Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Forum Communications releases tablet news apps for its portfolio of newspapers; comments and pay models

The Fargo, North Dakota based media firm Forum Communications today released a series of new iPad news apps for five of their newspapers. The apps are The Dickinson Press for iPad, Grand Folks Herald for iPad, The Jamestown Sun for iPad, Echo Press for iPad and Duluth News Tribune for iPad.

Each of the apps is modeled after the New York Times iPad app, an app that made some sense when it was released in 2010, but now seems dated and not relevant to the paper's current digital strategy.
I've made this point before, but I fail to see the point in creating a tablet app that mirrors the website – if that website is useful and attractive on the iPad's Safari browser. By translating the website for the tablet all one is doing is eliminating the ads found on the website. If an editor were to suggest "let's dump all the ads!" they would be laughed at (or fired), but when the digital team does this they get often are given credit for simply launching an app. Suddenly all business sense goes out the door.

But the new apps did get me to investigate the newspaper websites. What I found got me thinking about pay models and readership.

I have long argued that financial news outlets are in a better position to launch paywalls and other paid content strategies than their general consumer cousins. The only exceptions might be major national newspapers that are seen as indispensable news outlets.

Reading news items on the Duluth News Tribune website I found a lot of angry readers who were happy to rail against media world (which I've always found weird since they are doing so on these very same news sites), as well as unions, liberals and anyone else for that matter. Reader comments were at a level that reminded me of a sixth grade shouting match.

A few minutes later I read a column on the Financial Times website that talked about the Eurozone crisis. The position being held by the writer I found to be consistent with my own views, but I also knew that many loyal FT readers would hold opposite opinions (the column railed against austerity policies). But the comments were not only civilized, but thoughtful and articulate.

Now, I suppose this shouldn't be surprising, I'm sure the education level of a national financial newspaper would be higher than the average local newspaper website's readership. I think it is safe to say that the FT's commenters were treating the comments section as home turf, an area to remain unsullied by vulgar slurs and mindless comments. They were treating the paper's comments section in much the same way a home owner treats their own property.

I suppose this phenomenon could be seen as more symptom than cause. But papers have found that once they launch a paywall the comments become more civilized, even it they become more sparse. But I also have to wonder what the influence is of those unmoderated comments from readers who would never pay for access, do editors give these readers to much weight when considering editorial content and positions?

While I strongly disagree with parts of the FT's digital strategy, I do think they are right to charge for access. But the digital strategy at Forum Communications seems unsustainable. Free web might be the right approach, but tablets offer the paper another chance to reach readers in a digital format, but using a pay model. The publisher might find that while the websites remain a free-for-all of regressive commenters, but with higher traffic, while the tablet editions offer readers a more sensible and civil environment in which to interact with the editors, reporters and themselves.

Just a thought.