Monday, April 18, 2011

RSS driven news apps: Deseret News launches universal app; The Ottawa Herald, circulation 5,400, gets its very own iPad app

The RSS driven app is the bread and butter of newspaper app. Stories are fed into the content management system, properly tagged, and then can be spit out into a mobile or tablet application. Whether it is the New York Times, or Talking New Media, everything revolves around those RSS feeds when it comes to app development because very few apps are built like a magazine – The Daily's app being a good example of a newspaper iPad app looking more like a magazine.
The Desert News, the daily newspaper associated with the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has released a universal app that, while driven by RSS feeds, has unique enough layouts for both the iPhone and iPad that one might think these were completely separate applications.

The iPad version seen here works in both portrait and landscape. The portrait layout works a bit better as the copy fills the display screen. In landscape the app layout has a hole in the upper right hand corner (maybe an update could fill this spot with an ad).

The app is not filled with many bells and whistles: I did not detect that the app will be using push notifications to alert readers to breaking news, for instance. Readers can, however, share stories through Twitter, Facebook and email.
One of the few features to assist readers is a font size adjustment tool which is much needed as the default font size, especially on the front page, is too small.

The problem with RSS driven apps, of course, is that an RSS feed does not sort stories by order of importance but by time of posting. It is the biggest issue bloggers face (and one I'm working to solve here).

The biggest issue with this particular app, however, is the apparent lack of a business model. The app is free to download, and once installed the reader has complete access to the content without even having to register. There are also no ad spots in this version of the app making one wonder if the publisher considers the new app simply a marketing piece for the brand.

The Ottawa Herald, circulation around 5,400 (I found conflicting figures online), is the latest newspaper to have its own branded iPad app appear in the App Store.

Created by its parent, Harris Enterprises, The Ottawa Herald is also an RSS feed driven app though without the more complex layout found in the Deseret News app.

Gordon Billingsley, digital media director at the paper, told me that this is the second app to appear from the company – Salina Journal being the first. The apps are identical, though in the Salina Journal app you can see that the bottom banner is meant to be an ad position.

The advantage of RSS feeds is that each paper can customize their app by including some feeds, but not others. The Salina Journal app features News first, then Obituaries, Sports and then SalinaFYI. Obituaries are obviously important in Salina!

The Ottawa Herald app contains no separate sports feed, an unusual decision since this is prominent tab on the newspaper's website.

The news layouts are completely without graphics, something that I would hope would be corrected in an update. There is a photo feed, however, that does contain a bit of programming: the picture comes up without a cutline, but tapping the photo will bring up some text. Line break coding frequently appears here, so the editors will have to be careful to monitor this.

Releasing an iPad app for such a small circulation newspaper is an interesting endeavor, but it shows that even small newspapers can publish tablet editions if they can do the work themselves and limit their development costs.