The Financial Times has launched a new, subscription-based iPad app, but you won’t find it in Apple’s App Store. The app is a touch-optimized, HTML5-powered newspaper that runs in the browser.
And it’s slick. Open app.ft.com in Mobile Safari and you’re prompted to add a bookmark to your home screen, which unlocks the site’s full potential. The app launches full-screen, unencumbered by browser chrome. It’s fast and smooth. Stories are downloaded, which allows for offline reading.
In other words, the FT’s web app is practically indistinguishable from a native app.
That’s important, as Peter Kafka notes, because it allows the FT to deliver a “native” experience without having to play by Apple’s subscription rules. But it will become much more important, and interesting, if the newspaper pulls its existing apps out of the App Store next month, when Apple’s policy will become a Hobson’s choice for all publishers. At that point, Apple will demand a share of the publishers’ proceeds and keep valuable subscriber data to itself.
The FT’s promotional video opens thusly: “The FT app is moving.” And it seems to promote the web app’s advantages over its predecessor, the native app. “The app is quicker. You can now read more content and watch our award-winning video on iPhone as well as iPad,” the narrator says. The web app, in other words, could well be a test case for paid content that does its thing outside the confines of Apple’s walled garden. Though the FT says it has “no plans to pull out of any apps store,” Kafka notes, he continues: “That’s not the same as saying it plans to stick around, either.”
Pulling out of the App Store (and, soon, the Newsstand) would mean forfeiting real estate in a clean, well-lighted place. Apple’s one-tap subscriptions could not be any simpler, unless and until someone invents thought-controlled tablets. Then again, the FT serves a niche audience, and an audience that knows how to find it. (As of April, it had nearly 600,000 paying subscribers.) It doesn’t need the discovery function of the Newsstand or App Store in the same way that a more general-interest publication does. It’s not like USA Today is shunning Apple in favor of the open web.
So the FT’s web app could be less about shunning Apple and more about working with it: keeping one foot inside Apple’s garden, and the other outside. If so, the FT isn’t the first to try this approach. Take NPR, which was among the first to launch a tablet site, and whose native app is also enjoying wild success in the App Store. (It surpassed 1 million downloads in April.)
Perhaps a better example is The New York Times, whose website offers HTML5 video and tablet-style swiping between articles. (The website is frequently featured in Apple’s own promotions of Mobile Safari.) The Times’ native app, on the other hand, is consistently among the top-rated news offerings in the App Store. Even though the Times has to give something up to get its product in both places, 70 percent of a subscription sale is better than 0 percent.
I don’t know if I would even call the FT’s move an “end-run,” since Apple encourages developers to build web apps and promotes Safari as a open-standards browser. Apple is not stopping anyone from innovating outside its walls. It’s saying, If you want access to our 225 million credit cards, you have to play by our rules. Sure, Apple would probably prefer to have the FT’s apps (and subscribers) inside its garden, and the FT may have found a clever way to have it both ways. Then again, the FT is still tailoring the experience for one device — the iPad — so Apple is not exactly smarting.
For the past several years, news outlets that cover the media industry have focused predominantly on television ratings when reporting on the cable news wars — a metric that, at least until recently, has been almost exclusively dominated by the Fox News Channel. But underlying all the ratings horse-race stories has been a burgeoning thread of discussion on one metric that Fox isn’t ruling: online readership.
Using numbers from multiple analytics firms, it has long been apparent that CNN beats not only its cable news competitors on the web, but nearly every other major news source, as well. According to comScore, CNN received an average of 8.5 million unique U.S. visitors a day for the first three months of this year, figures that dwarf MSNBC’s 7.4 million daily visitors and Fox’s 2.3 million. A comScore spokesman provided me with charts showing that CNN, with 75.9 million US visitors, is beaten only by Yahoo! News Network’s 88 million. In U.S. monthly uniques, CNN outperforms MSNBC.com (51 million), AOL News (40 million), Fox News (20 million), CBS News (16.4 million), and The New York Times (32.9 million).
