Update: Cory Bergman is much more skeptical of the findings of the Reynolds Institute research. I agree with part of his point, and I don’t think it detracts from the overall point I make in this piece. I encourage you to read his take.
We’ve discussed mobile apps frequently here, most recently with Brad Arendt of Boise State. There are several commercial services that provide mobile app development for college media, usually taking a cut of ad revenue generated. Other campus media have developed their own apps.
I’ve been ambivalent about app development, mainly because of my own consumption of news on the iPhone (and the Android I used to own). I found myself browsing news through the browser, or through recommendations on Twitter, Facebook or Prismatic. Now, the Reynolds Journalism Institute has some data that seems to show I’m not the only one who prefers browsing news as opposed to opening an app.
In the report, 2013 Q1 Research Report 5: Age, gender influence how people use smartphones and tablets for news, they found that
When smartphone news consumers were asked whether they preferred reading news stories within mobile apps or web browsers, 52 percent overall indicated a preference for Web browsers.
The preference for browsing is more clear when you look at the breakdown of the survey question. For people in the college age group (18-34), only 35 percent preferred an app to 55 percent for using the browser for news.
Does this mean your college media outlet shouldn’t develop or license an app? I’m going to say “no,” and the reason isn’t “news.”
Because of the unique nature of your target audience (a set of people bound together by common geography and educational activity), an app can be useful for your college media outlet as long as it offers value-added content. By that, I mean additional features beyond the news – bar and restaurant guides, up-to-date events calendars, housing maps, etc.
That said, stand-alone apps for news outlets compete with thousands of other apps for attention. My suggestion would be to beef up your media outlet’s use of social media and digital-first storytelling and a responsive web site first, and work on an app later.