Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.
Apple’s mobile Newsstand is a reality: When Steve Jobs makes an announcement, it’s a pretty good bet that whatever he introduces will be what the media-tech world is talking about for the next week (or month, or year). On Monday, Jobs had plenty to introduce — led by a new Mac operating system (Lion), mobile operating system (iOS 5), and a new cloud service to replace MobileMe (iCloud). Those developments have implications for several different aspects of news and media, and I’ll try to run down as many of them as I can.
The most direct impact will likely come from Newsstand, an app Jobs unveiled that will be similar to iBooks, providing a single place for all of a user’s magazine and newspaper app subscriptions.
TechCrunch called it evidence that Apple is emphasizing that the iPad is for reading, while GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and the Guardian’s Jemima Kiss saw a trade-off for publishers: A simpler subscription interface (which likely means more renewals), but even more control for Apple. For consumers, as the Lab’s Andrew Phelps and Megan Garber noted, it’s the closest digital publishing has come to the traditional distribution model of regular home delivery.
Apple’s new operating systems will include a raft of upgrades, many of which overlap with existing third-party apps. The New York Times’ Bits blog has a good breakdown of what apps might be threatened, led by the reading-list creator Instapaper, as Apple will begin offering a similar basic function as part of Safari. Instapaper founder Marco Arment was understandably perturbed by the news, but later reasoned that the upgrade could make saving things to read later a built-in part of the workflow of millions of Apple users — and that if even a small percentage of them want a deluxe version of that service, Instapaper will still be in fine shape. The point was echoed by The Next Web’s Matthew Panzarino and by Andrew and Megan here at the Lab.
Apple eases up — kind of: Apple made another significant change this week, too, this one without an announcement. As MacRumors discovered yesterday, Apple quietly adjusted its policy on in-app subscriptions, allowing publishers to sell in-app subscriptions for whatever price they want (previously, they had to be at least as cheap as app subscriptions outside Apple’s store) and lifting the requirement that subscriptions must be offered within the app itself.
All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka has a good explanation of the change, noting that Apple may be allowing companies to circumvent its App Store, but it’s not going to let it be easy. (You still can’t, for example, include in your app a “Buy” button pointing users to subscribe via your website.) Still, the lifting of the price restriction could be an encouragement for publishers because, as paidContent’s Staci Kramer pointed out, now they can raise prices to absorb Apple’s 30% revenue cut.
But that doesn’t mean publishers will end up taking advantage of their newfound freedoms. The Lab’s Joshua Benton argued that most publishers won’t, because customers will resist varied app prices and because Apple’s app purchasing system offers some significant value to publishers that might be worth its 30% cut. And media analyst Ken Doctor reminded us that Apple still holds just about all the cards in this hand.
Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman made an interesting observation: Apple seems to be using the adjusted guidelines to funnel app subscriptions into its new Newsstand. Newsstand’s likely prominence still leaves plenty of open questions for publishers (including the ones outlined earlier), Sonderman said.
The Financial Times hedges its bets on Apple: One publisher stated quite emphatically this week that it’s not going to play Apple’s game: The Financial Times unveiled a mobile web app intended as an alternative to Apple’s App Store-based apps.
By using an HTML5-based app, the FT can design a single app for any major mobile device and get around Apple’s 30 percent cut of app subscriptions, but its apps may get pulled from the App Store. (The next day, the FT responded to Apple’s new guidelines with what sounded like indignation, sounding as though they’ll charge forward.)
An FT exec told the Guardian that the app was something of a line in the sand, resulting from what he called a “Mexican standoff” with Apple. The move was heralded as a critical one in the tug-of-war between Apple and publishers: All Things Digital called it the first attempt by a major news org to create an HTML5 app that feels just like an App Store app, and paidContent said the move was “significant and brave,” especially since its Apple-native apps have been so successful.
Bobbie Johnson of GigaOM wondered if this would be the catalyst news orgs need to start standing up to Apple, and Ken Doctor said the FT’s main value would be in providing a counterweight to the Apple-centric market, as well as experiments for other news orgs to learn from. Benedict Evans, meanwhile, said the FT may have a dedicated readership to pull this off where other news orgs can’t.
