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News as an app

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:30 UK time, Wednesday, 19 January 2011

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.

Screenshot of The Times iPad 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But not only does it quote a share price that is way out of date - the 6% fall at Tuesday's NASDAQ opening - it also fails to mention the startlingly good results published at 2130 GMT on Tuesday evening.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.

Screenshot of The Guardian iPhone app

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."

Screenshot of the Daily Mail's iPhone app

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    The Amazon Kindle, a lower cost solution than an iFad, also has a range of subscription newspapers at about a tenner a month which are delivered over its built-in 3G wireless and have a 14 day opt-out trial period.

    A number of newspaper apps are available for Android, along with news consolidator apps that collect stories from multiple web sites.

  • Comment number 2.

    "How do you get people to pay for news online?"

    For most people you can't. It doesn't make any sense given the free content available.

  • Comment number 3.

    The problem with paying for news is you can find it free on the internet.

    Sky News, the BBC, ITN, AP, Reuters, Fox, CNN all over free access to their websites, so why would I pay for it?

    I haven't purchased a newspaper in years, honestly. I purchased an Android tablet that runs Android 2.2 with flash, so not only can I stream live video on my tablet sitting on the train, I can browse the latest breaking news.

    I heard the editor of the Independent on Radio 5 the other week pointing out that people were reading physical papers on the Underground, that will stop once they get wifi on the underground.

  • Comment number 4.

    Once again a very Apple-centric article from the mainstream media (I know the article is specifically about iPhones but it mentions the plans for iPad apps but nothing else)a.

    Now that Android joins Nokia and Blackberry in outselling iPhone, how long will it be before apps from the major newspapers make it on to these other services? One would imagine Android/Blackberry/Nokia/Windows Mobile apps will be released by the majopr publishers including the BBC sometime soon considering the money which can potentially be made from such a large audience (mobile ad spend is now greater on Android than iOS).

  • Comment number 5.

    The free Telegraph app has just released an update but is still terribly slow and jerky. Are the paid apps generally better? I don't think news apps will truly come into their own until wi-fi becomes more universally available whilst roaming.

  • Comment number 6.

    @1 It's hardly an iFad having been one of the biggest selling tech items that company has ever made (and helping them to a larger market cap than Microsoft). I do agree with the rest of your points tho.

  • Comment number 7.

    Between the excellent - and free - Guardian Anywhere, Time Mobile and NYTimes apps for my Android phone, I get all the news I could want when I'm on the bus and train.

    I'm happy to have unobtrusive adverts at the bottom of my screen if it is a sustainable model for the publications to allow me free, unfiltered content.

  • Comment number 8.

    Also before people ask where I got figures for Android outselling iPhone in the UK - that is according to a Guardian report today quoting the boss of Carphoen Warehouse who said Android sales overtook Apple sales sometime in 2010.

  • Comment number 9.

    If you use an app for a few months and still can't decide, chances are it's a miss.

    I use pulse news reader, all news sites, blogs and feeds in one place. I can keep out the left or right wing bias too if I want.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks to modern smartphones having powerful hardware, decent RSS feed apps (Google Reader and Pulse are two of my favourites on Android) and Twitter which gives me realtime news (Twitter brought me to this post right here) I have no need or desire to pay for an app for news.

    Smartphone web browsers are the final nail in the app coffin for me.

  • Comment number 11.

    I don't know what to think: personally I get my news for free, mostly from this BBC site. However, the BBC News site is funded by the TV license payers, and as I no longer own a TV, I'm not one of them. This, I suppose, means I get my news really for free, while other people are kindly paying for it on my behalf. I wouldn't be too surprised to find that, in the future, the BBC website was only available to those who pay a license fee. But until then, I'll keep using it.

    As for actually paying for news: never. I appreciate that journalists and everyone else involved have to earn a living, but (and perhaps selfishly) I'll never pay for it. If there ever comes a day when we can only get news by paying for it, then I'll be content to live out the remainder of my days in blissful ignorance.

  • Comment number 12.

    I don't mean to be picky (well, I suppose I do...), but this could really do with some proofreading. For example:

    "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. "


    "Not everybody will have to pay readers in the United States can get an ad-supported version of the app for free."

    Fairly basic stuff, really.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'd never realised how bad the Times app is. You can't search? It only has yesterdays's news?
    Is it purely a transition for people who simply *have* to read a daily newspaper but want to do that on a computer?
    Whilst the BBC is free online, since we've already paid for it, newspaper subscriptions have to offer something more than what the BBC does.
    I guess I'd pay extra for the investigative journalism that newspapers do. I'd pay simply because you have to have an open press and its better that their income comes from a distributed set of readers rather than Advertisers with vested interests. Currently I think newspapers can only make money by giving away free the day-to-day journalism which gets people to their site and getting the really interested readers to pay extra for in-depth journalism.
    Before the internet, with newspapers you could pick and choose which parts you wanted to read and only read the detailed interesting bits, where as the BBC was just a very edited, clumped together summary repeated at 6pm and 10pm.
    Now it feels like the opposite. The Times feels like its an edited summary of the news that it wants you to see, where as the BBC website is so vast and so up to date that you have much more control over what you news you read.

