The AP’s New Apps: The Style, Substance And Strategy

The Associated Press this week unveiled snazzy updates to its popular news apps. Here’s a review plus a look at what the apps mean for the AP and its newspaper partners.
The Style
Credit where credit’s due, the AP designers got it right. The updated apps offer a pretty, collage-like interface that is somewhat akin to Facebook’s timeline, and the navigation is quick and intuitive. The white on grey text is easy to read and slide bars let users customize the font and headline size.
AP has bet big on visual so there are pictures everywhere on both the iPhone and iPad versions (the app will be available on other platforms later this year). The pictures look terrific with sports and entertainment stories but, as others have noted, the photos can feel busy on the smaller screen.
The interface makes it easy to quickly add or drop sections like “lifestyle” or “wacky,” and users can customize the “local” tab to include a list of different regions. Ads appear at the bottom of the screen from time to time but they are not obtrusive.
Best of all, the app loads like lightning which makes it ideal for news junkies looking for a fix on the subway or in a Starbucks (NSDQ: SBUX) line.
The Substance
This is the AP so news comes by the bucket with frequent updates. The revised apps also include a new “Big Story” feature that chains together items on topics like “2012 Presidential Race” and “March Madness.” So far, there are only four “big stories” but editors say they will add and remove topics in response to breaking news items.
As with the app’s earlier iterations, the AP’s broad reach makes it a good one-stop shop for everything from sports to politics. Major breaking stories are announced via a streaming red banner across the top of the screen.
The most intriguing feature, though, may be the apps’ extensive local coverage. Users can add different regions and toggle between them on the local tab, meaning it’s possible to quickly keep track of what’s going on in Boston and Boise. Except for New York City which is fed by AP, the local coverage is culled from regional papers like the San Jose Mercury News and the Casper Star Tribune and curated by local editors. In some small areas, the process appears to be still under construction; some papers display a “no content available” message.
The Strategy
The new apps are good-looking and ambitious but there is still the question of how they will help the AP and its clients make money. Even if the product is good, it must still stand out against mobile offerings from rival news organizations and from personal aggregators like Flipboard and Zite.
Like its precursors, the new iOS apps are free although SVP for Digital Products, Jim Kennedy, says the AP is considering charging for deep content or adding in-app payment options in the future. For now, Kennedy says the AP is focused on executing a shift to comprehensive real time news on mobile — which is what he says is the future of news.
The deeper collection of local news is a boon for consumers but also raises the question of cannibalization. If users can read the Idaho Statesman through an AP app, will they still go to the Statesman itself? Kennedy says the AP’s local offerings are not a substitute but a “great complement to local apps.” He adds that the AP apps provide local publishers “additional shelf-space and inventory.”
As for the AP itself, Kennedy says that once the mobile service reaches profitability, it will be in a position to share revenue with partners. The association says that, overall, its apps have been downloaded more than 11 million times, including 3.5 million downloads to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) products.