Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Columbus Dispatch tablet edition seeks the middle ground between replica edition and native tablet app

Among the batch of new iPad news apps released over the Labor Day weekend, the app from The Columbus Dispatch initially confused me. The seller is listed as Good.iWare -- their PDF reader, GoodReader, was released shortly after the iPad was launched and added the capability to the tablet when early users of the tablet were in desperate need for a good PDF reader. Surely a newspaper app that lists its developer as the maker of a PDF reader was releasing a replica edition, right?
Well, not really. The new iPad app from The Columbus Dispatch is more than just a replica of the daily newspaper, offering readers tablet native layouts of the stories seen on the front page. Because of this I attempted to contact the developer to find out what was going on, and so I held this story for one day.

It turns out that this new app is the product of a collaboration between the newspaper, Good.iWare and Olive Software, a company I mentioned this morning -- they do the flipbooks for CFE Media.

Opening the app for the first time one is sent to a rather confusing opening page -- My Library. The reader is presented with a sample issue from back in July, along with a web library. The reader is supposed to connect there and purchase a subscription in order to access the daily editions.

Smartly, the Dispatch is offering readers a 14-day free trial in order to entice a paid subscription. According to the Dispatch website, monthly home delivery will cost you $28.13 (what a strange price). To receive the tablet edition, however, will only cost you $10.99. You can also buy a weekly subscription for only $2.54, or an annual subscription for $99.

Left: A built-in tablet of contents page; Middle: articles flow into a story template with a spot reserved for a photo; Right: the subscription page.

After either paying for your subscription (or getting the free trial) one now has access to the library of issues. Tapping the latest issue begins the download process. At this point the app is a lot like the NewspaperDirect app that contains all replica editions.

The reader now is looking at the front page of today's edition of the newspaper, but tapping on a story is where things begin to change. Tapping a headline reflows the story into a native tablet layout. Assuming the story is longer than one screen's worth, swiping the story will take you to the next page.

A button at the top of the page allows the reader to return to the original page. Other user features are built into the app, as well: a screen brightness adjustment button, a table of contents, a search button and a bookmark button.

Susan Preletz, director of business development at Olive Software, told me, though, that "this is only the beginning". Multimedia content will eventually be added, as well as the ability of the paper to update its daily issues on the fly, creating a product that is more like a cross between a daily print edition and a news website.

While Good.iWare is known for its PDF reader, Olive Software is known (to me, at least) as a maker of replica editions for the web. Not surprisingly, then, the company is a pretty big advocate for the product.

"The value of a replica in a connected environment today goes well beyond just digitally publishing a version of the paper," Preletz wrote to me after our phone conversation yesterday. "The majority of online content today is accessed free by the end users; however the printed papers are understood to require subscription or other payment – meaning replica is associated with paying for content. For the tablet environment, to leverage the printed format and enhance it through connectivity meets the consumer's paid content expectation, while also providing the expectations of enhanced content within a connected environment."

"The issues to address with any format are a rich and familiar user experience, preserving the Publisher branding, scalable daily production, copyright issues, packaged content delivering greater real (and perceived) value than free website content, the ability to easily migrate from one form (replica, DDE) to the other as the market evolves."

I think Preletz is right in that current print subscribers of newspaper have a built-in expectation about paying for access. The question is whether this will translate to tablets.

Preletz is definitely right, however, about the expectation of iPad owners concerning the multimedia and interactivity. By adding more interactivity and rich media to this first iPad app, the publisher will have an app that is more native to the iPad.

Preletz recognizes that some of the larger newspaper firms enjoy an advantage when creating tablet and mobile apps because they can built internal development teams. So vendors like Olive Software are going to have to provide a cost effective solution that will deliver custom products beyond just building replica editions.

"The value of a third party partner such as Olive Software," Preletz wrote, "means the ability for a publisher to leverage the print-ready .pdf file, the same one sent to the printer each day, ingest and scale it to multiple platforms, and incorporate or leverage content enhancements (news updates, streaming video, intelligent advertising solutions, and more), all while having content available by approximately the same time a paper is delivered to one's doorstep. Ultimately, the majority of publishers will continue to find this to be the most effective means of reaching the digital audiences on any device."

Is it beating a dead horse to once again mention the word "advertising" when discussing a new media app?

When looking at the app from the Dispatch and seeing that the articles are flowed into new layouts I immediately noticed what was missing -- a spot for an ad.

← The NYT's built-in ad spot in its iPad app.

OK, I admit that as a former ad director and CAM I'm a bit nutty this way, but seeing a revenue opportunity missed always drives me crazy. A good model here is probably the NYT Editor's Choice app. The app was released on launch day, April 3, and so is was one of the first news apps made available to iPad owners.

While the app has some issues -- the biggest complaint being that it provides limited content -- it does manage to handle advertising well, containing a leaderboard on the home page, and an ad spot on the article pages.

Of course, the Times treats its iPad app as a separate product. Replica editions, or replica-native hybrid products present a bit of a problem when it comes to advertising. Will the publisher pull the ads from the tablet edition? or keep them in as a way of providing additional readership for print advertisers?

The compromise solution would be to add an ad spot to the article pages, just as the Times is doing. This would provide new inventory and encourage advertisers to experiment with the platform.  The ads could, I suppose, be given away early on while the user base grows, but not thinking about new advertising opportunities from Day One seems like a mistake.