The San Francisco Chronicle unveiled an iPad app this week that serves up breaking news, live updates and exclusive videos, photos and other content. The cost: $6 per month, or $60 per year.
I’ve been an avid reader of the Chronicle for years, freely consuming stories on its Web site, SFGate.com. I’m also a paid digital subscriber to The New York Times iPad app, which debuted earlier this year.
All of this should make me a target customer for the Chronicle iPad app. So will I be getting the app? Nope.
As much as I want to help out my fellow journalists, I’m not in the business of charity. That is, I’m not going to pay for something that I already get for free unless there’s a compelling reason. The Chronicle—or any newspaper, for that matter—must deliver more value on the iPad than what’s on the Web site, and I’m not seeing it with the Chronicle app.
The Chronicle, of course, is trying to follow in the footsteps of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and others by delivering content on a tablet and charging for it. The hope is that newspapers can recover some of the revenue lost in the great migration from print to the free Web.
But simply duplicating free Web content on the iPad and then charging for it is about as silly as putting subscription-based print content on the Web for free in the first place (which, of course, everyone did). It also shows that the Chronicle doesn’t think much about the intelligence of its readers.
What are the benefits of the Chronicle iPad app? The Chronicle promises to push content to the app before it’s posted on SFGate.com. There’s an option to download content for offline reading. The app provides access to previous editions and allows users to share links and view panoramic photographs.
The New York Times iPad app, on the other hand, has only one real benefit: The app costs $20 per month for unlimited access to Times stories, videos, pictures and other content. Unlimited access also means the Times has had to limit access to its Web site. The Times has taken a giant risk by putting a cap on the number of free stories a single reader can access on NYTimes.com, only 20 articles per month.
The value-add of the Times app is access to more stories, which is the reason people read the Times in the first place. Here is why I think the Times iPad app is a better model than the Chronicle iPad app model.
Crunching the Chronicle
I want the Chronicle for local news but am not willing to pay for it on the iPad. That’s because I can get local news for free by opening up iPad Safari and going to SFGate.com or Insidebayarea.com. The iPad app might save me a step or two but not much more.
The Chronicle says it will push stories to the iPad app first, then SFGate.com. This might seem like a good deal, but I can’t imagine the Chronicle holding stories on the iPad for very long given the Web’s lightening fast news cycle.
Also, the Chronicle app’s offline reading feature doesn’t sound like anything I would use even though my iPad is Wifi-only. The vast majority of Chronicle stories are short and can be easily consumed on my Internet-connected mobile phone. If I do run into a longer story that I want to read offline later, I’ll use the Instapaper app.
Lastly, the Chronicle iPad app was designed to “make it easier for readers to engage with the content that matters most to them,” Ward Bushee, executive vice president and editor of the Chronicle, said in a Chronicle story.
But I didn’t find that to be the case. The app’s presentation seems somewhat convoluted compared to SFGate.com. In fact, I’d rather have Flipboard render the Chronicle’s stories and news updates than the Chronicle’s app.
New York State of Mind
In contrast, the Times app displays superbly well-written stories chock full of insight and in-depth reporting in a simple way. These quality stories aren’t available anywhere else on the Web except on its own Web site.
Times stories often run longer than Chronicle stories, and thus don’t make for good reading over a smartphone. That’s okay because I don’t really read the Times for breaking news anyway; I get AP alerts on my smartphone for that.
Unlike the Chronicle, the Times cleverly took away unlimited free content on the Web. Since I read the Times every day, I would have surpassed the 20 free stories per month allotment in less than a week.
Bottom line: If you’re an avid Times reader, then you must become a digital subscriber. And that’s the way it should be.
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.