There were a few voices pushing back against the “FT goes to war with Apple” narrative: Noting that the FT says it has no plans of leaving the App Store, the Lab’s Andrew Phelps argued that “FT’s web app could be less about shunning Apple and more about working with it: keeping one foot inside Apple’s garden, and the other outside.” Doctor talked about the FT’s strategy as a blueprint for news orgs to use Apple as Apple uses them.
And both Phelps and Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman noted that the FT’s not the first news org to try this approach, as NPR and others have dabbled in HTML5 apps before. U.K.-based journalist Kevin Anderson reviewed the app and concluded that HTML5 will soon be “the standard that enables the next wave of cross-platform innovation.”
The metered model gets a closer look: Ever since early last year, when the New York Times announced its plans to charge for its website through a metered model, that form of online paid content has gotten far more attention than any other. This week, French media consultant Frederic Filloux offered a useful explainer for the model, detailing how it works, what goes into publishers’ decisions about how to implement them, and where they fit among other paid-content models. One of its major appeals, he argued, is that advertisers see visitors who have paid up as much more valuable, paying as much as a 30 percent premium to reach them.
Filloux presented the metered model as a way of combating the overreliance on one-time, fly-by web visitors by news sites. British journalist Kevin Anderson echoed those concerns, calling for news orgs to “move to more honest and realistic metrics” and separate out “bounce” visitors, or those who stay on the site for only a few seconds, from their traffic figures. Meanwhile, Filloux’s metered-model math didn’t sway GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, who said he still opposes it as a fundamentally backwards-facing strategy.
Another piece of paid-content news worth noting briefly: Outgoing Fox News personality Glenn Beck’s new Internet broadcast-style network will employ a monthly subscription fee. You can check out the commentary on his venture at Mediagazer.
A local reporting crisis: The U.S. Federal Communications Commission added fuel to the long-simmering discussion over the future of accountability reporting in a digital media environment this week, releasing a study finding that the U.S. faces a critical shortage of local reporting, leaving local governmental bodies with an alarming power to influence the news agenda without being checked.
As the Lab’s Megan Garber noted, its bleak picture of local reporting and many of its proposed solutions were nothing new, except for its recommendation that the government make efforts to funnel advertising into local media, rather than national. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan said now is a ripe time for a local news reporting resurgence and urged young reporters to stay away from media centers like New York and flock to small towns instead, and the Atlantic Wire’s Adam Clark Estes looked at how to make that resurgence a reality.
A crackup at AOL?: Henry Blodget of Business Insider calculated a tidbit about the post-merger AOL which, if true, is pretty startling: It now has a larger editorial staff than The New York Times. But just because the new, content-oriented AOL is big doesn’t mean it’s stable. A few days earlier, Business Insider published an anonymous note by an AOL staffer painting a picture of a corporate culture marked by paranoia, dissension, and incompetence.
In a more thoroughly reported story, Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici found a similarly grim situation at AOL, revealing a misunderstanding on AOL’s part about how the Huffington Post’s business model works and a dysfunctional sales department, among other problems. Business Insider came back later in the week with a conversation with an anonymous Patch editor who described low morale, sagging ad sales, poor leadership and a clueless business model.
Gawker’s Ryan Tate combed through the two pieces for a good, quick rundown of the charges levied against Arianna Huffington, and the Atlantic Wire’s John Hudson also put together a good summary of what’s wrong.
Reading roundup: Whew. Here’s what else folks were talking about this week:
— We found out a bit more about the New York Times’ new executive editor, Jill Abramson. Here are profiles and interviews from the New York Observer, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, Adweek, and Women’s Wear Daily. Don’t have time for all that? The Atlantic Wire has a good roundup.
— A new site worth keeping an eye on, especially for sports fans: Grantland, a project of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, launched this week. Simmons has called it a Miramax to ESPN’s Disney, and former ESPNer Dan Shanoff is optimistic about its chances. Simmons said he’s not into chasing pageviews, and here at the Lab, Tim Carmody looked at Simmons’ effort to find success at the intersection of sports and pop culture.
— Also at the Lab, Justin Ellis took a look at Hacks/Hackers and the future of the niche Q&A site.
— The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran suggested the “Lego approach” to storytelling as a way to add context and integration to journalism.
— Finally, one great practical piece and another one to think on. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Craig Silverman got some fantastic tips from various social media experts about how to verify information on social media, and NYU j-prof Jay Rosen took stock of where “pro-am journalism” is and where it’s headed.