Local News Outlets Upgrading Apps and Battling App-rehension

Local news organizations are working hard to improve their news apps and get readers to download them, touting them as a superior customer experience that boosts engagement and loyalty.

While they see mobile apps as a win-win for their customers and themselves, the apps remain a niche product, with a small minority of visitors consuming their news that way.

The Medill Local News Initiative interviewed executives from McClatchy, Tribune Publishing and the San Francisco Chronicle about the advantage of apps for smartphone and tablet to create a direct line to the readers, not a multi-stop journey.

“You want to have a firsthand relationship with your customers,” said Grant Belaire, Head of Consumer Revenue for McClatchy, whose dozens of news outlets include the Miami Herald and the Kansas City Star. “You can hope they continue to find your content on Facebook or you hope they find it in Google News or all those other aggregators who are taking our stuff. … The app allows you to have a firsthand relationship … without having to go through third parties.”

Key metrics show how apps promote engagement. “Pages per session are much higher historically for people on the app,” said Kurt Gessler, Director of Editorial Operations for Tribune Publishing, whose news outlets include the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and Baltimore Sun.

The news organizations interviewed by Medill open their mobile apps to both subscribers and non-subscribers, though non-subscribers will hit a paywall just as they do on regular website visits. Belaire said the McClatchy app’s paywall is “a bit more generous than the paywall on the open web.” Tribune Publishing and the Chronicle said their paywalls are about the same for the app and the website.

At a time when reader revenue is the top goal for many news outlets, the name of the game is engagement.

The app is an incredibly sticky platform.

Jess Shaw, Director of Audience, San Francisco Chronicle

“The app is an incredibly sticky platform,” said Jess Shaw, Director of Audience at the San Francisco Chronicle. “We see a lot of engagement across both subscribers and non-subscribers, especially during critical news periods, so for instance fire season for us. Really all of 2020 was kind of like that. And we know if we can get someone to be a user of our app and then to subscribe, or to be a subscriber and then use our app, that they are much more likely to stay with us for the long haul.”

Tim Franklin, head of Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative, emphasized how apps can form and maintain the reading habit.

“An app reader is the modern digital equivalent of a home delivery subscriber in the print days,” Franklin said. “In both cases, those are your most loyal, regular and profitable readers. Those are readers with intense interest who are making your journalism part of their daily habit. They’ve literally invited you into their home and their home screens.

“Converting web and social readers to app readers should be a priority for every local news organization,” said Franklin, who is Senior Associate Dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Push Alerts Boost Engagement

Apps help news outlets make the first move, through push notifications.

“We can push-alert to people and take our content to them rather than relying on them coming to us,” said Shaw.

Tim O’Rourke, the Chronicle’s Director of Product and Strategy, noted that readers can customize their push alerts by opting for any or all of four different types: “There’s breaking news. There’s special reports, which tend to be many fewer sends but our big projects. Then sports and food.”

O’Rourke also sees the app as a way for the Chronicle to achieve one of its most challenging tasks: migrating print readers to the internet.

“The app has been a nice bridge for print readers,” said O’Rourke. “The mission of it is to be a vehicle to deliver the Bay Area’s news in a smart, simple way and that’s pretty easy for everybody. So what we’ve seen is subscribers have migrated there and stuck there.”

It’s also a weapon against subscriber churn.

“Often people will stop their subscription because they say they have no time to read. My interpretation of that is, ‘I can’t remember to use it,’” Belaire said. “… There are reams of data that would show why the app is a sweet spot.”

Why Apps Are Better for Readers

The app isn’t just an advantage to newsrooms. News execs say it’s simply a better experience for the readers in a number of significant ways.

“Inside the app is a smaller ad footprint,” said Belaire. “The pages load faster. Your ability to paginate from article to article is much easier.”

“Less Javascript, fewer third-party integrations,” said Tribune Publishing’s Gessler. “It’s just going to move faster and load faster.”

And as already mentioned, the app offers push alerts. Plus, subscribers who use the app are less frequently annoyed by demands that they re-sign in before reading the article that they’ve clicked. And the Chronicle touts its games feature, though that’s clearly a sidelight to the news.

“As somebody who uses news apps, I want the news when I go to them,” O’Rourke said. “I don’t want to read every great piece of content that a particular publisher is putting out there. I want to know what’s happening now, and I think our app does that and it’s very easy to see, ‘OK, what’s the topic in the Bay Area now? What are the three things that are resonating?’ And to get to those quickly. Whereas the website, which is a great experience if you’re in front of a computer and you’ve got a bigger screen … you’ve got feature furniture, you’ve got links to different multimedia presentations, you’ve got more nuanced design modules to suck you in. But that’s too much for a phone, so what we do with the app is really streamline the display, streamline the presentation, so that it’s news-forward.”

Constantly Upgrading

News outlets know they have to keep making their apps better to compete,

Tribune Publishing is in the midst of an upgrade.

“This is out on the Hartford Courant right now and I think the Chicago Tribune is next when we get everything up and launched,” he said, “… We have built a personalization service where you can go in and you can say, ‘I’m only interested in the Bears, the White Sox, Chicago politics and Chicago dining.’ And you can follow all of these topics, and you have a separate tab now where then every time we publish something that meets those categorical requirements, there’s a section you can go to to get just this stuff. Customize the experience, streamline the process. We don’t have this available on the web, we only have this available on the app.”

