News as an app
How do you get people to pay for news online? The fashionable solution touted by many anxious about the future of journalism in a world where so much news is free has been to offer readers an app.
A clutch of British newspaper groups have launched paid applications for smartphones and tablet computers - but the jury is out on whether any has found the right recipe at the right price.
At a media convention on Wednesday Britain's Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was praising the Times iPad app, available even on Christmas Day, as an example of innovation.
The Times app is perhaps the most successful aspect of Rupert Murdoch's paywall initiative, with tens of thousands of subscribers (the exact number is not clear) paying £10 a month to get their daily paper on the Apple's tablet computer.
I have been using it for some months, and cannot quite decide whether it is a hit or a miss. After some early teething problems, the newspaper now downloads onto the tablet easily enough and provides a reasonably slick version of a traditional reading experience.
What it does not do is take advantage of those things that online products can deliver which a paper cannot. Search, for instance, is absent - trying to find out whether today's Times has an article on a particular subject means flicking through every section.
More seriously, the app is not a "live" newspaper - what you get each morning is the edition that went to bed about the time you did. Take today's iPad Times for instance. There is a long article about Apple and the challenges it faces from rivals now that Steve Jobs is taking sick leave.
But not only does it quote a share price that is way out of date - the 6% fall at Tuesday's NASDAQ opening - it also fails to mention the startlingly good results published at 2130 GMT on Tuesday evening.
Still, that may not matter to the affluent, older crowd who presumably pay to get an iPad experience that is as close as possible to a newspaper.
By contrast, two rivals are experimenting with apps that are closer to the web news model, while seeking to recoup some of the costs of their journalism. The Guardian, which launched its first iPhone app just over a year ago, has now brought out a new version with a different payment model.
The first app was trumpeted as a real success, downloaded 214,000 times at a price of £2.39. But a one-off fee to read the paper, theoretically forever, always looked a better deal for readers than for the Guardian's bottom line.
So now, once you download the app, you are invited to pay £2.99 for six months or £3.99 for a year. For that you get some improvements on the previous version, including video, live sports scores, and live blogging of big news stories.
It's that last feature which the Guardian's digital supremo Janine Gibson is really touting - "It's a better experience in the app now than it is on the site," she says.
Not everybody will have to pay readers in the United States can get an ad-supported version of the app for free. The Guardian has realised that its website may have a healthy audience of American readers, but very few of them are prepared to pay for the experience on their phones.
Now we will find out whether the UK readers who tried out the first app will rush to pay again for a slightly better version. The old app is still working, though it will gradually become obsolete. I imagine there have been plenty of agonised discussions at Guardian Towers about setting a price which will make economic sense without deterring too many of its existing customers.
Especially as the newspaper has been one of the louder voices insisting that news should not be behind a paywall: "We're not evangelical about it," says Janine Gibson. "if we have a product that we've spent a lot of money on designing for a platform where the user experience suggests we can charge for it, then we'll do that as well."
But the Guardian is not alone - or even first - in experimenting with this new way of paying for a news app. The Daily Mail, whose free ad-supported website has recently proved a huge crowdpuller, is already offering a subscription application for the iPhone.
It's packed with content, with a bias towards celebrities and sport, the mixture which has made the Mail's website such a success. But what really stands out is the price - £4.99 for six months, £8.99 for a year, substantially more than the Guardian's app.
Gradually, from the Times to the Guardian to the Mail, newspapers which once offered everything online for nothing, are experimenting with the price readers will pay to get easy access to their content. Soon, there will be another test, when Rupert Murdoch's new iPad newspaper launches - one rumour says it will have a daily price of $0.99.
News groups appear to be groping in the dark, unsure of what readers want from an app. But anyone who comes up with a compelling product at a price that attracts a crowd will be acclaimed in newsrooms around the world.
Update 1720: I've just made an embarrassing discovery. The Mail Online app is in fact free for now - the newspaper is offering readers a trial before they have to pay. But when I downloaded the app I somehow found my way to a subscription page and shelled out £4.99 for six months. Which makes me, I imagine, one of a very select few.
What is more, there is no guarantee that when it does start charging the Mail will not decide to lower its price, now that it has seen what the Guardian is charging.
One more point - both the Guardian and the Mail are also working on iPad versions, and both of them are likely to be quite a deal more expensive than their smartphone apps.