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June 1, 2017, 4:36 p.m.

The Wall Street Journal is killing its What’s News app (but bringing lessons from it to its main app)

The Journal is the latest news organization to build a mobile-first secondary app as a user-interface playground — and then return focus to the core app.

The Wall Street Journal on Thursday said it was shutting down its standalone What’s News digest app — one of the few survivors of a period when top publishers were launching secondary mobile apps aimed at reaching different audiences and incubating innovations harder to execute behind the outlet’s primary homescreen icon. The Journal is currently in the process of revamping its main news app, and it plans to introduce features it developed for What’s News into the main app.

The What’s News app — named for the Journal’s daily front-page briefs — launched in the summer of 2015 as the paper’s first mobile-only product. The app features a swipe-heavy design with a select 10 news stories at a time (plus some opinion). It’s updated regularly throughout each weekday, puts stories in quick summary form, uses custom headlines distinct from those on WSJ.com, and allows users to follow specific news topics. Access to the app was included as part of a subscription to the Journal. The Journal said the app had been downloaded more than 110,000 times; it will cease publishing on June 30.

Prior to the app’s launch, deputy editor-in-chief Matt Murray told my colleague Shan Wang that the What’s News app was the result of a concerted effort from the Journal’s news desk to become mobile-first.

“We were simply doing what all journalists are now doing, which is thinking about digital journalism, what our readers want, and how you experience news on your phone,” he said at the time. “Somewhere we made the connection to the news digest already in our papers, What’s News.”

Now the Journal is incorporating those lessons into its main app as part of a larger overhaul. In an interview earlier this month, before the paper announced its plans to to shut the What’s News app, mobile editor Phil Izzo said it was looking toward the What’s News app for inspiration as the Journal thought about introducing more flexible ways to indicate story hierarchy and package stories in the app.

This morning’s homescreens in the main WSJ app (left) and the What’s News app.

Currently, the main Journal app’s homescreen is just a feed of headlines and summaries. The summaries are pulled directly from the ledes of the articles, which means they are often cut off mid-sentence. One of the Journal’s priorities in redesigning the main app is to give readers more information on its homescreen.

“There’s always a completed sentence on the What’s News App in the summary that we’ve put on the home screen,” said Izzo, who was editor of the What’s News app when it launched. “That generated much more engagement and had people come back to that homescreen and find use for that homescreen — since it wasn’t just a table of contents but was in some ways a product in and of itself. That’s one of the first things we’re thinking about when we come into the main app with these changes we’re making to the news feed. If somebody comes in and reads that news feed and that’s all they need to read, that’s a successful experience for a member. It’s not about clickbait and getting people to get in and read more things. Obviously, we want people to feel engaged, but we want people overall to have positive experiences and if all they want to do is catch up we should give them that ability.”

Other news organizations, such as The New York Times, also introduced secondary news apps only to pare them back. (It’s a common strategy in businesses seeking to stoke innovation — separate and reintegrate.) In 2014, the Times launched the millennial-seeking NYT Now and a standalone Opinion app. It quickly shuttered the Opinion app before moving NYT Now to a free model, eventually eliminating it altogether last summer.

The Times of London also last year closed its secondary app aimed at international audiences after only 10 months of operation. The Washington Post still maintains two separate mobile apps (one “Classic” app, with the usual list of headlines, and one with a more swipe-friendly, forward-looking interface).

The Journal still operates a handful of other standalone apps, including the WSJ Live video app (though it hasn’t been updated since 2015) and WSJ City, an app that shares the same design as What’s News, but exclusively covers London-based business news.

But the Journal’s core focus now is its main mobile app — starting with iOS. Earlier this month, the Journal introduced rich push alerts and added the functionality to follow specific reporters in the app and receive a push notification every time they publish a story — useful for readers who want to pay close attention to a reporter covering their industry. (The paper had introduced a following feature — for topics and companies, not reporters — in the What’s News app last year. The Journal said those who used it spent 20 percent more time in the app than those who didn’t.)

In addition to redesigning the main feed to add more flexibility, the Journal would like to add increased personalization to the app, product director Jordan Sudy said.

“It’s already personalized with content that you save and the push alerts you’re receiving by following certain authors, but we want to be able to actually have some sort of feed or what have you in the app that will surface that content to you in a digestible way,” Sudy said. “Everybody sees the content that’s been chosen by the editors, but [we want to] also make the app for you — but not doing it in a binary way. Right now, it’s all the same app for everybody — the Times sort of does the same thing — or you have these aggregators where it’s the same app for everybody, but aggregated personalized content. We want to make sure we do both.”

The Journal’s personalization capabilities aren’t there to enable that quite yet, but Izzo said it is in the process of laying the groundwork by introducing better metadata through improved article tagging.

While previous redesigns were introduced as big wholesale changes (I wrote about WSJ.com’s 2015 redesign, for example) the Journal is now focusing on a more iterative process that will see lots of smaller incremental changes, Izzo said. He declined to provide a timeline for when the Journal would introduce additional features or when its current cycle would finish.

“We’re thinking of multiple iterations for as long as the phone is the primary delivery system for news, and then whatever comes next, then that’s going to be the thing that we’re thinking of,” Izzo said. “The whole point of making it an iterative process is that we don’t just focus on this intensely for a year and then we go back to doing something else. That’s going to create the same problem we had in the past. What we’re trying to do is set up a place where we can make changes. We’re never going to be a tech company. We’re never going to be Google or Facebook. But what we can do is have more control over our product and more control over what we put out.”

POSTED     June 1, 2017, 4:36 p.m.
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