought was that contacting the local high school booster clubs could identify contributors, they are always looking for ways to promote their teams. (I wanted to experiment with the feature but dared not lest one of my pictures appear on the app, but I was curious if there is a user agreement notice at the end of the process.)

The Daily Herald's web site home page contains links to several blogs, and their blog page shows ten that are fairly active. It might have been nice to have blogs included in the app, or at least the content included in the news feeds. Several news areas were completely without content such as the Sports > White Sox area.

One thing your editorial team may consider is partnering with outside bloggers. In my conversation with Richard Farley of RF Football, he refers to Brian Quarstad, a blogger who publishes Inside Minnesota Soccer, a perfect source for local soccer content.  By having a constant flow of new, locally produced copy, one can avoid empty news holes. Additionally, newspapers need to do a better job of aggregating online news, in general -- OK, I'll get off my high horse now.

Wade Beavers, CEO of DoApp Inc., told me that "most don't think about the business model" when considering a mobile media solution. I agree. As a result, many vendors creating simple mobile publishing apps are incorporating AdSense or AdMob ad options. Beavers said that DoApp offers both local ad sales and the possibility of national advertising down the line. These more robust advertising solutions would be preferred by most publishers, though having AdMob as an option might be nice, as well.

DoApp is developing its own location-based ad solution called Adagogo. "Imagine you are outside Wrigley Field, a bar could advertise with you that just wants to reach those within a few block area," Beavers told me.  Although the service has not launched, location based advertising holds great potential for both local publishers, as well as national brands trying to support local outlets. This is one area where Google will be competing with local media outlets.

For now at least, all the advertising appearing on the Daily Herald app is originating from DoApp who is using the opportunity to give space to the Red Cross's efforts at Haiti relief.  I called the Daily Herald's director of interactive media, Kelly Bolyard, to see what the newspaper plans for monetizing their new iPhone app were, but she begged off.

DoApp was founded by former Google UI designer Joe Sriver in 2007. Before joining Google, Sriver worked for IBM, where, I assume, though I could be wrong, he ran into Wade Beavers and some of the other members of the DoApp team. Beavers was recruited to become CEO of DoApp in March of 2008.

The small DoApp team are certainly headed in the right direction. As you can see on their home page DoApp is not an iPhone only solution as Blackberry, Pre and Android phones are prominently displayed.  Of the vendors I have looked closely at so far, DoApp seems to offer publishers the best overall interface and design. 

Crossposted on TalkingNewMedia.