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RSS feeds beat any branded iPhone or iPad news app

May 27th, 2010Posted by in Journalism, Mobile, Multimedia, Newspapers

There are still so many uncertainties in the media landscape. Media fortunes fluctuate upwards due to the green shoots of cyclical recovery and downwards thanks to the continued – and permanent – failure of long-standing print-based publishing models.

But one thing you can be assured of is that in boardroom and management meetings across the worlds of newspapers, magazines and broadcast media, executives are being asked: “What’s our app strategy?

Still regarded as something of a secret sauce for newspapers and magazines – Rupert Murdoch believes that all media will find its way to the iPad – the very success and survival of newspapers and magazines apparently relies on us iPhone- and iPad-wielding middle class types going on an App Store shopping spree.

I’ve written on these pages before that, much like an English goalkeeper facing a German penalty, the iPad won’t save anything at all – least of all the news business. Analysts at paidContent:UK and Journalism.co.uk agree.

So here’s another thought: despite their convenience, apps are a limited way of publishing information. The self-constructed, community-based, open, Google-able news eco-system gives the serious media consumer a better all-round experience than the closed off system represented by the iPad and App Store, and all it takes is a little effort to make the most of it.

Most apps available now are primitive, quickly-built bits of smartphone software that publish articles via sequential updates. In the main, even market-leading apps don’t begin to present stories, pictures, video and graphics to readers in the way they should.

The experience of using the Guardian and Telegraph apps is only fractionally as rewarding and revealing as using Guardian.co.uk and Telegraph.co.uk – indeed, it’s probably not even as good as those unprofitable paper things. Andrew Sparrow may be the king of political liveblogging, but try reading him on the iPhone app – it’s confusing, jumbled, the links aren’t live and it’s not worth the effort.

Look at Journalism.co.uk’s review of iPhone apps from March: out of 34 leading apps, a measly five allowed offline reading.

So what’s the alternative? Do it yourself, with friends

Since the advent of the iPhone I’ve fallen back in love with RSS. With Google Reader’s mobile version (when in internet range) I can quickly read the 1,000+ feeds I check regularly. When out of range and on the London Underground I use the free NetNewsWire app which syncs seamlessly with Google Reader and works offline beautifully, as does the paid-for Byline app which shows pictures well and partially downloads online-only content too.

But both of those RSS aggregator apps allow me to add articles to my shared items on Google Reader and post things to Twitter. It’s a real-time news diet chosen by me and the community I belong to.

Times Newspapers launched its paid-for products this week and the £2-a-week sites are soon to be tied to access to iPhone/iPad apps, much like the FT’s app. With Times executives openly predicting reader numbers to collapse by as much as 90 percent, News International may be relying on the attractiveness of the iPad apps to shore up subscription numbers. I’ve seen the TheTimes.co.uk app in action on an iPad recently – it’s essentially the day’s online and print news digested into a series of regular “editions” – and the ‘liveness’ possible from online news appears to be lacking, as is the sharing aspect.

Of course, the everyday Man On The Clapham Omnibus doesn’t care or want to know about RSS, much less mobile apps that create a mobile version of their OPML file. But Journalism.co.uk readers are media professionals – and I’d wager that most of you are capable of using free or cheap software to create a mobile news experience that no branded premium app can match.

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