Figures from Compete tell a similar story, though with radically different numbers — 27.7 million uniques for CNN, 18.3 million for The New York Times, and 14.7 million for Fox News. And unlike MSNBC.com, Yahoo!, and AOL, CNN doesn’t have a major news portal funneling traffic to its site.
Find your core
Why does CNN trounce all its competitors on the web? AdWeek took a stab at this question a year ago, suggesting that it might have to do with the demographics of CNN viewers and the idea that Fox News’ brand of opinionated journalism doesn’t automatically work well on the web. “People shouting at each other doesn’t translate to a mass audience online,” a source told AdWeek’s Mike Shields. But Meredith Artley, the managing editor of CNN.com, told me in a phone interview that the network owes its online success to what she calls the “Pilates strategy.”
“What that means, as someone who has friends who do Pilates but has never done it herself, is that it’s about strengthening your core and stretching into new areas,” she said.
The core, as she sees it, is breaking news. “But that’s not enough; you can’t do just that alone. You have to go beyond that. To that end, you have to stretch into new areas and try new things and innovate and play and experiment.”
Expand beyond your core
To do this, Artley created an enterprise team for CNN.com, people whose job isn’t just to break news, but also to work on bigger, broader stories. CNN has also been expanding its online opinion journalism, a section that Artley said has tripled its traffic in the last year. For this, it has brought in both on-air talent and columnists from other news outlets, a roster that includes CNN’s legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, and ESPN’S LZ Granderson. In May, CNN Opinion saw 18.4 million global page views, 62 percent more than last year.
To flesh out its coverage, CNN also launched several beat blogs, many of which provide more fluffy, conversational topics. Its Eatocracy food blog, for instance, once published an ode to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “There is something so simple yet dynamic about two pieces of bread, peanut butter, and jelly,” wrote Devna Shukla, a production assistant for CNN’s AC360. “I can’t even begin to calculate the number of PB&Js I’ve had over the last year, let alone my entire life.” That single post received 480 comments and 875 Likes on Facebook. And CNN’s blog network, overall, saw 129.3 million domestic page views last month.
Artley cited studies indicating that CNN’s brand loyalty drives more traffic than anything else. One, from Pew, found that CNN has the most loyal users in terms of the percentage of them who visit its site 10 times a month or more. (According to Comscore, the CNN Network is in the top five for average visits per user. And for the CNN.com domain itself, the site has more than 8.5 visits per user.) Another statistic from the study showed that CNN is less reliant on Google searches than any other news outlet. If a site depends less on outside traffic sources while also seeing an abundance of repeat visitors, one can conclude that a high percentage of its users are arriving by typing in its homepage URL. Artley backs that up: 75 percent of CNN’s traffic is direct, she said, meaning that only 25 percent comes from referrals. And direct traffic, most online editors would tell you, is the most coveted kind.
Play to your platforms
But what kind of content are CNN.com visitors coming to consume? All things being equal, Artley said, articles tend to get more overall traffic. But this wasn’t the case for the Japan earthquake earlier this year, for example, which provided CNN with a wealth of video and imagery to tell its story. Unsurprisingly, video views for CNN were much higher that month. But the death of Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, had almost no new video footage attached to it, and it generated much more interest in the site’s text-based stories about the incident. Still, though — and unsurprisingly for a TV-news site — video is, overall, a traffic-driver. In May, a CNN spokeswoman told me, CNN received 121.8 million video views, up 33 percent over last year.
With the Japan earthquake story, CNN also benefited greatly from iReport, its citizen journalism section. People who were living in Japan began uploading video from the quake and its resulting tsunami onto the site — content that helped CNN both online and on the air. The CNN spokeswoman told me that iReport alone drives about 20 million page views a month.
Perhaps just as notable are the metrics CNN has on its mobile users. In April, for instance, its site received over 200 million mobile views. (Compare that, Artley noted, to the LA Times, her previous employer — which chases 200 million views a month for its entire website.)
