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Oct. 24, 2019, 10:12 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

“Finishable news” worked for The Guardian on iPad for 8 years. Will it draw new subscribers on phones?

Get this: a defined collection of news stories, organized into sections, that you can browse and read through from front to back and then be done with. What a crazy idea!

When it comes to paid content options, The Guardian has to work with one big, self-imposed limitation: The news itself must remain free. The company has never wanted to add a paywall to its news; instead, it’s looked to readers for recurring and one-off donations, and launched an ad-free “premium” digital subscription product last year. This is working: In May, The Guardian announced that it’s become profitable “for the first time in recent history.” It now makes the majority of its revenue from digital sources, it makes more revenue from readers than advertising, and its digital revenue is rising faster than its print revenue is falling.

This is all pretty remarkable, and now that it’s reversed a decline and is making money, The Guardian is getting more ambitious: aiming to reach 2 million paying supporters within the next three years. That’s up from 365,000 recurring contributors and members today, and 190,000 digital subscriptions across various premium app offerings.

The company hopes the new app it launched last week, Guardian Daily, will help it reach that goal. Guardian Daily offers a single, contained, finishable collection of stories per day. (Put it on newsprint and you might want to call it something crazy like a “daily newspaper.”) It works across iOS and Android, taking the place of the paper’s previous iPad-only app. And unlike The Guardian’s main mobile app — which is a pretty traditional mobile news app of the sort you’re familiar with — it’s available only to paying digital subscribers. (That other app, called simply The Guardian, has a premium tier that includes crosswords, offline reading, and no ads — but the basic version is free to all.) A subscription to the new app, which comes with premium access in the main Guardian app, is £5.99 per month for the first three months, then £11.99 ($15.47) per month or £99 ($127.69) per year.

As the announcement put it:

…the new Daily has been redesigned across mobile and tablet for both iOS and Android to create a news app that goes beyond a digital newspaper with thoughtful design, easy navigation, and improved user experience. It brings an enhanced reading experience without distractions or interruptions.

Available as part of the Guardian digital subscription, the Daily offers a new way to experience Guardian journalism on digital devices — delivering a crafted edition of the Guardian’s best journalism every day. Each edition is compiled by editors and gives readers time and space to enjoy the most significant news and opinion of the day. With clear navigation through the Guardian’s sections, the Daily allows readers the chance to read each edition entirely or simply swipe through stories and supplements from the Guardian and the Observer.

When the Guardian team set out six months ago to build the Daily app, they had a product they were working from: The Guardian Digital Edition iPad app, which launched all the way back in 2011 when Apple Newsstand was first introduced. For the next eight years, that iPad app existed as a distinct paid product — £9.99 per month at first, though the price later dropped.

“The users of the iPad edition were not a massively big group of people in the grand scheme of things,” said Juliette Laborie, The Guardian’s director of digital reader reviews. “But they were very loyal and a lot of them have been with us for quite a long time. The iPad experience was different from the mobile one — very much an at-home experience and [it was] contained, which was something they really appreciated.”

Still, it was a limited audience. “This app was from the early days when [publishers thought] tablets would solve print media’s problems,” said executive creative director Alex Breuer. It would not be wise to “preserve that facsimile kind of experience,” and for two years the team had been thinking about how its apps could “best convey the structure of our journalism as a digital entity and evolve beyond the sense of us as a printed newspaper.” Part of that meant changing how people navigated through the mobile content — moving away from “navigation listing every single section” and focusing instead on “the pillars” of news, opinion, sports, culture, and lifestyle, both on the website and in apps.

The team did want to preserve one facet of the iPad app — the fact that it was a contained, finite daily edition. The Guardian’s Daily app pushes out content once a day, at 3 a.m. London time. The content that’s selected for it is largely the same as the content that goes into the print paper, said David Blishen, group product manager. A slider above each section moves along based on how much you’ve read, giving you a clear sense of when you’ll be done. And when you’re done — as with a print newspaper — you’re done. (If you want more, you can always switch back to the other Guardian app, which is constantly updated.)

The Guardian is far from the only newspaper to see the appeal of a finite, edition-based experience in a mobile app; the strategy seems to be particularly popular in the U.K. The Times of London has for several years updated its app only at three set times per daily. The London daily annoyingly named the i launched a new editions-based app this week. In the U.S., The Post and Courier in South Carolina follows an editions approach on its homepage. Finite digital editions aim to combine elements of print, email newsletters, and digital replica editions while also offering a more clear alternative to the never-ending streams of news found on social media or in news alerts.

Next up for Guardian Daily: more territories, and a different strategy for selecting the content that will go into those apps. “We don’t have a print newspaper in Australia or America,” said Chris Moran, editor of strategic projects — so it isn’t optimal for an app in those countries to just include content from the daily U.K. print paper. Instead, Moran said, the team has been working on a different metric that will help it decide the content that can go into those apps.

“I’m often asked if there is a metric that measures quality,” said Moran. “There are two good answers to that: One, probably not, because numbers are really bad at that, and two, no, that’s what editorial exists for. But the more I thought about it, we’re employing brilliant digital editors who spend basically every minute every day thinking about what digital content is the best at any given moment — they’re editing the homepage and making all of these decisions about whether an article is top of the site or halfway down — and then we’re basically throwing it away. But if we could store it all together across a day or a week, we get a list of what we thought the most important stories were,” giving them numerical scores.

“Once we’ve got those numbers, we’re leveraging a goldmine of editorial signal,” Moran said. “This allows us to have an automated curation system that genuinely reflects the human editorial decisions being made very single day.” The Guardian is calling this metric a “promotion benchmark,” and it will be used to determine which content goes into the U.S. and Australian apps, which are set to launch in 2020.

POSTED     Oct. 24, 2019, 10:12 a.m.
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