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What could News Corp learn from successful news mobile apps as it targets 'millennials'?

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What could News Corp learn from successful news mobile apps as it targets 'millennials'?

The Financial Times claims that “people familiar with the situation” say News Corp is planning the development of an app which will mix content from News Corp titles with other articles specifically edited for the purpose. It will be aimed directly at "millennials".

According to Pew, 79% of American 18-24 year-olds possess smartphones, and while almost all of them are prolific users of other apps such as messaging service Whatsapp or social photo-sharing chat app Snapchat, few access traditional news apps.

When News Corp's early failed app publishing experiment The Daily closed, the reason given in a corporate statement was that the firm “could not find a large enough audience quickly enough to convince us the business model was sustainable in the long-term”. 

So, as News Corp reportedly considers a foray into the territory, what could they learn from those mobile news apps which have experienced success? 


When legacy media outlets first began publishing online, it was comparatively easy to acquire revenue through old-school forms of advertising like banner ads and pop-ups. Screen space on mobile apps, though, is at a premium.

Stephen Hutcheon, Innovation Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, told the World Editors Forum during the production of the Trends in Newsrooms 2014 report earlier this year that “the big problem with mobile is that it doesn’t make nearly as much money as desktop…there’s not enough space on that tiny screen to charge high CPMs (clicks-per-mille or thousand page views).”

But those behind The New York TimesNYT NOW app might well disagree with him: small Google banner advertisements appear across the bottom of their iPhone app. But like many news apps, including that of the UK’s Daily Telegraph, it offers some free content but charges a subscription fee for unlimited access, which somewhat circumvents the need for high CPM advertising.

What about news publishers who don’t have the luxury of a cashed up audience, though? Older consumers who are more financially secure may pay for a monthly app subscription, but the millennials Murdoch is targeting are looking for free content.

So, publishers now must be more creative when looking for ways to make money, and they are increasingly turning to native advertising – where advertising content is integrated to some degree with editorial – to plug the gap. BuzzFeed, for example, is strikingly open about when its content is paid advertising: each small, square link within its iPhone app has a maximum of four lines per headline, and the “Promoted by” symbol for advertorials receives 50% of that space. There is also little doubt that native advertising is, at least for the moment, a real money-spinner when utilised correctly - Mathew Ingram believes that much of VICE’s recent estimated profit of $175m came from native advertising.

Functionality and appearance

One of the most pressing problems facing news app developers from legacy publications, according to a recent article by Frederic Filloux, is that platforms “will find [themselves] in direct competition, not only with the usual players in its field, but also with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and scores of gaming applications”.

Publications looking to develop apps need to be as sure as they can be that they are not going to lose users to one of the multitude of other platforms on offer. The way news apps look and feel – and how easy they are to navigate – are of the utmost importance in keeping young consumers engaged. A particular layout flaw which appears to be going out of fashion is the horizontal menu bar of buttons across the bottom of the screen. A lot of small local outlets, such as Kentucky’s Louisville Local News Free, still have this – probably because they are unable to source the investment necessary to upgrade to the hidden vertical menus which are in vogue among more famous apps like VICE. It is no coincidence that most of the apps aimed primarily at younger people – such as BuzzFeed and VICE - use the most up-to-date layouts and functions to organise their content.

David Cohn, Chief Content Officer at Circa, told the World Editors Forum that “people want things that feel modern and fresh, especially young people, and that’s totally natural.” He also pointed out that this can and does change decade-on-decade: “Every decade has a look and feel to it, and young people want a look and feel that is unique to them, they don’t want something that feels like it’s from 1990,” he added.


News apps might be different to other forms of media, but they are not exempt from the imperative of producing quality content. The question, though, is what “quality content” means for separate audiences, and just as publishers aiming for the millenial market need to be sensitive to whether their layout is modern enough, they need to make sure output is what the 'new kids on the consumer block' want to read and watch. VICE investor and advisor Tom Freston believes that content produced by legacy media is almost frozen out of the market because “consumers seem to choose the new thing,” he told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “Authenticity is really important, and sometimes that's really hard to get. It comes out as pretty contrived if it's just laid out by some giant media company - it's hard for them to do it. Vice started from nothing, and it became this. Could a big conglomerate have invented it and foisted it on the public? Probably not. If you look at the internet, it's been hard for a lot of the traditional media companies to launch viable brands.”

For David Cohn, much of a modern news app’s success is about tone – especially when appealing to millenials. “I think we’re in the middle of it so it’s hard to define that tone,” he says. “But think about this: television news, cable TV news – CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc – is not that old, but it has a certain tone to it now. CNN was the first to create a 24-hour news channel, and for better or for worse defined the way that we understand that tone. I think that tone does not work for young people. I think that tone would definitely not work in a mobile setting. There’s something different in a mobile setting and there is a different tone for younger people now, and it’s kind of hard to know what that is now or define it now. The same way that maybe right as CNN launched it was hard to define the way that tone would grow and evolve and define the medium of 24-hour cable news channels.”

Jeff Sonderman makes the point that publishers need to be appealing to two groups: one being “possibly longtime readers or subscribers of legacy products”, and the other being “people who come to publishers sideways through social media or other referrals”. Sonderman points out that “mobile apps users are more interested in your editorial judgment — what do you consider the top story of the moment, what to read first, and so on. These app users are more interested in seeing each session as a journey that can be completed, rather than as an endless stream of content.” A non-dynamic app which allows its homepage to become stagnant, then, is doomed to be harmful to user engagement: technology which allows the app to track user preferences over time and offer content tailored to their specific needs is what's required.

Note: Mobile apps will be on the agenda at two of WAN-IFRA's upcoming events, the International Newsroom Summit (#NRS14) on the 13th/14th October, and the Tablet and App Summit (#TAS14) on the 14th/15th, both of which take place in Amsterdam. Trends in Newsrooms 2014 contains more detailed analysis of how newsrooms are adapting to the mobile world. 

PHOTO CREDITS: Screenshots of mobile apps from Buzzfeed, The New York Times, and Louisville Local News Free 


Nick Toner


2014-08-29 16:05

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