One of the reasons behind the massive traffic edge could be that CNN, unlike most of its competitors, doesn’t use Associated Press content in its news feeds. (It discontinued its subscription to the wire service about a year ago.) In many instances, several different news sites can be competing with the same exact AP story, meaning their audiences are more easily split, whereas CNN hosts original content for those same stories. “When you start to assess the question of why does CNN.com outperform not just the cable folks but the newspapers as well, one of the things we’re really proud of is that we don’t rely on that crack,” Artley said, laughing. “It can be a crutch, and for an organization as big and global as CNN, we don’t need to rely on that crutch. So the reporting is really a different take that you’re not seeing everywhere else.”
Whatever is causing CNN’s dominance in web traffic, as more and more consumers navigate toward reading their news online, its influence, both as a journalistic outlet and advertising platform, is likely to increase. As AdWeek put it in its article last year, “[Fox News'] lack of digital success could eventually undermine its influence in American news — particularly as a younger generation gravitates toward getting its headlines from iPhones and iPads rather than TV.” When this happens, CNN may be able to assert with confidence that it truly is, as it has told us in so many advertisements, America’s “most trusted name is news.”
As he prepares to step down from the top of American Public Media, his job for the last 44 years, I recently made the mistake of congratulating Bill Kling on his retirement.
Kling launched what would become Minnesota Public Radio in 1967, the year President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. He was a founding board member of National Public Radio in 1970. He helped create American Public Media, in 2004, to distribute MPR’s portfolio of hits, including Marketplace and A Prairie Home Companion. His company is the largest owner and operator of noncommercial stations, reaching more than 15 million listeners per week, and is expected to make $110 million in FY11.
So I guess I thought the man was ready to retire.
Nope. On the contrary, Kling said, he is out to make public radio bigger and, he hopes, save local journalism in the process. He departs American Public Media on July 1 to become a freelance fundraiser, lobbyist, and, maybe most importantly, cheerleader.
“What I’m passionate about now is the potential that public media has, particularly public radio,” Kling told me. “If you look at the potential it’s got and then you look at the way it’s structured, organized, and the impact it’s having, there’s a huge disconnect. It’s simply not living up to the promise.”
“The tempering element”
Kling has put forth a bold proposal to hire 100 reporters in the largest American markets, starting with pilot stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Twin Cities. (A hundred reporters is about the equivalent of a large newspaper staff.) As metro dailies shrivel in size — including the two greats in his state, the Strib and the Pioneer Press — Kling views public radio as the institution best positioned to pick up the slack.
“Radio and television and cable seem to be picking up a lot of money by picking up the polarized news agendas, neither of which is good for any kind of civic literacy,” he said.
“Eighty percent of the British public absorbs news from the BBC in some form,” Kling noted. “You can have the wildest tabloids in the world, ginning people up and getting people angry, et cetera, but at some point they get re-centered by their exposure to a trustworthy brand.
“In this country, you think about the anger that’s there — well, the anger is really being driven to a large extent by the media, and the media is making a lot of money doing that. Where is the tempering element? It should be us. We should be reaching 85 percent of the American public and we’re not. We’re reaching 10 percent.”
All right, but where will the money come from? No pledge drive, after all, can likely support that kind of growth.
Kling isn’t daunted, though. He views the expansion of nonprofit journalism as a public good, like adding a wing to an art museum, and he is depending on foundations and, yes, the government to support it.
“Communities do get behind things like that,” he said. “And when they do, they find the money. We’re talking about $5 million per year per city and probably the need to keep that funding alive for a five-year period, at which point the job will have been done.” Audiences will have grown, underwriting will have increased, and, he hopes, the operation will have become self-sustaining.
