Smartphone news apps are built on sacrifices. Few provide the full wealth of information available on the web sites news organizations have spent years building up and out; the screen size alone limits the information density an app can present to the reader. Whether it’s interactive graphics, multimedia, or entire blogs or sections, something’s usually missing.
For Politico, that meant their original iPhone app exchanged some of the website’s richness and variety of content for simplicity. For an outlet built for reporting specifics at speed, that was a sacrifice worth living with. Or at least it was, Ryan Mannion, Politico’s chief technology officer told me. “The biggest thing we saw is people didn’t want their experience dumbed down,” he said. “They didn’t want an inferior experience when going to the app versus going to the website.”
So they opened it up. The recent update to the Politico app is jammed with all the news and blog categories from the site, adding in new areas like video, morning tipsheets (including Mike Allen’s Playbook), Arena, and the policy channel. (The app was rebuilt based on the codebase of Politico’s iPad app, which with the tablet’s larger screen size was built with more news streams than the iPhone version.) The new app also introduces push notifications for breaking news, which were absent before — readers were expected to sign up for email alerts — and added delayed reading features, including offline reading and article saving.
All the new features suggest Politico wants to create a more personally tailored news experience. Through the app, I could now choose just to keep updated on the 2012 election, Ben Smith’s new blog, and tip sheets on defense, lobbying, and technology. If I have no need for transportation policy news or Congress, the app won’t pull it in. Mannion said those updates in particular will be of value to a busy Washington readership that may find itself without a signal either in transit or a blacked out committee room.
“Getting on planes, the Metro — just being able to download content in the morning and make sure it’s available throughout your commute, that was the big reason,” Mannion said.
In moving towards personalization, the updated app slides away from a kind of utilitarian functionality that places a value on specifics and speed in information. If the app was “dumbed down” in anyway, it was in the service of information, the content, and getting it to readers quickly was what mattered. But Politico has built out a wealth of verticals its iPhone app debuted in February 2010, and if you’re the type of person that wants your mix of information on green energy loans and celeb spotting with presidential news, that stripped down delivery system becomes a hinderance.
The tech doesn’t matter to readers, but technology in service of their content does, Mannion said. Speed and context is still what matters for Politico, but also unobtrusive technology that doesn’t constrain your journalism. “Ease of use is the biggest improvement we made to the app itself, and I think it’s very well done,” he said. “But I think we just scratched the surface. There are more things that can be implemented from a personalization standpoint. That’s something we’re looking to provide our readers with in the future.”