Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Publishers miss out again as baseball season is about to begin without their presence in the App Store

One of the great memories I have of working at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner was Opening Day of the baseball season. A few weeks before the season would begin there would be a giant sales meeting held somewhere off campus where the advertising managers would talk about the annual Dodger special section that we would soon sell and then publish a day or two before the season started. One year Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda gave the sales teams a rousing pep talk -- his own version of "win one for the Gipper".

It never worked -- the L.A. Times, with more than five times our circulation, always sold us under the table. But who cares, we all got to go to the Opening Day game to see the beloved Dodgers who won the World Series twice in the eighties, once while I was working at the Hearst newspaper (that means I got free World Series tickets!).
This year would be my 29th Opening Day if I was still working at the ol' Herald Examiner. But Hearst shuttered the paper several years after I moved on to Copley Newspapers, but I wonder, would we still do a printed special section for Opening Day? Would we do an app?

Well, Hearst doesn't have a paper in L.A. anymore, but they do own the Chronicle in San Francisco -- at least I haven't heard that they have sold it to MediaNews today, though there is still time left in the work day. But I know they wouldn't do an app for the Giants, that team that won the World Series last year for the first time in their history in San Francisco. I know this because Hearst Newspapers have yet to produce a single iOS app in support of any of its newspapers. (Is Hearst aware that the folk in the Bay Area are a bit more tech savvy than they are back in their NY headquarters?)

That means that developing special apps for seasonal occasions would be out of the question. As a result, the Giants are pretty much absent from the App Store altogether. A search pulls up some really lame apps, such as the one above produced by Brighthouse Labs, an outfit that likes to throw paid apps into the App Store hoping someone will be naive enough to buy it. The one listed for the Giants is but one of over 3,000 apps Brighthouse has in the App Store, none of which are worth their price and all of which call into question Apple's app curation policies.

As for the Dodgers, they too are "served" by Brighthouse Labs, but thanks to ESPN they do have a decent sports app for the city.

I can think of at least three reasons why newspapers are again in 2011 missing the boat. The first is simply that newspapers remain behind, in general, when it comes to mobile media and tablets. The second is that marketing rules with professional sports teams can be a bit of a hassle. To do an "official" app is probably out of the question. That is why a search for "Boston Red Sox" for instance, pulls up 26 apps, but none are from the baseball team, and none, frankly, are very good.

But that doesn't stop independent developers from grabbing the RSS feeds of the Boston dailies and compiling their own news apps.
Both the Boston Globe and Boston Herald do the minimum: they mention the baseball team in their app description which makes their app come up in a search of the App Store. The Boston Herald app, developed by Minneapolis-based DoApp Inc., is obviously not much of a priority for the newspaper as evidenced by their app. As you fan see here, their Sports feeds are dead, for some reason, giving the user blank pages when they use the Sports tabs (the News tabs work fine).

The Boston Globe app, on the other hand, right now contains a banner with the score of the game in progress (BoSox 1, Tampa Bay Rays 1 in the bottom of the 8th, if you're interested). The Globe, while not a prolific developer of apps, has nonetheless released four different iPhone app and one iPad (though not a tablet edition of the Globe itself).

While newspapers are slow (deathly slow) to exploit there sports coverage, radio stations find themselves in a horrible bind. There number asset is often their broadcasts of the games themselves. But in the case of baseball, MLB rules prohibit the stations from streaming the live broadcasts either on their websites or in an app. That leaves "sports talk" as their biggest draw.

KNBR, the Bay Area sports station that carries Giants broadcasts, released a new iPhone app recently and has gotten lots of five star ratings from fans who think they will be able to listen to Giant games this year. The app description even leads them on by saying "KNBR 680/1050 is home to the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors."

But a note has been added with the bad news: "Note: MLB regulations does not allow KNBR to stream Giants games." For live streaming of games baseball fans are forced to subscribe to the services of MLB.com which offers both audio and video streaming of ball games, and has added Apple TV for 2011. Unfortunately, the apps built for MLB are not very good, I'm constantly having to delete and reinstall them to get them to work properly, which shouldn't happen to an app that costs users $14.99 to download, right?

(A funny sidenote: the KNBR app uses as its first screenshot of the app a picture of the home page with the message "connection failure" -- no kidding, check it out.)

It's a strange for a guy like me, who grew up in the business in an era where the special section seemed to be the lifeblood of the newspapers. Whether at Hearst or Copley in L.A., or at Lesher Communications (later Knight-Ridder) in the Bay Area, the special sections calendar would be stuffed with sections. Budgets and forecasts centered on when these sections would publish, and almost no idea for a special section was too trivial.

(Our "Babies of the Year" section is fondly remembered -- we gave out tiny "Baby of the Year" T-shirts and were thrilled to see babies in their strollers wearing these shirts all over town, to the utter dismay of our competitor.)

Now, when there is another way to do these section, a way that doesn't have to involve the find a print window to produce these sections, you would think that newspapers would be all over the idea of producing specialty apps.

Oh by the way, go Giants!