And then there’s that little matter of federal funding, sure to come up again in September on Capitol Hill. Kling is calling on Congress not just to protect but to “significantly increase” funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB’s total appropriation for public radio is $110 million — the same amount in real dollars as in 1980, Kling said. Only a small slice of CPB funding, between 1 and 2 percent, goes directly to NPR; the rest is doled out to stations, who in turn buy programming, much of it from NPR, PRI, or Kling’s APM.
And Kling would prefer to keep the stations in charge. He thinks programming, fundraising, and governance should happen on the local/regional level. “National Public Radio, on the other hand, should get out of the lobbying business,” he said. And that’s just what NPR is, or was, trying to do: A month before Vivian Schiller’s highly publicized exit in March, she quietly worked with counterparts in public television to create a separate lobbying group, the Public Media Association.
Moving up to the big leagues
Kling wants public radio to be an enterprise, rather than a niche. He wants CEOs and boards of directors running stations, rather than universities. Most of America’s 800 or so public stations — 60 percent, he said, but some tallies have it lower — are owned by university trustees. This leads to what Kling calls mission clash, a newsroom’s agenda at odds with that of the university’s PR department or its financial administrators.
“A university station manager said she had the funding to add another reporter to her staff but wasn’t allowed to do it because it would have made the Speech Department larger than the Drama Department, and the Drama Department objected,” Kling said. “That’s not what this is about.” Stations, instead, “need to be governed by the communities they’re serving.”
Michael Marcotte, a public media consultant and former longtime news director, thinks a lot of universities would be reluctant to give up their broadcast licenses, and he thinks the academic environment can incubate, not stifle, innovation. Though he was a little terrified to be on the record disagreeing with Bill Kling.
“In an ideal world we would have standalone independent stations…with really strong boards of directors and no other masters. But this is the system we have, and it got us to where we are. And where we are is pretty good,” Marcotte said.
Marcotte was more blunt in a January blog post: “I refuse to believe that university licensees are structurally compromised in their editorial integrity. And I believe Mr. Kling has some self-interest in play — hoping to pick off a few more stations for his empire.”
Kling did not build his empire meekly. He coined the term “social purpose capitalism,” the idea that unbridled capitalism is justified in the pursuit of public service. His for-profit publishing and mail-order companies funneled millions into MPR, made him rich, and drew a lot of unwelcome attention from lawmakers and lawyers. In the 1990s, state legislators forced Kling to reveal his eye-popping salary. Minnesota’s attorney general investigated the company’s finances but found nothing illegal.
A Clear Channel model for public radio?
In 2000, Kling engineered the takeover of KPCC in Los Angeles, a flailing NPR station run by students in a college basement. It was renamed Southern California Public Radio. That station has since seen a remarkable turnaround, having moved to a $25 million newsroom last year and expanded to serve some 600,000 listeners per week. SCPR has acquired two other frequencies to serve as repeaters and is looking to build a statewide empire of its own.
“I like to look at Bill Kling as the epitome of the entrepreneurial leader in public radio,” Marcotte said. “He has shown the power of consolidation of resources. That you can get more done, you can put our a better product, you can touch more lives by consolidating your business operations instead of having many, many, many small, little operations.”
It can sound a little Clear Channely, sometimes — you know, “better living through consolidation.”
“You go back before Clear Channel, stations were owned by mom-and-pop operations and they made a lot of money,” Kling said. “And you wonder: Why didn’t somebody come in and consolidate the package and syndicate the public company concept sooner? It’s because they didn’t understand it. They couldn’t get their arms around it until someone was smart enough to say, ‘Wait a minute. We could make this much more profitable, efficient, and effective.’”
Am I hearing you’re a Clear Channel fan, Mr. Kling?
Definitely not, he said. He does think the future of news is not new technologies or business models; the future of news is more. More money, more reporters, more ambition.
“My point,” he said, “is that the industry has always been hard to understand, and it takes real, effective leaders to figure out that it could be changed and how to change it. And how important it is that it must be changed.”
Photo of Bill Kling courtesy of American Public Media.