Tribune Publishing is also improving its “save for later” feature.

“If you’re riding the L or the Metra train and you hit dead pockets, you can say, ‘I want to read these four stories.’ You can read them off-line,” Gessler said.

“Also,” he said, “it’s a lot easier to navigate. The photos are bigger. Headlines are a little smaller. You can see more of what’s going on. And it’s a quicker experience.”

People have been asking a lot for search functionality in the app.

Grant Belaire, Head of Consumer Revenue, McClatchy

McClatchy is looking at mid-summer improvements.

“People have been asking a lot for search functionality in the app,” Belaire said, “They saw an article, they want to read that article. That’s historically been harder to find.”

The Chronicle’s O’Rourke said search is also “the big recent feature we’re adding.”

But O’Rourke is wary of loading up the app with too much.

“We don’t want to add too many whiz-bang features that corrupt the simplicity of getting the day’s news,” he said.

A Fraction of Total Traffic

There’s clearly potential to get more people on apps. McClatchy’s Belaire said the share of unique web visitors who come in through the app is “not as significant as we would like. I don’t have a crisp number on it, but I tell you it’s less than 20%.”

Tribune Publishing’s Gessler put the number of page views via app at about 10%, not including use of the e-edition print replica.

The Chronicle’s Shaw said the app share is on the rise.

“In April we had 30% of our visits happen on the app and, just for context, that’s sort of a high for us,” she said. “In 2019, it was between 17% and 20%. So 2020 was a really important year in terms of app growth.”

When you count subscribers only, the share rises.

“About 60% of our subscriber business happens on the app, so we think of it being our core audience, and even the non-subscribers there I consider being our core audience,” Shaw said.

Why Don’t They Download?

There are various theories as to why apps haven’t caught on more widely.

“A lot of people value the storage space on their phones at a premium,” said Tribune Publishing’s Gessler. “You need to make a very compelling case why you want your app on the phone rather than another app or a family photo or two or something like that. So it has always been thought of — unless there’s a super-compelling reason to say there’s this value-added piece here, this is that much better of an experience — that why do I need your app? I can get you any other way. So it really becomes a difficult sell to some degree.”

Among the reasons not to download the app, “awareness might be one of the biggest ones,” said McClatchy’s Belaire.

“I don’t know that we have data,” said the Chronicle’s Shaw, “but my instinct is just that there is sort of a friction in getting people to the app store and then to download. There are so many things they have to go through in that process, that I think for any app can be a problem. Perhaps there are just a lot of people who just don’t want to have another app on their phone. It is another layer of commitment psychologically, I think.”

Battling App-rehension

News outlets are trying to solve the app-rehension problem.

“Once the new version of our app is released mid-summer, we view mobile web as a conversion vehicle for getting people into our app,” said Belaire. “You come onto our mobile web property, it might not be the first session. It might be the second or the third. But at some point we’re going to suggest that you take the app.”

The Chronicle also plans to keep on prodding its readers,

“We work pretty closely with marketing to talk about the app,” Shaw said. “… Marketing will do targeted emails to our subscribers and our non-subscribers. Sort of blasting out to the system saying, ‘Hey, we have our app.’”

Apps are also part of the onboarding process.

“When somebody becomes a subscriber then we have a series of emails that we send out to them to try to get them engaged and get them into all the different services and tools and things we offer,” Shaw said. “One of the things we did in 2020 was try to make sure that the app was playing a much more prominent role in that journey.”

I’ve not talked to any publisher that is viewing the app as a source of scale. Many publishers are coming around to ‘This is a really important engagement tool for your most loyal audiences.’

Kurt Gessler, Director of Editorial Operations, Tribune Publishing

That’s not to say that news outlets think they can get the app to dominate.

“I’ve not talked to any publisher that is viewing the app as a source of scale,” Gessler said. “Many publishers are coming around to ‘This is a really important engagement tool for your most loyal audiences.’ And for the people that want to spend their space on the phone and then dedicate to this, there are great messaging strategies that we have. So if you want push alerts by category and stuff like that, we have that there. … This is a great experience, but we realize it’s not going to be the experience that everyone wants.”

News outlets are asking customers to do a lot of things these days.

“Part of it is: Where do you spend your marketing resources?” Gessler said. ”Do you want them to sign up for a newsletter? Do you want them to sign up for the app? Do you want them to sign up for browser notifications? Do you want them to go to the e-edition?”

Part of the challenge is getting the newsroom itself to use the app, Shaw said.

“From a newsroom perspective … I think our struggle over the past year has been how do we make sure we’re spending enough time on the app and treating it uniquely from the web and really giving it its due,” she said.  “Because it is such a critical platform for us and so many of our subscribers use it. I think it presents a challenge in resourcing that’s really important for newsrooms to be meeting that challenge and to be getting not just the producers but the entire newsroom to be using the app so that they can experience what the majority of our subscribers are experiencing.”

Article image by Rob Hampson used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)

About the author

Mark Jacob


A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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