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Hey, traditional media: You may not need an app for that

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The Pew Research Center offered a glimmer of hope to newspapers and other traditional media outlets with news that smartphones and tablets are increasingly delivering their wares to consumers. The organization’s annual Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 27 percent of Americans say they access traditional news sources on mobile devices, driving a 17 percent increase in unique traffic to the most popular news sites from 2010 to 2011.

But there’s a black cloud accompanying that silver lining: Newspapers lost $10 in print advertising for every $1 in online ads, according to Pew. And while mobile advertising is beginning to get legs, news outlets “are essentially cut off from this growing revenue stream” because so many sources typically report the same news. Worse, as Nielsen noted last week, U.S. consumers are far less willing to pay for news on their tablets than for music, video or books. Until that changes, the key for traditional media is to maximize ad revenues as they minimize the cost of bringing their content to mobile users.

Apps are great – if they improve the user experience

While apps have become the centerpiece of the mobile world, monetizing free apps isn’t as easy as it seems. Not only must publishers invest to build versions of their apps for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android (and perhaps other platforms), they must build separate versions for smartphones and tablets to maximize quality and reach. And both Apple and Google take a percentage of in-app purchases, making the freemium model less lucrative for publishers.

So instead of participating in the app frenzy, many publishers would do well to focus on their mobile sites. Mobile sites can be accessed by both smartphones and feature phones, and can be tweaked to take advantage of the larger screens of tablets. And while they may not deliver the rich, immersive experience that an app can support, many news sites don’t need that kind of richness to provide the content their users are looking for. My iPad is loaded with apps from news outlets including the BBC, CNN and my hometown Denver Post, but I’ve found that I visit those source’s web sites on the tablet as often as I fire up those apps.

News apps often don’t deliver

I’m constantly amazed at news apps that are actually inferior to their online counterparts. Message boards and public comments have become a key ingredient in the era of online news, but that content is all too often stripped from mobile applications. Apps should be substantially better in terms of navigation and discovery than their sibling web sites rather than simply duplicating the online experience, and they should include features that enable users to cache content for offline access. (The Washington Post’s iPad app is a great example of a simple, well-designed offering, while the L.A. Times’ iPad app is a confusing jumble of content.) And news apps should provide all the content that’s available on the Web site.

There are many good reasons to build a mobile app as a complement to a news site, of course. Outlets who thrive on video and multimedia can use native platforms to deliver high-quality, data-intense content – especially on vivid screens such as the one featured on the new iPad. Mobile operating systems also can support the kind of engaging, interactive advertising that is potentially more lucrative than online ads. And smaller, more niche media outlets may find apps can drive traffic in ways that a Web site simply can’t.

But too many news apps simply don’t improve on the user experience that is found online from the same sources. So there’s no reason for users to use them rather than mobile web sites, and no reason for those news outlets to try to drive downloads instead of trying to draw online traffic. Given the ever-dwindling resources available to most traditional media outlets, that could be the difference between death and survival.

Question of the week

Do you consume more news through mobile websites or mobile applications?