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July 22, 2014

MediaNews' New TapIn Bets on the Tablet

What if you could really let your fingers do the walking? What if you could find stuff, near you, literally at the touch of a finger? Then, maybe act on it, scheduling your life, buying things and sharing your finds and plans with others?

That’s the dream that the MediaNews’ new made-for-the tablet, TapIn taps into. Potentially – and I cannot emphasize that word too much — it may become a prototypical product for the news industry, pointing a new way out of the hollowing-out landscape into which the news industry has meandered.

TapIn, which launches today (you’ll find it in the iTunes app store as an iPad app), is parent company MediaNews Group’s big play for the iPad, “a better version of Patch,” says MediaNews exec Steve Rossi.

Debuting in the Bay Area (where MediaNews is the largest daily publisher, and recently centralized its Bay Area titles, including the Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune, under a single editorial structure), it will launch in Los Angeles later in the summer. In fall, it will take flight in Denver, home of the MediaNews’ flagship Denver Post. It’s a fresh start, in thinking and in content presentation for a traditional newspaper company. It’s the combined brainchild, about nine months in the making of MediaNews digital leaders and of Tackable, a BayArea start-up, whose technology grows out user-generated photo aggregation, intending to become the “Twitter of photos,” according to Luke Stangel, CMO and a co-founder. (Good Q & A with Stangel, at CJR.org)

It’s a $4.99 a month product (after the free trial period, which carries into the summer) — and can be paid for in cash or in points earned through techniques strongly adapted from gaming companies.

When you open up TapIn Bay Area, it greets you pleasantly, colorfully and youthfully; it’s a visual product in three modes tilted toward a younger demographic than read newspapers, or newspaper readers aspirationally who would love to look young and vibrant again.

It’s a product that works on the metaphor of layers.

Browse through “on tap,” and you find photo/video feature stories and galleries.

Explore” with the Bay Area map, pinching in or out and find the same photo/video features, located by geography.

Find” maintains the large map, but taps into the potential power of newspaper editorial and commercial databases. Behind this screen is the real power of the interface. Choose from among above-the-map icons for features, deals, events, a business directory, movies, news and “gigs.”  You can open one, several or all of the icons simultaneously leading you to deeper into the product, by your neighborhood or region.

This is not your father’s replica or replica-plus product. Such text-centric replicas, done on the relative cheap by and for news companies are placeholders. They offer up the brand of the newspaper — and its re-purposed print/online content — but they embrace the promise of the tablet. They don’t delight. Delight, of course, is what newspaper city guide products have been after for 15 years. From Digital Cities to Real Cities, from Sidewalk to Zip 2′s Just Go, from the Washington Post’s Local Explorer to Zvents and OutsideIn’s appropriation of Google mapping, we’ve seen all kinds of attempts to both harness event-based information and to present it in useful ways.

What is TapIn? You can see Yelp or Kayak in it more than a newsprint legacy. In fact, my first reading says it works better for city guide/directory/doing stuff than for news itself.

“It’s as much a new media type as the website was for the newspaper. I don’t know how well it will play on the desktop,” says Jeff Herr, vice-president for digital for the California Newspaper Partnership, which publishes 34 dailies and 50 weeklies in the region. MediaNews drives CNP, which includes Gannett and Stephens Media holdings as well. ” We’ve set up a product platform.”

That indeed seems to be the best word for it. I’ve plumbed around the prototype. As with any early product, there are a few head-scratchers and missed linkages, lots of questions of depth and breadth, but overall I can see how the product could become a daily point of usage. That would make it stand out from the first 15 years of newspaper-company websites.

I’ll point to four characteristics of TapIn that distinguish it:

  • Tablet native product: Largely, it’s not starting with the website and porting it over, though its news pages look too mercurynews.com for me,  complete with small ads. It’s highly visual, interactive and has, at best, a feel of Flipboard about some of its presentation. Remember all the pub Rupert’s The Daily got, a few months ago. That’s greatly attributable to it being made-for-the-tablet. This is the first, big regional news initiative made for the tablet.
  • Commercial platform: TapIn begins to change the marketplace dynamic. Website advertising has been a dud for most local newspaper companies, returning low ad rates on display ads, while offering some ability to “digitize classifieds”; the whole newspaper industry takes in $3 billion annually in digital advertising, compared to the $20 billion+ it has annually lost in print. TapIn’s immediate commercial play can best seen in its deals — GotDailyDeals.com is MediaNews’ Groupon-like play here — giving those deals their own button and making them geo-findable. Its interstitials — in photo/video galleries — offer the kind of tablet immersiveness that advertisers are starting to test. At best, TapIn can support the new regional digital agencies initiatives, undertaken by many local newspaper companies (“The Newsonomics of Eight PerCent Reach,”), from selling SEO to SEM to couponing to display to social. I also talked with Herr about all kinds of e-commerce revenue share possibilities, from movie ticketing to Open Table to StubHub, and he acknowledges the platform is well set up to take advantage of those and many more. Curiously, there are no classifieds in the launch product; the issues of tech integration, there, are numerous.
  • The incorporation of game dynamics: For Herr — and increasingly the mantra heard newly throughout the digital news industry — it’s all about engagement. Engagement, we’ve learned, means going well beyond presenting news. So TapIn customers will be able to earn points for everything from commenting on stories to posting photos to reviewing restaurants to sharing TapIn with friends. In fact, the prominent Gigs button — a centerpiece of the Tackable photo product play — allows editors to ask for specific user-gen coverage of community events. As TapIn users engage, they gain points, points that are currency and can be used to pay for the TapIn subscription.
  • Syndicatable, networkable platform: In addition to rapidly rolling out the platform through MediaNews, the company is already in talks with a couple of other newspaper chains, about licensing the technology. For companies looking for a next-gen tablet play, it will be attractive — assuming reader and ad results tell an early, good story.

All that said, TapIn has a long way to go to be commercially successful, a point which Jeff Herr, a leading digital innovator, understands.

First, it must port in lots of content. It offers a movies button, but no trailers, ticketing or professional reviews (local or Rottten Tomatoes-aggregated). It has restaurant listings, business directory-like, but no reservation functionality nor built-in reviews. It lacks the utter usefulness of a Yelp, which, especially in the Bay Area, is a bible for local finds, and avoids. Newspapers first thought one of their key competitive advantages was their restaurant and movie reviews, for instance. Having failed to win the local wars with that ammunition, many are now just starting over, fresh, seeking user-gen reviews; my sense remains that combining the two, Pro and Am, still offers the most reader value. Starting “fresh” sounds appealing, but in 2011, the product starts out far behind Yelp, Open Table, Angie’s List, Rotten Tomatoes and many others for reader comment and in utility.

I do think the tablet can spawn a new digital marketplace, quite distinct from the print newspaper, the online newspaper site or the patchwork of Google/Amazon/Yahoo commerce of today. As a location-based commercial center, allowing me to personalize and customize (potentially coming, says Jeff Herr), it holds lots of consumer promise — and of several new revenue streams. Putting a $60 a year price on it will be counterproductive to creating, quickly, that marketplace. (Putting a price on news — the whole digital circulation debate — does make sense to me, but more as a bundled print/digital play.)

Which gets me to my final point, for now, on TapIn: It does work that well, yet, as a news vehicle. Its news mapping is clearly a work in progress. It’s hard to both give a sense of the most important regional news, and let readers zoom in on the dozens of more local stories with relevance to them. The connections so far in place don’t do that well, and I’m not sure the tablet real estate works effectively for a region as large as the Bay Area, with its population of seven million.

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