Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tribune Company starting to get it; entertainment app shows potential benefits of in-house development

This morning Tribune Interactive released their first non-media property iPhone app since the rather buggy Mobile Zodiac app, released during the early days of iPhone app development. LAT Star Walk is a paid app that gives out-of-towners a tour of the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- it will cost you $2.99 to download.
The app immediately brought a smile to my face: it was good to see the company branching out from their rather stale RSS readers apps. Will this be the first of many localized consumer apps?

* * *

When I looked at the L.A. Times iPhone app when it was released back in June I was already getting tired of the format. These RSS reader apps are, for the most part, unimaginative. They are simple apps that repurpose web content for distribution on smartphones. A few add interactive features like weather and traffic (though most don't) and none seem to have been developed with the cooperation of the advertising departments.

As someone who served as a classified advertising manager in the industry, I am always amazed how far down the food chain the classified folks have fallen. I suppose I should be glad that I was a CAM back in the days when classified advertising revenue paid the bills.
But what has been most discouraging to see is that newspapers seldom do a decent job of promoting and marketing their modest moves into mobile media. That is why it was also nice to see that The Tribune Company appears to be supporting these early efforts. A link for the iPhone app is built right into the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune website navigation bars, and can be found on some (but not all) of the radio websites, as well). Today the Trib has a promotional spot on the home page, as well.

(Disclosure: I used to compete against the Times when I was with Hearst in Los Angeles.)

The new Chicago Tribune app, a paid one, is still an RSS reader, however -- completely a product of the newsroom and the app development team. The potential of local shopping, attractions, entertainment and more are completely missing. (They even left out a sports link in the main navigation tool -- it is under "Sections", but come on, this is Chicago! At this time of year you would think they would have a dedicated Bears area.)

And where is the mobile app for RedEye, the only Tribune product read by anyone under the age of 50? (OK, that was snarky.) I would get the app developers in a small conference room with the RedEye team and grill them on what they would like to see in an app specifically designed for their readership. That could be fun -- I'd like an invitation to that meeting.

Two years ago the new Tribune Company team was pieced together. As you may know, this new era did not start out well as a couple of ill-advised, amateurish press releases were sent out that tried to be light-hearted. (It did not go down well, to say the least. In an era newspaper layoffs, it is a bit impolite to appear to be gloating and having a good time.)

The news out of the company made it easy to finally cancel my paper.  After having Jonah Goldberg and Charles Krauthammer offered up an informed comment for way too many years I finally decided that enough was enough. It would be all electronic now.

Nonetheless, if this modest tourist app is an indication that Tribune Interactive is serious about creating new apps for its readers than I say it is all-good. Newspapers have been poor at creating new products, innovating, being creative publishers. But maybe it takes a bunch of Clear Channel guys (and they are all guys, after all) to come in and -- between parties at the country club -- show the other newspapers what the future of mobile can look like.

If the interactive division is given free reign to launch apps then maybe innovation and creativity can come in through the back door.

(For the record, Tribune Interactive has not released an iPad app to date. Concerning Android apps, the L.A. Times Android app is credited to NiX Software LC, so I don't know at this time if Tribune Interactive is developing their own apps for the platform. There is an Android app currently for WGN that looks like it originated from the company, though. It can all get very confusing, no?)