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How journalists can target tablets

By Kyle Deas
@KyleDeas

News organizations looking to enter the mobile space are confronted with a bewildering array of formats, devices, and operating systems. In a late-day session on Thursday, Daniel Lathrop and Will Sullivan talked through some of the options and the reasons why newsrooms could take one approach or another. Lathrop is the news apps editor at the The Dallas Morning News, and Sullivan is the director of mobile news for Lee Enterprises.

Apps vs. e-books

Between the Kindle bookstore and the Apple App Store, there's a thriving market for both e-books and apps. So how should news organizations choose?

An app allows for a richer interactive experience and access to the device's internal components (like a camera or accelerometer). An e-book, on the other hand, can leverage stories you've written for print, has lower production costs, and retails for higher than most apps.

"Understanding the user experience, how people will engage with the content, is really critical when picking a platform," Lathrop said. The choice between app and e-book should be made based on the type of content and the user-experience you are trying to create. 

HTML5 vs. Native

Programming a native app for iPhone or iPad can be time consuming and difficult. Luckily, Lathrop pointed to alternative ways that news organizations can quickly put together apps for their stories.

First, he recommended some frameworks for building "canned" apps — native apps that rely on a combination of templates and your own content. As long as there's a template that matches what you need to do, all you have to do is drop in your content. Some examples of canned frameworks are Seattle Clouds and AppMakr.

But Lathrop also said it's possible to get native-style functionality from HTML5 frameworks. These let you program for mobile devices in the same way you program for the web — in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript — while still allowing access to the phone's internal components.

Some of the HTML5 frameworks Lathrop recommended were PhoneGap and SenchaTouch, though he stressed that there were many others.

"Unless you're trying to do something really complicated, you're probably better off using an HTML5 app," Lathrop said, citing the high cost and long lead time of developing a native app. 

e-Books

Creating an e-book is somewhat simpler. Some tools for creating e-books are Apple Author (for the iBook Store), Microsoft Word, and Adobe InDesign. 

Lathrop said most of the e-books his newsroom has released are packages of their prior reporting — like a compendium of their articles about Lee Harvey Oswald, or a collection of articles about Thanksgiving. So far, he said sales have been surprisingly strong — especially in Amazon's Kindle Store.

"The things that are successful as non-fiction books in the Kindle store, and other ebooks stores, are basically the same categories as fiction books: romance stories, mysteries, thrillers. The things people like even when they aren't true," Lathrop said.

The Bottom Line

Lathrop said there's a thriving market for both apps and e-books, and that his organization has been suprised at the success of what they've put out there. A tablet app probably won't save your entire organization, but it can provide a nice revenue boost, increase your engagement with readers, and give older content a nice boost.

Kyle Deas is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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