Let’s take news apps out of the newsroom and create products instead of content

by Chase Davis and Matt Wynn Published Oct. 13, 2011 8:19 am Updated Oct. 13, 2011 8:27 am

There was a great story in the Onion a few weeks back, right after Steve Jobs announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Apple. the headline read, “New Apple CEO Tim Cook: ‘I’m thinking printers’”

Not that there’s anything wrong with printers, mind you. Something has to do the dirty work of printing out all those Groupons. the point is, with all the creative talent Apple has at its disposal, all the cutting-edge skills and resources, the company is probably better served developing cool products, not designing slick new ink cartridges for the DeskJet.

Which brings us to news applications.

On the one hand, since hacks and hackers started their mind-meld, the combination of programming and journalism has produced amazing work: beautiful maps; rich databases; new ways of telling stories that weren’t possible a few short years ago.

But on the other, we’re still thinking printers. For all the creativity and talent that journalist/ programmers have brought to the newsroom, much of what we continue to produce is little more than Infographics 2.0 – an incremental shift of the same editorial content and traditions that have dominated the news business since the days of hot type.

Most news apps are still largely subordinate to the narrative story. They’re coupled to the news cycle. from a revenue standpoint, their contribution is to draw eyeballs. interest peaks on launch day, and a few days later they’re all but dead, fodder for the rare user that stumbles over them. Sound like any other content you’ve seen?

There’s been a quiet conversation emerging about how news apps might be able to break through the wall. You have to listen closely, but it’s there. we think a useful way to advance the debate might be to change the way we look at news apps altogether.

Data enterprise: News apps as product development

What happens if you take news apps out of the newsroom? Or is it take the newsroom out of news apps?

Of course we’re not talking about the physical newsroom – we mean the conventions, processes and assumptions that underlie editorial content: the notion that the narrative story must be the centerpiece, for example. Or that putting eyeballs on ads is still the best way to monetize our work.

In a broader sense, we mean thinking about news apps as “products,” not “content,” and approaching the way we build them as designers and entrepreneurs, not reporters and editors. we mean Data Enterprise: decoupling news apps from the news cycle and investing more resources in products that are durable, engaging, useful – even profitable.

Recently, Poynter Digital Media Fellow Jeff Sonderman made the insightful argument that news organizations should think about building mobile apps that actually solve real-world problems. it sounds obvious, but with limited exceptions, most data-driven news apps still give more consideration to simply making data available, not mapping it to user needs.

Such an approach, though, could yield paydirt.

You’ve probably never heard of recollect.net, unless maybe you live in Vancouver, but it got some well-deserved attention at O’Reilly’s OSCON earlier this year as an example of how government data and consumer needs can come together. it aims to address one of those small inconveniences that we all know too well — an approach a new breed of news apps could mimic.

In short, it’s a trash day reminder service. Sign up, and recollect.net will remind you when different types of trash are picked up from your neighborhood. Regular garbage, recycling, yard waste — all might be picked up on separate days, causing some level of inconvenience. Recollect.net solves the problem of trying to remember what to put out when.

The site has partnered with the city of Vancouver and markets itself as a service to other local governments under a model similar to better-known startups like SeeClickFix.

Trash reminders are hardly a multi-million dollar business. but they are Data Enterprise: durable products built outside the news cycle and monetized beyond the traditional CPM model. Products like these fit directly with the mission of news organizations. but perhaps even more exciting, they can lead to new revenue streams.

These types of products have made the occasional appearance in news organizations as well. Politifact, the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking operation, is most certainly Data Enterprise. the Los Angeles Times’ crime app fits the bill, as does the new York Times’ Schoolbook – and, of course, Everyblock. each is decoupled from the story cycle in a way that gives them longevity and unique opportunities to make revenue.

There is undoubtedly a spectrum. on one side, you have branded, standalone products; on the other, data ghettoes and one-hit wonders. Many news apps today fall somewhere between. but it’s the enterprise component, and at times the consideration for revenue and business models, that sets some of these products apart.

Niche Publishing 3.0

For years, an unheralded leader in this space has been the trade press. Back in the early days, niche publishing found success by charging a premium for stories and other content that was too specific for general interest publications.

Later came Niche Publishing 2.0, which coupled narrowly tailored content with access to useful and unique datasets. Bloomberg is a classic example, but recent expansions into government data dashboards for businesses shows how the company continues to evolve.

Ad Age, which covers the advertising industry, has built a following around advertising industry data and has expanded its data offerings to include unique and valuable demographic information as well. Specialty publications like Law360.com have monetized topical data around court case filings. the examples go on.

The raw data approach has a drawback, though, in that it attracts primarily data-savvy customers. their users have to both realize the value and know how to put raw data to use. Data Enterprise lowers the bar for entry. It’s Niche Publishing 3.0 — taking datasets and turning them into accessible products and services with their own targeted audiences.

We admittedly haven’t cracked the code ourselves, but our initial experiences approaching news apps from a product-centric perspective have helped us — and our organizations — see the potential in that approach.

Earlier this year at the Omaha World-Herald, Matt and others launched Curbwise, a website that takes the classic news app of local home values and turns it into a niche consumer service for homeowners.

Rather than simply making home price information searchable and sortable, the site uses an algorithm to create custom reports that help homeowners challenge their property assessments. the reports, which cost $19.95, have also generated a new stream of revenue for the paper.

At the Center for Investigative Reporting, Chase launched an iPhone application called myFault, which repurposes data used to report a series about seismic hazards in California’s public schools into a handheld seismic hazard detector.

myFault doesn’t advance the narrative of the series on which it is based. it simply takes data that came in during the reporting process and repackages it for a niche — in this case, California homeowners in earthquake-prone areas.

These products and others like them required a different way of looking at what we do. They’re informed by the story, even lifted up by the story, but they’re not tied to the story. They could stand alone. In some cases, they make money. And that opens up a world of possibilities we’ve only begun to consider.

Where we go from here

News applications and the specialty of journalism/programming are still relatively new on the newsroom scene, so it stands to reason that the editorial content model would be a natural starting point.

But if you think about the most heralded examples of news applications out there — some of which are discussed above — much of our best work has outgrown that frame. our best work is durable, entrepreneurial, decoupled from the news cycle – and at times unabashedly capitalist.

As the AP’s Jonathan Stray wrote earlier this year, “the news apps of today are just toes in the water … we are under-selling the news app because we are under-imagining it.”

In other words, the combination of journalism and software development still holds much unrealized potential, particularly in terms of engagement and revenue.

But to realize that potential, we have to change the way we look at our roles and the products we produce.

We have to stop thinking printers.

Chase Davis is the director of technology for the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch and co-founder of the media-technology firm Hot Type Consulting. Matt Wynn is a watchdog reporter and web developer at the Omaha World-Herald, where he launched the Curbwise project. his data work is on display at dataomaha.com.