Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Worldwide, news publishers face a “platform reset”
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Sept. 20, 2012, 10 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

The newsonomics of all-access delight

We access news on multiple devices. Shouldn’t those devices be smart enough to connect our actions to their presentation?

Remember the first time you got cross-platform delight?

For me, it was when I started a second look at “Lost in Translation” on my TV, happened to click on my Netflix app while working out the next day, and was astounded to see the film paused precisely and ready to start where I’d left off, at the literal single touch of a finger. Pandora is a similar wonder: Create an Adele/Tom Waits station on the web and it’s instantly available on the iPhone. Start with Comcast’s Xfinity app on the iPad and, with a touch, you can record tonight’s baseball game or launch a series recording of “Homeland.”

Such ease is the payoff for true all-access subscriptions: Pay us once, and we’ll really get you our content whenever and wherever you want it. Until recently, that seemed distant, always a bit unreachable. Now, it’s becoming, fitfully, both reality and consumer expectation.

But our news reading is much more disjointed. Read a story on a smartphone and it may be grayed out there when you come back, but it won’t be grayed out on the tablet or web. Save a story on one device, and you won’t find it saved on another. Start a 10-page opus on the phone, and you’ll have to reopen on the web.

In truth, news — and its steady, unending stream — is harder to tame than finite movies, songs, and TV programs. Yet consumer appetite — and now that pesky expectation — has been whetted by those near-miraculous entertainment plays. Tell readers that all-access is the new name of their subscription, as many hundreds of publishers are doing, and they’ll soon think it should be as smooth as their entertainment device switching. Get it right, if you are a news publisher, and you’ll reap the dividends.

It becomes a new reason to be more than an anonymous visitor to a site, to at least register. Of course, registration seems so 1999; it’s paying digital circulation, or all-access customers, that are today’s game.

You’re also on the road to proving out what membership might mean. That’s hugely important as bigger dailies, from the Boston Globe and the L.A. Times to New London’s Day, fill in this hazy notion of membership as a key strategy of the next three years.

Connecting these dots is no longer something to put on a wish list in a month of multiple iPhone and Kindle Fire releases. If you take a look at the recently released Ipsos-created, Google-commissioned research on multi-screen usage, we see that consumers are mixing and matching their own cross-platform experiences quite rapidly. Consider a few of the datapoints in that work, well worth sharing and brainstorming around within news companies:

  • 90 percent of consumers (American, in this survey) access news, information, and entertainment through screens. Only 10 percent of the 4.4 hours of daily media time is spent with newspapers, magazines, or radio. (Scarborough, one of the newspaper industry’s key research providers, affirms that this data seems reasonable if radio is excluded, meaning about 10% for print.) That’s a new dash of sobering reality for print-based newsies.
  • TV still commands the longest session times at 43 minutes, but the digital posse is hot on its footsteps. Desktop and laptops are at 39 minutes, tablets at 30 minutes, and smartphones at 17 minutes.
  • 38 percent of daily media interactions begin with the smartphone (already!) and 24 percent with computers, with 9 percent starting with tablets. Smartphones, which are really personal communication devices, are the most common place for consumers to start their connected activities.

Then, it gets even more intriguing, as the study starts to put numbers on new behaviors we see in ourselves and our customers.

  • The report defines two primary modes of multi-screening: Sequential usage, “moving from one device to another at different times to accomplish a task,” and simultaneous usage, “using more than one device at the same time for either a related or an unrelated activity.” Ninety percent of respondents use multiple screens sequentially within a day. Top tasks include browsing the Internet, social networking, shopping, and searching for information.
  • Then there’s the emerging screen combos: Consumers use an average of three different screen combinations every day. 81 percent combine smartphones and TV, 66 percent combine smartphones and computers, and 66 percent combine computers and TV. The top tasks here are emailing, browsing the internet, social networking, playing a game, and searching for information.

So, long story short, the need to rationalize cross-platform usage should now be an imperative for news companies.

Luckily, we have some good news. Leading publishers are indeed starting to knit together this cross-platform, semi-personalized experience. As has been the case as mobile news reading took off, it’s the top national/global publishers who are leading the way. And as has often been the case, most regional and local players are moving less quickly, and that chasm between national/global and local offerings looks like it will continue to grow. For all those publishers, it’s well worth thinking — now — how to really fulfill this promise of one price/all-access across smartphones, tablets, web (with some print), in ways that will delight customers, keep them paying, and allow for price increases to work.

