The Race for Mobile News

Here is a quick list I made of some of the many mobile news apps that have entered the market over the past few years: Prismatic, Circa, Pulse, News 360, Summly, and Zite. These are all serious, well-funded and/or well-staffed entrepreneurial attempts at building the next great news brands. You can probably name at least a few others.

To some degree or another, they all propose to define a new kind of news reading experience that lies at the intersection of mobile access and customizable headlines. Some of them are pretty good at it, too. But none of them have truly come to own this category, and similarly none of them have become indispensable mobile brands the way that say Instagram has.

This situation puzzles me, because reading the news is one of the core use cases on a mobile phone — just about everyone does it. It surprises me that we’re almost six years into the iPhone-fueled smartphone era, and we don’t yet have a commonly agreed upon winner among news apps. Not just a clear leader in downloads, installs and active users, but an outright brand leader, an approximate equivalent to what CNN was in the first decades of cable news.

There is a distinction, of course, between producing original news, like CNN does, and aggregating or repackaging it, like almost all of these apps do. And maybe the fact that these brands have already come up against the limits of their popularity suggests that aggregation will always be inferior to original news.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long run that turns out to be the case; research suggests that legacy news brands enjoy an advantage in mobile (at least for now).

Still, I highly doubt that the combination of mobile access and customized headlines has already played itself out fully. While I take nothing away from what these apps have done so far, it strikes me that we are still just learning what mobile news consumption means, and how it’s very different from traditional or even desktop media models. As our understanding matures, new apps and brands will enter the market with radically different interaction models.

If you also have a little bit of faith that technology will continue its heretofore unceasing forward march, then it becomes quite reasonable to expect that we are due for huge innovations in relevance and automated customization sometime in the next decade, which will benefit this category of software immensely. That is, solutions to the challenge of creating a news experience tailored just for your interests (explicit and implicit) are bound to get more and more sophisticated — and accurate. The company that is the first to combine such technology with a truly advanced understanding of mobile news consumption will become the next great news brand.

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6 Comments

  1. I think a news brand is more likely to come out of micro-publishing than an app for aggregating a lot of sources, like what’s happening with The Magazine and 29th Street Publishing or what Dan Pell is doing with Next Draft.

    But you didn’t mention Flipboard, which seems to be a lot more popular than all of these. I’ve heard people outside of the tech industry mention using it. I’m pretty sure I saw it on a reality show recently (but that could have just planted PR).

  2. I was remiss not to mention Twitter and Flipboard. I see the argument for both as news brands, but ultimately I think they play a different role in news consumption than these other apps. I also feel like Twitter’s utility as a news source for consumers is somewhat overstated — Pew’s most recent State of the Media Report says just 9% of consumers use Facebook and Twitter for news “very often,” with the former outpacing the latter. I know from within the design and tech space it seems like Twitter is the clear winner, but I do believe a ‘purer’ news brand will emerge.

  3. It also depends on what you mean by ‘news.’ It seems that the definition of news itself is changing, especially with younger audiences. Do sites like the Gawker network count as news? They report current events, but there’s a ton of other stuff mixed in.

    I think their popularity complicates the landscape of legacy just-the-news outlets like CNN.

  4. I actually like the fact that there is none of them clearly superior to another. If one of these would be significantly number 1, the real news breakers would do all deals with the number 1, and all the others, maybe better for me, would be far behind, because they don’t get all the content. You already see stuff happening with Pocket and Instapaper, with Pocket having deals with media companies to integrate the posts directly in the app. So Instapaper is clearly behind there, but still in my opinion better to use. I want to use what I want, not being forced into using something just because of this one feature, while everything else is speaking for the other solution.

  5. Your view on “new apps and brands will enter the market with radically different interaction models” is also what I feel is the missing link. All the current apps is just reformatting of content, distribution, or timing without offering a break through benefit to the users. The strength of having a mobile and digital medium is missing, rather current apps are designed while holding on to the past desktop and analog world. I could image where news could be used in various methods (audio, visual, or even tactile), and where comments and discussion could play a bigger role in the apps.