Tackling the Tablet: Advice from Three Early Adopters

As more than 20 million iPads have landed in homes across the world in the past year, publishers have been quickly figuring out the best way to take advantage of what is clearly the platform best-suited to reading to emerge in some time.

And while the results have been mixed so far, it appears that publishers that privilege storytelling may have the best results on tablets like the iPad.

Take, for instance, the news out last week that Conde Nast’s top-selling iPad app so far is The New Yorker, not its sister publication Wired, “a magazine that has a more technologically stimulating app and a younger, more Web-oriented readership,” as the New York Times explained.

As NOW Magazine online editor Joshua Errett tells AAN, tablets and the high-quality editorial work alts are known for complement each other quite well.

“The tablet app needs to be editorial heavy, whereas the iPhone and Android apps rely on data. That is, the iPad should provide something to read, while the other mobile platforms should be more of a tool,” Errett explains. “As an example, I read longer interviews with directors and movie reviews on my iPad, and I get movie times on the go from my phone.”

Research done by comScore seems to back Errett’s assertion. The firm finds that iPad users read news on the device more than they seek out videos and games (it also reports that younger consumers are more willing to pay for news and magazines on e-readers than those 45 and older).

With custom tablet publishing now the talk of the digital journalism world, the subject has likely been broached in your newsroom (if it hasn’t, just give it a little time). As AAN publishers try to figure out the best way to proceed in the tablet arena, we figured we’d reach out to a few early adopters that have already unveiled e-reading apps.


Toronto’s NOW Magazine has been available on e-readers since April 2010, and its iPad app launched last month. Errett says the paper knew it would develop its content for iPad even before the product launched.

“The idea was that we wanted to be on the iPad first, before anyone else,” he says. “Our publisher Michael Hollett is the earliest of early adopters, so he definitely was the force behind the app. He encourages us to do as much of this kind of development as possible.”

Down in New Orleans, Gambit marketing director Jeanne Foster wasn’t too far behind; she tells AAN that she knew Gambit needed to get on the iPad as soon as it was released in April of last year. As she waited for the app to be developed, her observations affirmed her hunch during last year’s holiday season, a quarter in which Apple sold 7.33 million iPads.

“I realized that so many people were getting iPads for Christmas, and I was on a plane and I felt like almost 50 percent of the passengers who had reading material in their hands had a tablet or electronic device, not paper,” she says. “I felt like developing Gambit in a flip format for the device was an easy way to increase readership without printing more papers or paying for distribution points.”

However, she ran into a familiar problem when it comes to innovative technology: prohibitive cost barriers. (“At that point development costs were running in the $10,000s,” she notes.)

As she initially thought about this issue, she ultimately came up with an inventive way to leverage Gambit‘s high profile in New Orleans to bring the high cost down a bit.

Foster created the first-ever “Best of New Orleans Web Awards,” with the app developer — Susco Systems — as the lead sponsor. The contest lasted nearly a month and a half, and brought more than 20,000 pageviews to the voting site, where readers could cast ballots on the best-designed websites in New Orleans.

“Susco received print ads attached to the promotion and online visibility,” Foster explains. “The idea was that businesses would see their competitors with cool sites and want to get an app developed too.”

Gambit used this promotional push as trade, and paid the developer some cash as well. And the paper not only got a less-expensive iPad app out of it; it also created a new marketing product — the Web Awards — which it continued in 2011 with other sponsors.

Like Foster, Errett also suggests looking for local developers to create your apps, rather than using a template or third-party vendor. He says NOW teamed up with an “extremely eager” local company, Relish Interactive.

“They hadn’t really done much iPad app development work, and jumped at the chance. They built us all the functionality, then our talented development team built the publishing system,” he explains. “I would say most local developers would kill to build an app for their weekly. These start-ups are hungry to build products to show to others.”

Errett says there is another reason to partner with a local developer, rather than going the mass-market route.

“I think most publications want to pump out apps – tablet or otherwise – overnight. So they partner with third parties or buy templates from companies. This is the wrong move,” he says. “Users can see through templates and third parties. And putting some third party’s logo on your app helps to kill your brand, in my opinion. You should get local developers and do something really unique.”

But out west in Colorado Springs, the Independent took a different tack, going with a third-party vendor it was already working with. And CEO Fran Zankowski says he’s happy with the results.

“Olive Software, the company that handles digitizing our issues, called me in mid-January and offered an arrangement to make an iPad app,” he tells AAN. “They had already done that for some daily papers and now wanted to branch out.”

One of the biggest benefits to going with a vendor, as the Independent‘s case shows, is how quickly the publication was able to get to market.

“The longest part of the process was understanding what [Olive] needed to know, and collection of right-sized images for the app. Once I understood their requirements, it took only a few hours — more likely 2 to 3 — to put things together,” Zankowski recalls. “A few phone calls and emails back and forth, and a month later, they had a prototype. With a couple days of refinements it was sent to Apple for approval.”

“The process was easy,” he adds.

Zankowski says the Independent‘s app goes beyond being a simple “flip-book” style app, and is more fully integrated with important web functionality.

“The iPad paper looks and reads like our printed product, though it is able to do searches for keywords, links to websites among edit and ad links, scrollable thumbnails of pages,” he says. “Overall, it’s an easier, better-looking, cleaner read.”

All this talk of paying developers to develop e-reader apps raises an interesting conundrum. So far, much of publishers’ salivations over tablets has been the ability to digitally replicate a key eroding revenue stream: paid subscriptions. How then can a free-circulation publication go about making the investment pay off?

NOW, Gambit and the Independent have taken different approaches to the revenue question. Gambit uses the app mostly as a brand extension, and as a traffic driver to its website, “monetizing our web display ads by generating traffic,” as Foster explains. The Independent is “still a ways off from fully monetizing” the app, Zankowski says, though he points out the paper last week hired a director of digital media, who will look into “adding revenue component to this app, along with new interactive content.”

NOW, it seems, is further along in the process, selling ads directly on the app, opening up an entirely new sales stream.

“We sold ads on our iPad app for launch,” Errett says. “We developed an ad delivery system similar to the print production work flow. The full page ads on our app are really attractive and we’re seeing advertisers respond very well.”

Beyond immediate revenue, of course, there are other benefits to being on the iPad, not least of which is to prove to customers that your publication knows what it is doing in the digital domain, and is a technological innovator.

“[It] impresses clients that we are using new technology when giving sales presentations via iPad,” Zankowski says. “[And it’s] easier to demonstrate the paper’s content and breath over many issues, rather then carrying papers into sales meetings.”

But still, despite all the tablet talk, Errett cautions that publishers need to walk before they run and take things one step at a time.

“It’s probably obvious, but I’ll say it anyway,” he says. “Getting on a tablet is really attractive, but the first priority should be getting a mobile-friendly site.”

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