As everyone who follows news closely has noticed, the big breaking news story is easily available. If you are on any social network following news outlets or have news hound friends, the bare facts of the major stories (Michael Jackson dies, Congress revokes Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) appear almost instantly. So what value can a news organization truly add with a mobile phone app? As the host of a daily news/talk show, I’m intent on staying up on news. Here’ s a look at the mobile apps from five leading news sources with commentary on their individual strengths and a few thoughts about where they fall short. All were used on an iPhone 3Gs.
AP MOBILE – Fast and comprehensive, it’s a quick way to follow up on the headlines and see photos while on the move. It allows you to designate one or more locations under the ‘Local’ tab. Seattle users see headline from the Seattle Times and Seattle P.I., but the story list is incomplete. Many top Seattle Times stories are withheld. It has an option to send photos and video, but that’s buried under the ‘More’ tab. It’s got the best weather option I’ve seen but developers could add more categorization to the ‘Local’ tab. Under the current configurations sports, tech and breaking news are bunched together.
CNN – Like AP, it’s a good first stop for an overview of national and international stories. The ‘My CNN’ tab includes local stories from KING5 TV and local blogs, but lacks the depth the Seattle Times and P.I. stories provide. The big draw is watching the TV stories and live feeds from breaking news events like presidential press conferences. Prominently featured is the ‘I-Report’ tab, an entire section of user-generated videos and stories. You are encouraged to report by uplinking video and there is even an assignment page where the day I looked users were assigned winter news reports.
NEW YORK TIMES – It’s the pre-eminent U.S. news source for compelling global news coverage. This app does not add much to what you can read in the paper, but it allows you to access that information anywhere for free, a significant advantage because paper distribution is far from universal and increasingly expensive. This mobile app is essential for anyone who wants to stay up on the news. As a prime example, the cover of the Sunday, December 19th New York Times Magazine featured an innovative mobile feature. It was a Quick Response (QR) code made of balloons that sent you to a series of clever and artistic short videos about ‘The Year in Ideas’ articles.
KING5 — This Seattle-based NBC affiliate is the strongest local TV station for news and this mobile app is the best local source I’ve found. It also features a ‘Video’ tab enabling low quality but adequate images that stream easily over the 3G network. The ‘Traffic’ tab is also thorough and useful.What it lacks is location-based features. A map which includes the information about news/traffic/sports/weather in the vicinity of the user would add immediacy.
NPR NEWS – Full disclosure, I work at an NPR affiliate station KUOW in Seattle. With that noted, I found this app outstanding for several reasons. It contains rewritten transcripts of the radio stories and links to audio versions of the stories from the program. The audio can be stacked on a playlist; links to specific NPR programs (All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Car Talk); a link to your local NPR station to hear their programs and a station locator tab to find the nearest NPR affiliate. One desirable improvement would be an app that would learn from the stories you select what kind of stories you like. A tab called ‘For You’ could include stories recommended by an algorithm extrapolating from your previous choices.
This final feature on the NPR app points to a weakness in all these news sources – they do not exploit location based mobile phone features common with Yelp and Foursqure. News apps should include on a map of your vicinity with flags linking to news stories and features. For example you could find The New York Times ’36 Hours in…” travel feature about a place you’re visiting, but why should the app make you search? It could recognize where you are and provide you with a list. These news apps could also integrate other databases to show nearby bus stops and arrival times, crime stats, and deals from nearby businesses. For example, under an ‘Entertainment’ or ‘Deal’ tab, the user might see that a play starts at a theater in an hour and deeply discounted tickets are available right now. Or a flower shop around the corner has a closeout deal on roses.
While the best news apps are doing a good job getting what they do to the mobile phone user, there are glimmers of the potential.