Why are mobile news aggregators chasing the dead?

My smartphone and tablet are jammed with the carcasses of news summary apps, RSS feed aggregators and branded news outlet apps and, as I wander from one to the other, I can’t help but think that that we are still missing the innovation element that will move this industry forward.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve downloaded Circa, Summly and Prismatic and each contribute to the mess that is the future of news aggregation but each have a considerable flaw in the business they are moving into.

First off a quick review of the apps to help set the context.

Pulse

The app that I use regularly for mobile news aggregation is Pulse for iPad. This app brings all the sites that I would normally spend hours reading into a single interface and then allows me to share through the usual social channels. I use this every single day, without fail.

Flipboard

Flipboard, a favourite in the mobile world, is installed but rarely used. I find the app completely unusable mainly because of the magazine interface. If I want to get lost in beauty, I use Flipboard, but the metaphor of browsing is not what I’m interested in for a mobile experience. The content is not curated and I find hundreds of duplicate stories that detracts from the experience.

Circa

Circa

Circa is something I started using on my iPhone. Like all the other apps mentioned, the interface is stunning and simple. A stream of news articles featuring the top curated stories from around the world. Each story pulls in summaries from multiple news outlets all under a single news topic. I like the feature that notifies me of changes to topics that I have flagged as interesting. For example, around the announcement of the iPad Mini I would receive notifications of any news items that Circa added to that topic.

Summly

Summly

Summly has hit a fevered pitch over the past week as news outlet after news outlet has interviewed the 17-year old founder, Nick D’Aloisio. The app takes an algorithmic approach to news aggregation by using computers (not humans) to summarize news by categories. I found a considerable number of duplicate stories appearing and feel this app could benefit from Circa’s topic-based approach in this instance.

Prismatic

Prismatic

Prismatic was referred to me from Om Malik – a news man that I have immense respect for so when he offers a recommendation, I take it. Prismatic is powerful and does a great job of bringing together the best of the news tailored from my Twitter and Facebook interests in one great, fluid interface. What I really like about this app is that it shows me the history of the articles I’ve read – very handy for finding your way back to something for reference.

All of the apps that I have installed on my devices offer simple sharing features which is a standard these days. What I found in using these exclusively for the past couple of weeks is that there wasn’t a lot of duplication in the news across the apps – there are always cross-media stories that are referenced (things like natural disasters and elections) but using all 5 of these every day kept me in the loop quite well.

Here’s the challenge: REVENUE!

As beautiful and helpful as these apps are they are absolutely not going to replace the traditional suffering newspaper today, or ever. Why? First off, they rely on traditional news outlets for everything. These apps are exactly like the radio of the mobile world. They rely on traditional news outlets to provide the fodder and they summarize and display it. How is this moving the news world forward? How is this revolutionizing media? How is this killing the printing press? It’s not.

Where the revenue comes from

Revenue for these apps comes from a couple of places if they are lucky. First off, if the audience is large enough (in the case of Flipboard), their value is in exposing content to a new audience. This is of great value to an international brand like the New York Times and could actually assist them in picking up new digital subscribers through the app. In this instance, the app could take a referrer fee per transaction.

Next is advertising or sponsorship dollars. This is contentious at best. How can an app take news from other sources and profit from that? A Vancouver based company called Zite did this and was almost immediately sued by CNN for aggregating their content. CNN eventually bought Zite but this is a serious lesson to be learned. If these apps get popular and reduce the frequency of site visits, thus reducing the ad dollars the sites can earn, they won’t allow access to their feeds any more. A revenue share between the news outlet and the app could be a solution but the app would need to, again, come with a huge audience. Can you see Techcrunch or CNN agreeing to this?

The obvious choice: Get bought

As these companies face the realities that building a business aggregating content from a dying model isn’t going to be successful the obvious thing to look at is that the monoliths in the news world – the newspapers, radio stations and television studios – will be looking at acquiring some or all of these companies much as CNN did with Zite. This is the play for Summly, Circa and Prismatic unless they start producing their own content but, as far as I can tell, none have the pockets that Murdoch has to take that risk – which is telling.

The future is local

Aggregating content is not new but the location layer that has emerged as a result of mobile is and it deserves some serious attention. Location has always been relevant in the news industry – we watch local news, listen to local radio and read local newspapers for a reason. Forgotten in all of these apps is that national and international news is readily accessible everywhere, all the time and is consumed quickly then discarded. It is of lower perceived value. Local news is the prize. Hyper local news can be monetized and is something that could never become as much a commodity as what these apps are serving up. Why aren’t there similar companies focused on aggregating the local neighbourhood papers? Seems to me that, as companies focus on the big news, the hyper hyper local news – and advertisers – are being ignored. Why?

Where are the news apps that attack a real problem. While I use all of the ones mentioned above I will do so until the next app comes along that improves the experience and UI. They aren’t fostering a long-term relationship with their readers, they aren’t contributing an editorial voice and they certainly aren’t pulling me in with local content. Until that happens all they are really doing is following in the footsteps of those that are suffering today.

This is not the future of news. This is the summary of where we’ve been and highlights the challenge that lies ahead.

**The featured image for this post is an actual product and can be found here**

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of UNTETHER.tv and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

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