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June 19, 2013, 7:48 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Respond to this: The Boston Globe wants to offer iPhone users a native app and a cheap price

The newspaper world’s most prominent exemplar of responsive design is also putting a bet on Apple’s App Store — at a price point aimed at people who wouldn’t normally pay full fare.

In the debate over native apps versus mobile websites, The Boston Globe is officially hedging its bets. And in the how-much-to-charge paywall debate, it’s going surprisingly low.

Today the newspaper is releasing a new native iPhone app as an extension of the subscription based BostonGlobe.com. Considering that the launch of the well-reviewed BostonGlobe.com two and a half years ago was considered a landmark in responsive design — meaning it reflowed readily from desktop to tablet to smartphone without the need for a native app — it’s an interesting move.

As is the price: A full subscription to the Boston Globe iPhone app will cost just $3.99 a month. That’s $47.88 a year. Compare that to the alternatives: At full freight, a seven-day print-plus-digital subscription runs $727 a year, while a digital-only subscription costs $207 a year. All for the same content.

“A year-and-a-half in, we’ve been able to grow the subscriber base with our own systems and relationship with the customer. But this gives us access to another group of people we think we haven’t been able to get as well,” said Jeff Moriarty, the Globe’s vice president of digital products and general manager of Boston.com.

That audience, Moriarty said, is smartphone users — in this case iOS users who enjoy reading in the app environment, like discovering material through Newsstand, and who take advantage of the simplicity of the app store’s one-click purchasing.

A supplement to responsive design, not a replacement

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The Globe is, like other smart news organizations, recognizing that mobile is the future of news consumption. But its big bet was on responsive design — in a sense, a bet on mobile news being consumed in the browser rather than in a dedicated app — even though there were plenty of discussions within the Globe at the time about the wisdom of having a separate iPhone app to supplement its new web strategy.

Moriarty said the core of the newspaper’s two-site strategy remains the same: Boston.com will be the destination for free news, entertainment, and information, while BostonGlobe.com will be the home to the Globe’s reporting. But the new app also acknowledges that there are some things responsive sites and mobile browsers can’t do. As HTML5 evolves, fewer and fewer of those things are about technological constraints. But apps do still have some advantages in discovery and attention — being there to be found in the App Store, having a default position on the user’s home screen, and in the case of Apple’s Newsstand, some advantages in terms of automated issue delivery. (Although some of those advantages are changing.)

But Moriarty said going native shouldn’t be interpreted as a step away from responsive design. Taking the app route opens up users to a familiar set of gestures for reading and navigating, enables push notifications, and allows for a higher degree of customization, Moriarty said, noting that he couldn’t think of anyone “who has been as aggressive with responsive web design as we have and come back to the app market to take advantage of that as a niche play.” And newspapers can use all the niches they can assemble these days.

The Globe app echoes the newspaper typography and general feel of BostonGlobe.com. It offers up all the main sections of the Globe, but also lets readers create a customizable feed of headlines or scan a selection of trending stories. Two additional features, weather and traffic, are likely to add some utility to the app for readers in the Boston metro area.

“We focused on making it feel very mobile-native as opposed to porting an existing presentation over,” said Michael Manning, the Globe’s director for emerging products.

The Globe built the app over several months in conjunction with digital design company Mobiquity. The overall goal, Manning told me, was to create a reading experience that puts efficiency and utility front and center. App users are able to browse sections at will, or just check in on their preferences and the latest trending stories, Manning said. “We picture it as allowing people to pull out sections of the paper,” he said.

It’s the first time the paper has experimented with offering readers a broader degree of control over what they want to read. Personalization is a way of providing additional value to mobile readers, particularly those who may only have a few minutes to read at any time, Manning said. Pulling in that data on readers can also be useful to the Globe. “For us it’s really about what are the right ways to nudge people towards customization and personalization without making it a core requirement to experience the app,” Manning said.

Aiming at price-sensitive readers

Maybe even more interesting is the pricing, which would seem to undercut the substantially higher rates the paper is charging elsewhere. For any digital subscriber who does all their BostonGlobe.com reading on an iPhone, it seems like a no-brainer to get the same product in a native wrapper for 75 percent off. The bet here is that the low pricing will attract more revenue from new iPhone-addicted subscribers than it will chase off from digital and print subscribers downgrading. (As of April 1, the Globe reported roughly 32,000 digital subscribers, which includes replica editions and e-reader subscribers.)

The app even offers something BostonGlobe.com doesn’t — zero advertising for paying customers. (Non-paying app users can read four chosen-by-the-Globe articles a day, with advertising.)

I asked Moriarty about that risk, and he said it was a possibility they’ve considered. He thinks more readers would be reluctant to give up the perks and mobility of the higher-priced bundles. In order for the Globe to succeed, it has to meet readers at different levels, whether it’s for free on Boston.com, within the Boston Globe app, or in print, Moriarty told me. The hope is that the app could be a doorway into a broader connection to the Globe, he said.

“We don’t anticipate a lot of switching there,” Moriarty said. “We hope it’s a place where people will step into the Globe products and appreciate it and want it in other places as well.”

The Globe’s move could be the first of a number of similar shifts to seek out new products at lower price points. The New York Times Co., the Globe’s parent company (for at least a little while longer), announced in April that it would debut new cheaper and more expensive digital products to complement its existing packages.

Those moves come amid some industry-wide concerns that digital paywalls may be proving more effective at keeping some traditional newspaper readers than in attracting younger ones, who might be priced out by higher rates. The Times Co.’s announcements were specifically put in the context of The New York Times itself, not the Globe, but it seems that similar ideas are at work just up I-95.

POSTED     June 19, 2013, 7:48 p.m.
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