  • Comment number 14.

    The Times (especially the Sunday Times) is basically an Apple promotional publication now. Every week there's at least a couple of (always pro) Apple stories in the main paper, then there's the weekly "Planet of the Apps" section which rarely mentions anything other than iOS programmes, and finally the Iphone/Ipad gaming section - ignoring the considerably larger Xbox/Playstation/Nintendo/PC gamin sectors entirely.


    The BBC has seemingly bought a number of iPads (Jake Humphrey, Rory and Will Gompertz immediately come to mind) - nice at £400 a pop. How many other fondleslabs have the Beeb bought?

    Anyway, point of the article. I actually agree with Rory here - I don't think the Ipad flavour of the Times is actually that good. They claim to have made a lot of innovation, but all they've done is embed videos into the text in place of images - something they've been doing on the Website for years. All the app appears to do is format the paper for the iPad's screen. Nice feature, but it that it? No search? huh?

    If that's the case, then the app should be free and you pay for the content at £1.20 per issue (like the paper version) with normal subscription rates.

    News International, The Guardian and all the other apps have all been stung by Apple's recent decision to demand the subscription payments go through iTunes so they get their 30% despite having nothing to do with the content (they don't even host it). Now there's a story for you Rory, through getting quotes out of anyone will be all but impossible....

  • Comment number 15.

    You read the mail, Rory? Gosh! That *is* embarrassing... ;-)

  • Comment number 16.

    I think this blog is a great debate where for once marketing minds, together with sales, advertising and ultimately directors and owners are waiting to see what works. This is surely a sign of 'people power'. Where once we were told what to read, when and how (I think of an Armstrong & Miller sketch where it is decided Sunday papers 'aren't really that good') they're waiting to decide what people want to read.

    We should not treat this as an Apple vs Google vs Nokia debate - that's kind of missing the point as this is about content; developers can quickly build and optimise for various OS's. Having worked with 80% of British and EU broadcasters and many publishing houses, apps, as opposed to optimised mobile websites is where investment is happening.

    Just as every business wants to be on Facebook and Twitter, every news house & publisher wants to be on smart phones/tablets yet nobody knows how to make money from this, for now.

    Personally I feel we should look at the huge gaming market place for Smart apps - 'lite versions' that give you a taster of what's on offer should be applied to Newspapers; 'we will give you a bit of information though if you subscribe - you will get a lot more'. Mobile advertising is hugely in it's infancy.

  • Comment number 17.

    What no media company can do is rest on its laurels; replicating content from print to web to mobile is a yawn. Successful apps give people either entertainment, organizational or efficiency value. Media companies, old and new, need to put themselves (literally) in the shoes of their readers -- particularly if those shoes are standing on a street corner, riding a train or situated on an ottoman. If they are on the move, people want apps that solve a problem -- with little need for input. In a more relaxed state people are looking for movies and interactivity.

    If media companies are banking on mobile they should be thinking (way) outside the box. Read more about the "Appification" of old media:

    One thing is for certain, the rapid release of devices means yesterday's app may not be able to keep up with today. So having an environment that allows for innovation and rapid iteration is key.


  • Comment number 18.

    Just to add, I do think Apple's reporting is very omnipotent. The fact that you cannot gain access to a single view of subscribers is poor and will ultimately affect a companies marketing budget and will hold up progress of this market. If Apple stay like this then a subscription model will be the only route to go down.

  • Comment number 19.

    Newspapers need to up their game to be worth paying for to read on a tablet.
    With the paper version of the "I" at 20p and online BBC and Sky free what extra do they offer?
    They need to be searchable and above all offer many more photographs, the one shot chosen for the poorly printed paper version could be replaced by a whole series of photos of a news event which look fantastic when view on a tablet and would cost very little.

  • Comment number 20.

    People will not pay (much/enough) for news unless that can show that by knowing the news they can actually save or make money. Hence Reuters commercial news lets casino bankers gamble with better information or rather with better (i.e. more up to date inside information) that those taking the other side of the contract. [If I know of a frost in Brazil or an assassination before you I can sell you something at an inflated price and buy it back at a lower price when the market reacts negatively to the information I already have.]

    Online news is nowhere as good as a newspaper for reading lengthy analytical stories - reading on a screen just does not work as well. So The Sun online may work (if Sun 'readers' had any money), whereas The Times will not do so well. What is the 'I' (condensed Independent) going to do the the market? Will it hit the broadsheets hard? I doubt it! But it may hit the Daily Mail!

