April 24, 2021

Changed revenue model drives new generation of news apps

Published before in Dutch on Frankwatching.com

De Telegraaf, the largest Dutch daily, recently published a new version of their news app in Google Play and the App Store. With the latest release the app enables readers of the popular news brand to read the digital copy of their newspaper, the e-paper, in addition to the existing app functionality, the newsfeed, that is already enjoyed by millions. Previously, this was only possible via their separate e-paper app. De Telegraaf has followed the example of another Dutch publisher NRC Media, who, back in 2018, added the news feed to the digital newspaper in the NRC Handelsblad app. Just a few months ago, another Dutch daily, De Volkskrant, also integrated the e-paper into their existing news app. In other words, it’s clear that we are seeing an emerging trend here, which we will examine further in this article.

Types of news apps

Until recently, there were two types of apps for reading, listening, and viewing news published by newspapers: news feed apps and e-paper apps.

Newsfeed apps are apps in which a continuous stream of news items (the feed) is published. These articles mainly consist of text and photography, regularly supplemented with video, audio, or interactive elements (statistics, etc.). The news articles offered can be free, paid, or a combination of the two.

Apps that contain digital versions of printed newspapers or magazines are called e-paper, or “replica” apps. With a few exceptions, most e-paper apps require payment for a digital copy. These can often be purchased via the counters from Apple and Google and most of the time, existing subscribers need to log in to access the daily e-newspaper. The newspaper articles can typically only support flat files of static pictures and text.

Why two types of apps?

There are several reasons why newspaper publishers chose to split apps with a feed and e-paper during the (roughly) first ten years of app stores. First of all, the internal editorial process played an important role in the birth of the two different app types. Back in 2010, the process of creating a newspaper or a news website were still completely separate processes, often also carried out by different editorial teams, each using their own editorial software. Which still is the case in some newsrooms.

The first news feed apps were naturally connected to the output for the website, which of course was also refreshed throughout the day. However, the e-paper apps were fed with exactly the same files that were also sent to the printer. Leading to, with hindsight, a rather peculiar workflow, in which the same PDF’s that went to the printer were pulled apart by an (often external) party and then turned into a digital package that could be downloaded in the e-paper app. A workflow that still often occurs enough in practice.

In addition to these organizational reasons, technical limitations also played a role. At the time, smartphones were not as powerful as they are today, which made an app with a combination of a feed and a PDF reader did not perform well, and therefore hindered a good user experience.

Maybe Apple Newsstand also had something to do with it. Between 2011 and 2015, Newsstand was a posh wood reading shelf for newspapers and magazines on iOS devices. Digital newspapers could be downloaded and read from there. A domain of its own for the e-paper apps. Until Apple replaced the Newsstand in 2015 with Apple news, an aggregated news app.

The feedpaper app

As mentioned, several Dutch publishers are now starting to merge news feed and e-paper in one app, thus creating a third form: the Feedpaper app (hybrid as a term is also possible, but in my opinion, it is a bit confusing because this is also often used when it comes to applying different technologies in an app).

Changing revenue model

The fact that we now see that more and more newspapers are choosing to merge both apps is mainly due to a changed connection between the two sources of revenue of publishers: that of the reader and advertiser market. Roughly ten years ago, the prevailing idea was that consumers would not pay for online news and that publishers’ internet revenues should therefore come purely from advertising income. As a result it was quite simple to define the commercial goals for apps: reach as many users as possible, to maximize advertising revenues. Alongside, e-paper apps were mainly an extra service for the existing print subscribers and some lost buyers of single digital copies.

In recent years, publishers have become aware that the sale of online advertisements cannot generate enough revenue to survive. Thanks to start-ups like Blendle, an important Dutch pioneer of paid online journalism, paying for online content has become ordinary behaviour for consumers. A process that has been strengthened further by the pandemic. A very positive development that we could not have imagined, 15 years ago. With this move, it is only natural that the news feed has grown into the e-paper. A good thing for readers who only find one app in the stores of their favorite news brand.

Incidentally, combining both forms is not as easy as it seems. How to deal with the same articles in the feed and the e-paper? Do you update the articles that have appeared in the newspaper? Issues like these, may have a significant impact on working methods and used technology in editorial offices and require fundamental process changes to allow a digital news article to be connected to a physical newspaper article. At the forefront of addressing these issues in processes and editorial management, we have NRC. Their editorial team publishes everything online and articles are continuously updated, based on new information and current affairs. In a way, the production of the newspaper is seen as a snapshot of the content productions that also occur online. At NRC, the e-paper article is therefore the same identity (with the same ID) as the article in the content feed. That finishes off the fusion between e-paper and feed.

What’s next?

Apps provide readers the best experience to read, listen and watch content and interact with the producers and have turned into the primary news carriers for a growing group of paying readers. Leading to continuous development. One of the next steps within the feedpaper app is the development of true digital editions. Although the e-paper still represents great value for many readers, especially as a motive for buying subscriptions, yet it remains a bit of a strange product… you are still looking through a piece of glass at a printed newspaper. The challenge now is to develop the e-paper experience in a natural digital way and go and find the most organic way for a person to read a feedpaper app as naturally as they would an actual physical paper. To achieve that, publishers should experiment with editorial selection, clear content hierarchy, and a clear beginning and end. And now in another form than the traditional printed newspaper.

The challenge now is to develop the e-paper experience in a natural digital way

We see that some titles like De Volkskrant have already started this process, and we’re excited to see how newspaper apps evolve in the coming years, now that technology has opened so many doors for them, and new initiatives are commercially backed by people willingly paying for journalism. And yes, we are definitely proud that some of our own Dutch Newspapers seem to have become forerunners of the next generation of high quality news experiences.

What the latest developments will look like, we can’t say exactly. But we believe that both readers and journalists will benefit from it. I think we can all agree that this is good news.

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