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January 14th, 2016

Why Native News Apps Have A History Of Failure

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And it is not going to change any time soon.

By all accounts, Circa was a popular app. Circa performed news aggregation and some original reporting to present the day’s events in a sleek and consumable form. Some people loved Circa in the same way they used to love Google Reader, the most popular RSS reader of all time that was discontinued in 2013.

The journalism and media community was stunned when Circa closed shop in mid-2015. How could the best of the best simply wither and die? Circa was an app designed and moderated specifically for the mobile era and showed positive signs of growth.

The story of Circa’s demise is complicated. Circa had trouble monetizing and couldn’t find funding or a buyer when it began running out of money. But Circa had one problem that had little to do with the quality of the product or how it conducted its business:

People do not like news apps.

News apps have high deletion rates, poor user reviews and dismal attribute scores. News apps—by nature a passive consumer experience—are antithetical to the active nature of smartphone use.

ESPN and The New York Times have attempted to create a breadth of diverse and interesting news apps. Both had suffered losses and cut back on the number of apps they publish. In 2014, ESPN cut back from dozen of apps to several core apps while redesigning its mobile Web experience to be much more tailored and personalized. The best news aggregator in the apps economy—Zite—could not find enough users and sold … twice (to CNN and then to Flipboard). Flipboard, the award-winning original independent tablet magazine, has gone through its own growth and monetization troubles in the last year.

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How News Apps Struggle

In ARC’s massive 2015 State Of The App Stores report, one app category stood apart from the rest. And not in a good way. The News category in iOS had the lowest Applause Analytics score of any app category in the entire report. News and Magazines had the second lowest score of all Android app categories in Google Play.

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What does this mean? Applause Analytics is a sentiment analysis engine that crawls all of the reviews in the Apple App Store and Google Play and assigns words in the reviews to 10 different attribute scores (usability, security, performance, content, stability etc.). An overall Applause score (with 100 as the highest) is assigned based on these attributes.

The News category in iOS has an average Applause score of 48.19, well below the average iOS score for all apps of 69.5 and the only category in the report to score below 50. Flipboard—an Applause score of 80—was the only app in the category with more than 10,000 reviews to rank above average.

See also: How Flipboard Is The Epitome Of Web 3.0

In Google Play, the news and magazine category did not fare much better with an average Applause score of 53.77, the second lowest rating for Android (the related media and video category scored an average of 52.21).

We are not talking about just a handful of news apps, but the entire category with more than 120,000 apps between iOS and Android. News apps tend to perform poorly in attribute scores that are the strength of other app categories, like usability and performance. Notably, the content attribute is not among the top three attributes for news apps in either iOS or Android.

Yahoo Advertising (with data from Flurry Analytics) notes that poor reviews are the number one reason (39% of the time) people do not download a particular app. Practical reasons like not enough phone storage and higher price than expected (both 36% of the time) were the next highest reasons for not downloading an app.

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Content apps are especially susceptible to poor reviews, according to Yahoo Advertising. Navigation and entertainment apps were also effected by poor reviews.

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Yahoo’s report notes that the average lifespan of a dormant app on a person’s phone was 12 weeks before it is deleted. Content apps—likely due to the poor usability and performance attributes—were deleted even quicker, averaging 11 weeks before deletion.

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Is there any hope for news apps? At this point, probably not. Eight years into the revolution of the apps economy, we have a critical mass of data to show that news apps are just not suited to the native apps world. Publications fare better on mobile through websites that are updated frequently with responsive design elements, strong search rankings and high social sharing quotients. One of the reasons we have seen campaigns like the Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (AMP) from Google and Twitter or Facebook’s Instant Articles is an acknowledgement that news is better suited towards the Web.

Lead image: Flipboard CEO Mike McCue by Ken Yeung.