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USA Today on the iPhone

Tue, 2009-02-24 00:00 — WAN-IFRA

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Matt Jones is Vice President of Mobile Strategy and Operations for USA Today/Gannett Digital. Here he discusses USA Today's strategy for publishing on smartphones.

IFRA: At the end of December, USA Today launched an application for the iPhone. What is the response so far with this service?

Matt Jones: Thus far, we have been very pleased by the success and adoption of the USA Today iPhone application. It’s been ranked the number one free news application continually since just a few days after launch. Recently, it was rated as high as number four of all free apps in the App Store. I’m probably most encouraged by the outstanding user comments the product is receiving. iPhone users are a demanding audience and to have such a high level of positive feedback is great for our brand and our customers. We also believe that we have developed some very unique and exciting advertising capabilities, but we are being very careful to weigh the entire user experience as we go to market with display advertising.

IFRA: Do you also offer applications for other smart phones, like Google’s T-Mobile G1 or Nokia’s products?

Jones: It’s something we are actively considering right now. The main reason why we prioritised the iPhone over the T-Mobile G1 or some Nokia models was just the belief that here in the United States the largest installed base of real advanced capabilities around the smart phone platform is iPhone. So we felt that was the place to go first. But we may end up taking what we have built for iPhone and making it available for other operating systems and other handsets

IFRA: How difficult would it be to “translate” this iPhone application to work well with other platforms and operating systems?

Jones: Well, there is a lot of software development and engineering that goes on here. … One of the things that is going to be fairly consistent across any of the future operating systems and applications we might have will be the design and the content set. For example, News, Money, Sports, and Life, some of those signature areas from USA Today, certainly will be a part of other downloadable applications that we build. We also will try to keep the design as simple as possible. But as you can imagine, if we are talking about a device that does not have a touch screen, for example, everything would need to be rearchitected, from the design on down. As far as the programming inside of it, Android is a very different operating system to build for than iPhone; the actual coding is quite different.

IFRA: Did you develop this application in-house?

Jones: We used a vendor, a company called Mercury Intermedia ( to build the iPhone application.

IFRA: How often is the information of the application updated?

Jones: We update the information via XML feeds that are generated from our website content management system, and we do this continuously, 24/7.

IFRA: Is USA Today’s website also optimised to be shown properly in Safari, the browser of the iPhone?

Jones: It is. We have a custom-templated version of for iPhone’s Safari browser. Actually, in that instance we have also displayed one of the first rich-media ad executions as well. If you take a look at the website of USA Today, you will see an ad unit that actually expands within the browser while the user does not leave the page, which is very unique. We partnered with a rich-media advertising company called PointRoll (for this), which Gannett actually owns. We are very excited about the new opportunity PointRoll presents, to bring some of the extraordinary desktop advertising executions to mobile.

IFRA: Is the site optimised for other browsers that work in other smart phones, such as Opera, Opera Mini or Firefox?

Jones: No, just for Safari right now. But we are in the process of looking at other browsers we could support in enhanced ways.

IFRA: What do you think are the advantages for users when looking at a News (native) application on their phones versus that of an optimised website application? And the disadvantages?

Jones: Well, I think there is a combination of factors. You have the ability to cache content on the device when you are in a native application environment rather than in Safari. You have the ability to access GPS, which is difficult to do in Safari, but is something you can do in a native application… We’ve done that in Weather and Snapshot polls (surveys, both features in the application). The Accelerometer would be another example, or any of the other applications that are ‘resident’ on the phone, like an address book or something of that nature. Those are all key advantages of a native environment, in addition to some of the things that you can do from a design and user interface point of view. I think comparing the USA Today native app to the USA Today web app would be a good example to show the contrast between the two.

Some of the disadvantages (for publishers) of using native applications are the higher costs to develop those for a smart phone, rather than simply adapting your website to a concrete browser. Also, depending on the brand, it might be difficult, or more difficult, to get distribution for a native application. Many of the sales and downloads - depending on how you are approaching the platform- are generated out of the App Store, whereas in the Safari environment you just drive people to a web URL which they may already be familiar with.

IFRA: Some publishers have raised concerns about, on the one hand, having to adapt their content to work with different browsers and handsets, while on the other hand, having to deal with browsers that repackage their content in a way the publishers do not fancy. And worse, these browsers don’t give publishers the details about the users who have clicked on their sites. What do you think about this?

Jones: There is indeed a lot of work involved with all of that… We have tried to take the approach that we want to display USA Today content in as rich a way as possible regardless of the handset. For example, whether you are talking about a Motorola Razr device, USA Today can be viewed on that, or a Nokia Series 60 or what have you. … we try to put the best presentation forward as possible depending on the capabilities of the browsers.

Regarding the lack of information and loss of control on the information about our users, we are also concerned about this issue. We like to have the user come directly to us of course, through our site url, or through one of our carrier partnerships, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or other carriers here in the U.S., and we like to control the presentation that we provide to the user.

IFRA: How is advertising integrated into your mobile application?

Jones: Most of our mobile applications are ad supported. We do have a subscription product for iPhone, for example, USA Today Crosswords, which you can find in the App Store and it is US$ 4.99 to download. But from the general news and information point of view, most of our products are ad supported, and we have a tremendous amount of interest from advertisers around rich-media possibilities, such as the expandable advertising I mentioned earlier, or our native application.

IFRA: The iPhone does not support Flash. Has this limited advertiser proposals in any way?

Jones: We haven’t run into this challenge yet. What we have built into most of our products is an ad-serving capability that provides impression and click data and things of that nature. And I think there are a lot of capabilities in mobile advertising that you can’t do on the desktop. If you take a look at the USA Today Safari site, you can see some of the capabilities there.

IFRA: What advice or recommendations would you give newspapers in other parts of the world

about how to construct an application for a smart phone?

Jones: Well, I think one of the things that we try to continually do is start by looking at what our assets are and what our brand represents to the users. In the case of USA Today, the heritage of that product is something that has been targeted at travellers, people who are mobile and on the go. And the way the paper and the website have been organised since the early days has been to ease the ability by which that content can be consumed. So when we were looking at what to do in the mobile environment, it was fairly straightforward for us to think: ‘Ok, most people here in the U.S. recognise the brand; they know News, they know Sports, they know Money, they know Life and the colour scheme behind all that.’ So it was really just figuring out how to leverage those brand assets and the content, while at the same time trying to do something unique that was going to please the user: to build out a very robust Weather or Sports section, because those are mobile content areas that are very popular; to tie in location-based services to the application... That was the kind of thought process that went into it.

IFRA: What would you say is a ‘must’ for newspaper publishers regarding the mobile world?

Jones: In general, a must for newspaper publishers is to determine in their market how their consumers are getting their content, whether it be by text messaging, by mobile web, by apps, and make sure their content is presented in the best possible light and that they have scalable business models developed around those products.

Interview conducted by Mari Pascual


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