Friday, October 29, 2010

City/Regional magazine publishers enter the mobile era, though not very well; clunky apps leave a lot to be desired

The city/regional magazine business is a bit of a world on to itself. It has its own trade association, and the industry straddles a line between specialty publishing and consumer publishing.
Because regional publishers must generally go after local advertising, rates are fairly low, as are budgets. Most city/regional publications can not afford to have a long list of vendors they are paying -- like one that helps them with their website and one that develops mobile and tablet apps for them.

So as much as I am an advocate for mobile and tablet publishing, I am not someone who would ever tell a publisher "just do something, anything". Every magazine is a brand, and doing something may end up lowering the perceived value of that brand.

I think you know where this post is going.

Godengo, a website developer out of Emeryville, California that specializes in building websites for city/regional magazines, has been releasing apps in the App Store for their clients -- seven so far. I looked at a few of their sites and was impressed: they appear to be well designed, modern in appearance. Now the company has begun launching universal apps in iTunes: serviceable iPhone apps, but deadly-dull tablet editions.

Yesterday two new apps hit iTunes, one for Honolulu Magazine, another for New Orleans Magazine.

But releasing these universal apps was a big mistake, I believe. As iPhone apps, these apps are so-so: they offer text versions of magazine stories and a database of restaurants (probably their best feature).

Why I'd want to read some feature article from a regional magazine on my phone is a question some publishers seem not to want to ask. Breaking news, maps, directories -- yes; long form feature articles -- doubt it.
Because of this, the directories of restaurants found in most of these apps are very useful. Using the smartphone's built-in ability to link an address with a map, users can tap the address of any restaurant immediately go to a map. The NYT's The Scoop is the most innovative app in how it handles the restaurant category, combining stories, maps and search.

OK, these iPhone apps are fine (I suppose), but as iPad apps they are a disaster. Opening up the Honolulu or Diable app brings you to the same text driven menu found in the iPhone version -- seemingly at the same size! The entire canvas is wasted. The articles use the same RSS driven iPhone layouts, but where the large picture followed by text works fine on a phone because the screen is so small, the enormous picture seems absurd on a tablet. The magazine art directors must be holding their heads in their hands, if not outright crying. (And what is that microscopic ad on the bottom of the menu page doing there?)

Honestly, 'nuff said.

I would think that publishers would be beyond having to ask themselves 'should we develop mobile media and tablet publications?'

Unfortunately, we continue to get articles being written such as this one written by Khoi Vinh.
He writes: "The fact of the matter is that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in, that is making less and less sense as we forge further into this century, and that makes almost no sense on a tablet." Hear that? Do you understand where the guy is coming from? Do you agree that the magazine form is now a dead end? I don't.

After I had read the article I knew immediately that the mobile media writer at Poynter would link to it as soon as he discovered it. Face it, our most visible media writers don't seem to like mobile media and tablets themselves -- do you see a mobile app from any of the media trade journals in the U.S.? (Compare this track record with what this Swiss trade journal has created.)

Magazine publishers with vision will have to develop these new platforms without much help from their trade journals and media critics (cripes, a few have come right out and said "don't do it" and even came right out and said they are returning their iPad), but they will have to ask the same kinds of questions that are asked when a new publication is launched: who is the reader? what will the reader want? what is the best way to deliver it to them?

Instead, too many publishers (or media executives) are being sold solutions because they are easy. Think about it: what is the number one reason given by vendors for creating flipbooks? Ease of creation.

Just because someone can turn your RSS feeds into a mobile app is not a good reason to actually do so. One has to begin asking intelligent questions: what will the users of this app want? what can a mobile app (or tablet edition) do that our print edition does not? will the users want the same print content, or will they be looking for new content? does it enhance our brand or diminish it?

And finally: what is the business model? how do we price this? sell this?

The world of print publishing seems to be dividing into thirds: one third are in denial, one third are rushing in every direction in total confusion, and another third seem to realize that we are in a time of experimentation and exploration.

So, it's time to take a deep breath and relax. Don't let the vendors rush you into a bad decision, once you know what you want to do they will still be there ready to help you -- otherwise they won't have a business themselves.

How can you be relaxed in this environment? Easy, look where things are going.

Millennial Media's latest S.M.A.R.T. report shows that mobile activity on their network continues to explode (sign up for and download their reports here). Now admittedly these reports are bit self-servicing, but they are merely confirming what others are saying -- things are moving in a certain direction.

Informa Telecoms & Media predicts that this year mobile ad revenue will top $3.5 billion -- not bad, but they also saying that mobile ad revenue will grow to $24 billion by 2015. Who really knows if this is true, but the trend line is pretty obvious.

While the journalism community continues to debate whether paywalls, membership models and other paid content mechanisms will drive their industry, the advertising industry is pretty sure where it is going -- online and mobile. Are you dependent on ad revenue? Want to continue to get your share?

But the answer for publishers is not to jump on the bandwagon. Looking at all those new mobile and tablet media apps that have been released this year it is clear that "build it and they will come" is not necessarily an answer. A life of a publisher is not that easy, is it? Pricing and audience building remains issues to be tackled.

Because of this, I loved my conversation a month or so ago with Kate Byrne, publisher of Mac|Life. She had just released a great app for her magazine and in our conversation it was apparent that she was going to have to work through a whole slew of issues -- but she was asking the right questions and her attitude was fantastic. Byrne appears to be both realistic and enthusiastic and I was very jealous.