On the whole, news apps aren’t just web and print carbon copies shrunk down to screen size anymore.
Thank goodness. That’s been the easy route taken by news organizations for several years as they dip their toes into mobile. But journalistic organizations are starting to focus on their mobile products as distinctive entities and to use devices’ capabilities to shape more innovative offerings. News apps that sprung up this year included features like Pandora-style information streams, curated reels of news read out loud to users, video portals and, overall, more user customization than ever before.
Some of the better applications came from startups, others from established news organizations. Some were niche in subject matter, others global in scope or sources for quick-hit highlights of general-interest news for consumers everywhere. Here are seven apps that stood out:
This free application for iOS is almost a Cliff’s Notes guide for wonky politicos or those striving to understand what the heck their elected officials in Washington are up to. Users can track bills, follow specific lawmakers, chime in on legislation or access a continually updated rundown on the Capital Hill landscape
You’d expect this app to be from Politico, The Hill or another organization with a laser focus on federal government goings on. But it’s actually the brainchild of media company Scripps and has been out for less than two months.
By no means the only digital news product by the New York Times, NYT Now is one of the newer efforts by the landmark media company and was devised as a constantly-updated news stream. Some of the stories featured are by Times reporters, others by other outlets. Either way, the synopses and the selections of stories are done by editors at the Grey Lady and updated around the clock.
Newspapers have traditionally served the societal function of giving readers what they need to know to go about their days informed on key current events. NYT Now provides that type of curated experience. Bonus points for highlighting Times content as well as stories from elsewhere, including competitors. Just keep in mind that, though the app is free to download, it’s tied into the newspaper’s subscription model so to read the stories that are highlighted, the same rule of “10 free and then you pay” applies.
Over the summer, CNN was hard at work devising a new way for its news audience to watch and read global stories in an immersive experience. What resulted was CNNgo, which is available free on the iPad or desktop to cable subscribers who log in with their provider.
The live programming from the channel plays in either a Web browser or tablet app, and is surrounded by additional content options including contextual links that offer CNN-produced photos, text and videos connected to what is being discussed on screen. If what’s being aired doesn’t appeal to the user, there’s also a menu of alternative segments to tune in to.
CNNgo is almost like sitting and watching news with a very smart friend who chimes in with added insights. Context has been a big deal in the news world during 2014 (think the introduction of Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight) and this feels like CNN’s ode to context around its network TV experience.
Technically this one entered the marketplace in 2013 but it’s continuing to spur a healthy number of downloads for the French media company. In fact, La Presse+ has been downloaded more than 600,000 times since its May 2013 launch and now accounts for 52 percent of the newspaper’s overall ad revenue, according to company data.
The huge differentiator with this tablet product is the sheer amount of resources La Presse is devoting to it — most notably, a $36 million spend to develop the app over three years and the hiring of 100 new staffers. The app itself boasts everything that’s in the publication’s print product plus exclusive content, not to mention more videos and more interactivity, all available by 5:30 each morning. As a result, La Presse has experienced massive engagement times with users, to the tune of almost 45 minutes on weekday editions and 70 minutes on weekends.
The Android version of the app was launched last month. What La Presse is up to is also an intriguing experiment to follow, given that company leadership, midway through the year, confirmed they’d cease print operations at some point in the foreseeable future in favor of their tablet offering.
Billed as “your daily newscast,” Watchup brings together journalism from the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other reputable news organization and then lets users build their own newsreel with their favorite components. Once Watchup understands users’ preferences, it delivers a daily video newscast that someone can start and then sit back and view.
One plus is Watchup, a free app, is on every platform you could think of: Fire TV, XBox 360, Google Glass as well as on Android and iOs mobile. Like CNNgo, you can also pull up a related article to read while listening. Watchup is the brainchild of a startup team that came out of a Stanford accelerator and has since gotten major backing — more than $4 million worth of investments — from media companies such as Tribune Media.
Bearing similarities to Watchup, Newsbeat also is a news brief for users that they can use to start their day, only in radio form. Variety called it “Pandora for news,” because it gives an audio stream of aggregated stories personalized around interests. Newsbeat is available for free in the App Store on via Google Play and was developed by a special team at Tribune.
The concept of reading someone the news isn’t brand new, but Newsbeat does it in a sleek way and uses hundreds of news organizations’ journalism as the basis for its audio reports. Users can check off their most prized sources for content and the app takes it from there, converting text to speech. Once articles start playing, the user can pause at any time, start over or click to read more about any topic covered.
The Orange County Register tried an evening edition tablet app. Higher-ups decided to scrap it in 2012. But Canadian newspaper chain Postmedia is giving the tactic a try with an evening tablet app for the Montreal Gazette that it released this fall and that goes live at 6 p.m. each day. The lean-back experience that editors are going for has appeal, given how much usage tablets get in the nighttime. Content-wise the Montreal Gazette’s version is heavy on large color photos, analytical pieces and sports and newsy features that you can’t get anywhere else. For a limited time the app is free.
In 2015, you also might want to watch out for these two news apps:
MuckRock: The collaborative news site has been revolutionizing the collection and sharing of public documents. Now, thanks to a Knight Prototype Fund Award, it’s building an app that allows users to contribute to news stories by giving them assignments like glancing through documents, submitting photos and choosing a headline
BuzzFeed: The viral news company that’s continually growing in stature doesn’t just want to have to throw a bunch of its stories up on mobile; a special team out of New York has been working on a mobile-specific experience to their forthcoming app that’s inspired by products like Tinder that users say are delightful to use. “Almost everybody has that one friend who’s really interesting and really witty and who’s, like, the sparkling guest at the dinner party,” editorial lead Stacy-Marie Ishmael told NiemanLab. “They always have that one anecdote that nobody else at the dinner party has. We want to be that friend.”
Dena Levitz is a freelance journalist and media consultant as well as the first Challenge Cup reporting fellow for startup hub 1776. Dena has worked as the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America and was a member of the inaugural Media Entrepreneurship Master’s cohort at American University. Her freelance credits include Bloomberg News’ White House desk, City Lab by Atlantic Media and the Washington Post. In her spare time, she enjoys drinking a hoppy beer, chomping on a cheeseburger or quoting from one of the Rocky movies.