  • Comment number 21.

    I haven't bought a newspaper for many years because:

    1. There is no "news" - all reports are as of, at best, 3.00 in the morning
    2. They are filled with (frequently invented and untrue) stories and opinions from "writers" I don't know from Adam.

    I won't pay for this online or offline

  • Comment number 22.

    The cost of news via the iPad is set to go beyond this.

    I read in "The Register" that Apple are forcing Belgium newspapers to go via iTunes so that Apple can take a cut of the profits and the newspapers lose sight of their members. There is discussion whether this will happen to the rest of the world. To quote The Register article on the 15th Jan...

    "Apple is putting the screws to a handful of European newspapers, no longer allowing them to provide their paid print subscribers with free access to their content through downloads into iPad apps. Whether this is the beginning of a wider crackdown is not yet known." there is much speculation what will happen to the cost of news delivery via the iPad.

    So long as the BBC and The Register are free, I've got all the world and industry news I need. After the China workforce abuses, including the neurotoxin usage, I wouldn't have an Apple device in my home, anyway.

  • Comment number 23.

    @16 I agree that this shouldn't be an Apple vs Google vs Nokia debate, however Rory's article precipitates that debate by its unbalanced coverage of Apple products without even mentioning anything other platform. To add to the unbalance he even found a screenshot of an Apple story - you couldn't make it up !

    @6 As the FT reported in October, "Sales of Apple’s iPad have failed to meet the steadily rising expectations for the touchscreen tablet device, letting some of the air out of the enthusiasm that has built on Wall Street in recent weeks."

  • Comment number 24.

    I just want to clear some points up...

    @14 - Journo's don't pay market prices for Apple Products. If PR companies don't give them to you, Apple sell them to Media Companies at atleast 30% off - It's a barrier to competition.

    @12 - The point of blogging is that it is quick to market. You shouldn't expect the same level of proof reading that you would get in published journalism - is this the end of proper English? Probably, but that's the immediate world we live in. If you want good Journalism, you'll have to pay for it, not follow blogs.

  • Comment number 25.

    The iPad Times app is just regurgitating the content produced by a journalistic organisation with a heritage of focus on producing a physical daily newspaper. It must be very hard to change that culture even if they want to. The app has greatly improved since the first version but its not brilliant. The Sunday Times app is a little better presumably because they have more time to build a tablet version but its still basic. It will be very intriguing to see what The Daily looks like when it comes out.

    @23 That FT article published when the analysts ignored Apple's repeated advice that iPad demand was outstripping their manufacturing capacity. Apple bought new production capacity on-line to address that supply problem a few weeks afterwards and the results of that are shown in their latest results announcement.

    I notice plenty of recent commentary about those latest numbers saying Apple exceeded the analyst expectations on iPad numbers having shipped 7.3 million in the December quarter. People might not like the iPad, not see the point of tablets or even loathe everything Apple including their customers. However nobody can legitimately call it a fad with those shipment numbers that are 74% up on the previous quarter. @6 was bang on.

  • Comment number 26.

    Why people would want to pay for tabliod trash is beyond me especially when they can get reliable news sources for free

  • Comment number 27.

    Of course, if you want free news from somewhere other than the BBC, there is always the Metro - free newspaper and free app. I haven't had to pay for news for years.

  • Comment number 28.

    "Rory C J wrote - 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 compute"

    Take away the iPad or offer a free alternative app and would the same person still pay £10 pcm for "news"?

    I doubt it.

    Also Rory didn't you do a piece on the implications of paid for electronic newspapers a while back, seems you are repeating yourself, and getting that all important Apple plug in.

    I don't see you reviewing apps on the BlackBerry or other smartphone platforms. And to think, I pay your wages via my TV tax...

  • Comment number 29.

    I do not understand, does not compute, why pay for news when it is available online free, a page even most phones can display..

  • Comment number 30.

    I find it ironic that the fashion these days is to use web apps for things that native software is probably better at (for the moment) e.g. Google Docs, and to use a downloaded app for what the web is better for, e.g. reading the news!
    The BBC app for the iPhone is slower, crashes and makes really easy to click the wrong item. The mobile web site on the other hand suffers from none of these problems. The only advantage in the case of the BBC app is that it lets you watch News24 live (which could be done via the web anyway). I found the same with The Guardian app.

    I think I read somewhere that Apple want to have a cut of subscriptions as well as the app price? It seems backwards to me.

  • Comment number 31.

    I feel frustrated by all the angst. And by the queer obsession with subscriptions. I want to buy a newspaper now and again, why can't I choose to buy it daily, online, just like a paper copy. C'mon take the risk, sell me a paper!

  • Comment number 32.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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