My hope for 2013: The power of the app comes to local news

My prediction for 2013 in the world of news may be more of a hope or a dream than a true prediction.  I want this to be the year that the power of the app will come to smaller local news organizations.

Sure, national news organizations – The New York Times, CNN, USA Today – have been perfecting their apps for smartphones and tablets for years. They offer cool features that go way beyond just dishing up a print story in a digital format. The New York Times app lets me customize my news; USA Today’s allows me to play its crossword puzzle right on my iPad. Larger city news organizations are following suit, as well.

But for far too many Americans, local news and information comes in a much less digitized version. That’s a problem because America is really a nation of small towns.

In these small towns and cities that dot America, the world of online news apps reminds me a bit of news websites about 10 years ago. News organizations felt they should start a website, but they often had no idea what to do with it. It looked ugly and had few features. There was no compelling reason to use it.

Unstable, boring apps

I have downloaded apps to local newspapers and television stations that greeted me with much the same experience. The app is unstable, does little more than give me the same story I can read in print, and the search function is nonexistent or useless. It’s not really an app, but just a new format for offering up the same tired content. And that’s if I am lucky enough to find a smaller local news organization with apps.

We as an industry must do better than this. It’s not enough that the news organizations at the top of the news hierarchy – and that also serve the nation’s largest cities – are innovative. We must be innovative in the small towns and cities where most Americans get their local news.

To be sure, I don’t blame local news organizations for this gap. I spent 20 years working at small-city newspapers, and I know how hard-pressed they are to hire anyone let alone a journalist who has the coding skills to create the next killer app.

Also, I concede that news consumers in more rural areas may be less digitally plugged in than in big cities. However, that is changing quickly. More and more Americans are getting their news and information from smartphones or tablets, according to a recent Pew Research Center study,  and this trend shows no signs of stalling in America’s smaller cities and towns.

Plus, I realize the challenge news organizations face in many American communities to balance online innovation while still providing a traditional product for their many news consumers who do not yet have smartphones – or even Internet access.

Readers who are not connected — yet

Consider, for example, the coverage area of the New Orleans-based Times-Picayune. Roughly half of Louisiana residents subscribe to broadband Internet connection services there, compared with the national average of 60 percent, as reported on Poynter.com.

So news organizations in less digitized communities face a challenge: They must serve the news consumers they already have who may not be online or on smartphones or tablets while still moving into a future where an online app will likely be a main source of news and information for most people.

What is the answer? First, I think foundations that fund journalism innovation need to consider the smaller news organizations and the universities that train the young journalists who start their careers at these media outlets.  Larger news organizations could partner with smaller ones to test ideas before launching bigger projects, a collaboration that could benefit both. Also, more study is needed to understand how to narrow the digital divide between the information haves and have-nots.

News organizations of all sizes are facing challenges today as journalism evolves. But we all lose as an industry and a nation if I can play with a dynamic map on my iPad of how each state in America voted in the presidential election, but I cannot find out from my smartphone what happened at the city council meeting in my community.

– Gina
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