Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hearst Newspapers releases first tablet edition for its Houston Chronicle; identical iPad app as S.F. Chronicle

App development is one of those things where the first try is always the most primitive and later efforts usually advance the product. But newspapers, sadly, don't work that way. Getting a newspaper to create a mobile or tablet product is like pulling teeth to begin with, constantly tweaking and improving the product is almost impossible – how often do newspapers do redesigns, after all?
So I suppose it is not surprising that about four months after the launch of the San Francisco Chronicle's first iPad app, that the app for the Houston Chronicle would be essentially identical to the first one – right down to the little "newspaper edge" graphic used on both. Both apps use the same layouts, the same navigation, etc.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, after all, why reinvent the wheel every time. But what is missing in the Chronicle (SF) is missing in the Chronicle (Houston) app. (Disclosure time: I am a former employee of Hearst Newspapers, at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, may it rest in peace.)

But as I said when looking at the San Francisco Chronicle app back in late May, this isn't a bad app. When I wrote about that app I mentioned that there were bugs that needed to be worked out, and sure enough Hearst's digital team has issued a few updates that have improved that app's performance.

The fact that the first app has been updated is a very good sign, and one that gives a reader hope that the company is serious about its tablet edition.

Now comes the Houston Chronicle for iPad, and although the version is listed as 1.2.2, it makes its debut today in the App Store. No doubt some of the updates included in the first iPad app are here in the Houston app.

One issue that usually arises with a media company that imposes similar apps and different products is that often a foreign look is imposed on the products. In this case, however, the look of this app is closer to the look of the actual print version of the Houston Chronicle than it is the San Francisco Chronicle.

The app, of course, is free to download, and once installed and launched one immediately sees that the reader is being offered 14 days free – a good move. There are three subscription options available within the app: first, current print subscribers can log-in to access the content for free; the second option is a paid subscription, $5.99 per month or $59.99 per year.

Left: the subscription sign-up page; Right: the section navigation feature.

If I were a reader of either newspaper I would be pretty pleased with this new app – for me it is free and it is a way of accessing the paper on the go. The reader can press the refresh button to get the latest edition (no changes in the hour I had the app open) and then go – or at least that's what I thought.

It turns out that refreshing might bring in new headlines but it isn't bringing in any content. In other words, there is no offline reading (head slap). For the record, there is offline reading in the Chron.com - for iPhone app, the Houston Chronicle's mobile application.

So who would be attracted to this app? Is this intended for current subscribers (no, not really, since it isn't a mobile version of the paper), or to attract new subscribers?

My guess is that this app is neither, but is simply what the app team feels they can accomplish right now. As a avid newspaper reader I'm not impressed by the product (I need the box scores, the one feature I've been reading since I was five).

Judged that way, as a work in progress, I suppose I would come to the same conclusion as I did back in May: this is a good start, and a heck of a lot better than the replica editions being pushed down the throats of publishers by vendors. But there is a long way to go before one could say that this kind of tablet edition is worth reading compared to the print edition.

One last word about that little graphic that tries to make this look like an actual print newspaper: stop it. Tablets are not made out of paper. Rather than try to duplicate what print does best, why not start with the idea that an iPad app will try and do what tablets do best.

Trying to make your tablet app look like an actual print newspaper makes the publisher look, well, old and out of touch. Lose the print look, it's time to go digital with digital products.

(I'll get off my soapbox now.)