How publishers are getting over the app debate: 3 examples

Apps are a touchy topic for publishers. Once hailed as a savior for the troubled news and magazine industry, apps have since been denounced as an over-priced folly. Today, though, a new economy of app-making is producing a more nuanced view of where apps belong in the eco-system of publishing.

Here is an overview of how publishers are re-evaluating their approach to apps, followed by three examples of the new app economy in action.

Getting past the love/hate view of apps

To begin, it’s helpful to recall why apps became so contentious in the first place: they were supposed to be a way for publishers to replicate the glory days of print but with a digital twist. The idea was to deliver pretty layouts plus interactive razzle-dazzle to a captive audience who would read the content (and ads!) just like a magazine or newspaper. This promise, though, fell far short as Jason Pontin of MIT’s Tech Review described with anguished honesty in May.

Pontin explained how his publication expended innumerable staff hours plus $124,000 on outside costs to build apps that yielded a grand total of 353 iPad(s aapl) subscriptions. In doing so, he discovered that app building was not a one-off process but a never-ending struggle to stretch and shape the app across different devices, operating systems and updates. Pontin also came to question the basic premise of a publishers’ app. Specifically, why would readers want to read inside a box that cut them off from the “linky-ness” of the rest of the web?

Pontin, who has since made good on his vow to yank his apps from the Apple store, makes a strong case. So what’s changed since then? A couple of things.

The first is cost. Today, there are a growing number of companies offering off-the-shelf app solutions that let publishers enjoy pretty, serviceable apps on the cheap. These apps are not as “linky” as a web page but do come with the sharing features that are essential in the age of social media. These publishing options mean app-making is no longer the high stress, budget-busting process it was before.

The second, and more profound change, comes in how publishers have come to think about apps in the first place. Today, most publishers accept they need an app. As an Economist executive noted at Business Insider’s Ignition conference this month, his magazine’s strategy is simply to be where the reader is — which includes inside app stores and on the display of a smartphone or tablet. But the choice of what type of app to put there will vary widely depending on the publication.

For news-intense digital publishers that offer lots of links and reader interaction, an app can simply be a proxy for their mobile website. More pensive publications, on the other hand, may decide to invest a little more on a boutique app from a speciality shop. Meanwhile, legacy publishers can turn to app makers to help them slap social or shopping features onto their traditional layouts.

The point is that publishers no longer face the hard choice between betting the farm on expensive apps or risking being left out of the digital future. Instead, apps have become just one more tool of distribution available in an ever-growing number of shapes, sizes and prices.

Example 1: A pretty container for The Awl

The Awl is a literary, cultural and news site whose motto is “be less stupid.” It caters to a young, technophilic audience but is still a shoestring operation with little cash for expensive bells and whistles. But that didn’t stop it from developing a personalized app.

Turning to a New York start-up, 29th Street Publishing, The Awl made an app called the Weekend Companion that delivers five new articles to readers’ iPhone or iPad each week. The app’s appeal is that it curates a small set of articles and presents them in a pretty, immersive layout. The articles download quickly and are ready for reading on a train ride or a rainy morning in bed. While the Awl app has discreet tools to share stories by email or text, the overall idea is not interaction but a reflexive, book-like experience.Awl weekend screenshot

“We put content front and center not the app,” said 29th Street Publishing CEO, David Jacobs in a phone interview. The company is working with a dozen or so publishers, including Gothamist, and its pricing models include both fees (one report cites $20,000) and revenue sharing.

Jacobs said apps can provide a better media experience than the web but that he doesn’t perceive conflict between the two platforms; rather, he thinks publishers should be on both. He added that so-called “sub-compact” publishing models like 29th Street and Marco Arment’s The Magazine are best suited for light-weigh text-focused publications.

“You can’t really have a sub-compact fashion magazine,” he noted.

Example 2: Off-the-shelf content shovels for magazines

Sub-compact publishing is a hot topic but it’s not a realistic option for publishers that want an app to mimic the look and feel of a glossy magazine. In the past, these publishers had to build individualized apps at great expense but now they can turn to off-the-shelf solutions.

One popular option is MAZ, a company that provides apps and mobile service for titles like Inc and Bust for $299 a month plus 20 cents per download. According to founder Paul Canetti, MAZ lets editors and reporters take control of the mobile publishing process without having to learn finicky coding techniques. It’s a logical division of labor, in other words.

“I’ve never met a print publisher who made their own layout software or built a printing press — why expect it with apps?” Canetti said in an interview. He added that his clients’ apps were ready the moment Apple introduced its new retina display iPad while the venerable New Yorker struggled to update its house-built app.

MAZ CLIPMAZ apps also let publishers customize stories with shopping and social buttons. This means readers can buy things they see in an issue or cut out pictures and share them on Pinterest.

The MAZ apps rely on publishers uploading PDF’s so they are best suited to publications that want to reproduce their distinctive print layouts online. Meanwhile, publishers that want a more comprehensive white-label solution may look to companies like Polar Mobile which help sling mobile content across different forums, including apps.

In the long run, the off-the-shelf products may present lock-in risks but, as Canetti notes, the same risk applies to choosing a content manage system. “Publishers trust us not to take advantage of them,” he said.

The bottom line here is that, as external app solutions become more numerous and versatile, the pressure on publishers to create elaborate apps for themselves will diminish.

Example 3: Apps are just a box for the web

For some types of publishers, the rapid evolution of mobile websites has nearly obviated the need for apps altogether. The most prominent example is the Financial Times which grew fed up with Apple’s pricing practices and pulled out of the app store altogether this summer. The strategy appears to be working.’s Managing Director Rob Grimshaw told a Business Insider conference this month that traffic on iOS devices was up 70 percent since the FT left the app store, and suggested company is not looking back.

Should everyone else follow suit? Once it again, it depends on the publication. For publications like GigaOM that embody the hyper-connectedness of the web, a mobile site is the best way to deliver that experience. It is perhaps also telling that popular tech aggregator Techmeme doesn’t have an app at all.

But even for publishers that are betting on the mobile web over apps, it doesn’t hurt to have an app all the same for readers who like the idea of a publication’s icon appearing on their devices. That’s why publishers like the FT and GigaOM offer apps that largely mirror their mobile sites but that require little in the way of development costs.

(Image by Everett Collection via Shutterstock)