So where will we see this first advances in the news world. Let’s quickly explore seven of them, as we look at the newsonomics of all-access delight:

  • Saved stories: This is one of the lower-hanging fruits. We expect if we are going to save a story one device, it will be there for us on another. It is coming, probably by the first quarter of 2013, to both The New York Times’ and The Wall Street Journal’s experiences.
  • Read stories: Another lower-on-the-tree apple. It’s a service to quickly let us know — by being grayed out or something similar — what we’ve read and what we haven’t, if (see “Personalized pages,” below) it fact what we’ve already read is going to remain in “Top News.” So, this, too is coming to the Journal and Times by early next year.
  • Interrupted reading: This is the news twist of the Netflix trick. If you’re reading a Journal news story in one place and get stopped mid-story, “we’ll take you straight there,” says Alisa Bowen, Dow Jones’ chief product officer, who also notes that 17 percent of its total traffic is now driven by smartphone and tablets.
  • Alerts and notifications: Marc Frons, The New York Times’ chief information officer, puts these near the top of his cross-platform list. Why? Simply, they drive news usage, and “a third party can’t easily do it.”
  • Shared stories: This one’s trickier. In the old Clickability days, we could keep some kind of shared lists for stories emailed. That’s now hard to find. It’s a utility that is especially helpful for groups of friends and workplace associates. And it would helpful to both have one set of sharing groups, and a record of what was sent, as least recently. Don’t expect this one soon, given the number of moving tech pieces.
  • Personalized pages: “If you’ve already read on the smartphone at the beginning of the day, and you come to the tablet at the end of the day, we should be showing you something different than someone who hasn’t touched our product all day,” says Bowen. “That’s the Holy Grail, and that will take some time to get to. But that’s our ambition.” At the Times, the same thoughts have been in discussion for a while. It’s tricky technically, but beyond that there are a new raft of editorial questions, including concerns about representing the news record of the day and dealing with stories partly read or significantly updated. Expect to see, though, greater personalization tested next year.
  • Search: I thought it was me, in an overloaded state. Why could I not find “Search” on the tablet and smartphone products of the Journal and the Times? It turns out: because it’s not there. Both companies say it’s been a low-demand consumer request (but I’m not sure many of us are in the habit of communicating directly with publishers), and both say it’s coming next year. I know that smartphones and tablets were intended by The Creator (a.k.a. Steve Jobs) as browse-friendly, app-based worlds, but the absence of search has been maddening. Often times, it seems that while the tablet presentation is the coolest, it’s often the thinnest, offering less content and less findability. Says Bowen: “With the tablet, we started with a newspaper metaphor — but it’s increasingly weird that it’s not there.”

That’s seven to begin with. What would you add to the list?

There’s a lot more on the drawing boards — we’ll all hear much more about day-pathing, active personalization, passive personalization, and “making platforms responsive to the need state” — as publishers understand both unique capacities of these devices and how we’re using them.

For us, as mere pre-Singularity humans, we’ve already begun to offload our memories. Such cross-platform utilities both extend our intellectual power and give us a few fewer things to think about.

For news companies, all of these functionalities have great potential to act as glue between above-average news brands and their customers. Will they be a big hit? Hard to say.

As Marc Frons points out, Instapaper and Read It Later, among other cross-title save-and-read services, have their loyal customers. But only a handful of premium, mostly-daily-read products, like national/global news companies, may be able to sustain brand-identified on-site saving. That becomes more important to a site like the Times, which has been moving forward with lots of curating/sharing/creating tools. As cross-platform matches up with these utilities, the site becomes stickier.

That glue may keep them on a particular news site — or, even more interestingly, may be extendable.

“How do we make it [these kinds of cross-platform utilities] accessible through those other apps too?” Bowen asks. So, in a distributed world — think reading The New York Times on Flipboard or the Journal on Pulse — of multi-device reading, it may be possible that consumers will see multiple benefits without having to be confined within a walled garden.

As Patrick Cooper, an NPR senior product manager and alum of CNN, The Washington Post, and USA Today, puts the changes in perspective, we can see this next world of all-access delight unfolding — and causing more headaches for publishers unprepared: “Everyone finally must cede control to the user. Imagine if Netflix or Spotify didn’t recognize you or give you your queue or materials on different platforms. They’d fail on day one.

“The news industry has to develop to meet that standard. CRM becomes an investment every major news organization needs to make. These are massive changes for how news organizations spend their money, even purely digital ones. Major infrastructure and back-end data management become one more thing to compete with salaries, reporting costs, and front-end news activities, like news apps. User management becomes far more real than in the simple login/member-or-not-a-member systems we all have now.”

Photo by Matthew Wilkinson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 20, 2012, 10 a.m.
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