TapIn launches a mobile social network for news

As the news business has gone digital, plenty of media outlets have experimented with things like mobile apps and user-generated content, but not many have tried to take advantage of both of these things at the same time. Now Tackable, a startup co-founded by former journalist Luke Stangel, has launched a mobile app in partnership with the San Jose Mercury News that it hopes will allow the newspaper to take advantage of both the explosion of mobile app usage and the news-generating abilities of ordinary citizens. Stangel says he hopes the app convinces other newspapers that they can benefit from those trends as well.

In an interview with GigaOM, Stangel says the idea for an app or service that could take advantage of real-time news reporting from users — both in terms of news tips, eyewitness reports and photos — occurred to him almost a decade ago, when he was working for a small community paper in Palo Alto. Reporters at the paper were constantly filing stories and news briefs throughout the day about anything that happened, and he took to eating and even sleeping with an emergency-band radio nearby so he wouldn’t miss anything (this was in the days before Twitter). Stangel wondered what it would be like if anyone could post news or photos from wherever they were so the paper could use them:

I thought, “what if there was a gadget of some kind you could use, where you could see what the news was, like pins on a map.” I kept waiting for someone to build it, but they never did.

After working at the newspaper for seven years, followed by a stint at a CNN radio affiliate, Stangel says he quit and decided to try and launch what became Tackable — a mobile, location-aware social service designed to make it easy for people to submit news of all kinds, and for journalists to take advantage of that kind of “citizen reporting.” Tackable is hoping to launch later this month, along with about 35 newspaper partners including the San Jose Mercury News and the Oakland Tribune, all of which are owned by Media News Group. Stangel says he sees it as a mobile social network based around the news.

The TapIn Bay Area app, which went live today in the Apple store, is a separate entity from Tackable. When the company went around to newspapers to talk about potential partnerships that would allow them to use the crowdsourcing app, Stangel says the San Jose Mercury News asked whether the startup founders would be interested in creating a similar type of app, but with even more mobile services that would be integrated with the paper and its website. So the TapIn app doesn’t just allow users to submit photos or news items, it also allows them to see news stories from the paper on a map of the area, along with other info such as movie listings, and so on.

The “citizen journalism” portion of the app is based around what are called “gigs,” which are requests for information about specific topics or news events. Journalists from the newspapers working with TapIn or Tackable (which offers a similar system in its app) can post these requests if they need photos or other info about something, but other users can also create and post a “gig” through the service. The example that Stangel uses is a parent who has missed their child’s baseball game, and wants to ask if anyone managed to get a photo of it (those who submit text, photos, video or other content via the app accumulate points that can be used in a variety of ways).

In addition to the news-generating part of the service, an even more crucial part of the app — at least from Media News’ point of view — is that it also allows the newspaper to offer readers Groupon-style “daily deals” based on their location as well. Most newspapers have been late to the location-based advertising market, if they have even experimented with it at all, while Groupon (and partnerships like the ones launched today by Foursquare) have effectively seized the lion’s share of the emerging market. An app like TapIn, if it can manage to get enough traction with users, could give the San Jose Mercury News and other Media News outlets a bit of a leg up (the media company says it plans to roll TapIn out in other cities where it owns newspapers).

There have been other attempts at launching “crowdsourcing” services and apps that would allow users to upload photos of newsworthy events or people, but many of these have failed to take off, while some have changed their approach to focus mainly on nabbing shots of high-profile celebrities and selling them. While some media companies have experimented with user-generated content, no newspaper (to my knowledge at least) has launched an app or service that has this as the core of what it offers.

Will the app take off? Do users really want to upload their news tips and photos — and if they do, will they want to do provide them to the San Jose Mercury News and other newspapers that are working with Tackable, or will they prefer to simply upload them to their Facebook page or to Twitter and other services? Those are the questions that Stangel says he hopes to answer with the launch first of TapIn and then the broader rollout of Tackable. If nothing else, it will be an experiment worth watching.