Thursday, April 14, 2011

Patch releases iPhone app for its network of local news sites; local directory is the key to making app essential

For a little over a year I have been banging the drum for classified and retail advertising inside mobile apps. Sadly, the newspaper industry is going through a content-is-king era where the only thing of importance to the New Media community seems to be "content".
As I've written before, my perspective, and therefore that of Talking New Media, is different because not only do I hold a "J" degree, but spent most of my newspaper career on the advertising side. To me, content is not only the sports section, but it is (was) the used car ads, the ads from local retailers – it's all content.

Talk a look at most mobile apps, the focus is entirely on editorial content. Those apps, such as those developed by industry digital publishing vendors like DoApp, offer additional features such as weather or traffic via Google Maps. This makes these far more useful than simple RSS readers.

Take the Chicago Tribune iPhone app: attractive design, a decent amount of editorial content, but absolutely no business model that says "here's a new profit center". The perfect product produced by the ivory tower that is modern journalism.

Patch, the local network of news sites that has been at the center of AOL's news content strategy has today released its first iPhone app. The free app is officially released by Patch Media Corporation – anything labeled "AOL" would probably be bait for App Store reviewers ready to pounce.

The app offers nothing that can't be found on the numerous Patch websites, but I would argue that what is inside this first mobile app – there will be an Android version released, as well – works better on a mobile device, and blows away most mobile news apps from the mainstream media.

The design of the app is too cute by half, using the company's sickly green colors, etc. The user is immediately asked if the app can use its location. The usual response from me would be to say "no", but this is a local news app, right? Hopefully users will respond positively, otherwise, they will have to search for their local edition. This is not difficult, however.

Inside users get access to all the Patch editions. Since this app, like others, are driven by databases of content, this is easily accomplished, and using the "Patch" name rather than the full local news site name (Grayslake Patch, for instance) brands "Patch".

The centerpiece of the app is the directory content. No different than what can be found online, this content is far more useful to mobile users here, on their iPhones, than online via the website. It is also the best revenue stream Patch has going to it right now, their local display ad sales being pretty anemic (in most locations).

I've made two animated GIFs to show you the news and directory app mapping. The directory design is simple and effective, and with all the same content as can be found online including the MapQuest derived map.

I haven't been a big fan of the Patch approach so far, and I certainly don't agree with the idea of making the profession of journalism a small promotion above Walmart greeter, but this iPhone app – albeit, very late in coming – is a major step in the right direction, both for Patch and for news organizations. (Wow, what a poorly structured sentence!)

If had to bet, I would guess that the newspaper industry will continue to be late in responding to mobile and tablet app development. I remain pessimistic.

Creating an app is not the same as having a good mobile media strategy – despite what the vendors try to sell you. If you can't figure out how to make money at mobile retire, hire me, or get reading, but don't just put out an app. And, for God's sake, don't just put two editors together in a room when you are making your mobile decisions. Bring in your ad people, too. If their answers aren't satisfactory, then you have the wrong people there, as well.