The local news industry is in disarray. Local ad revenue has plummeted. Investigative reporting on city councils is withering. And the FCC is scrambling for policy solutions to keep the stalwart of local democracy on life support. But TapIn Bay Area, a location-aware news iPad app from the hackers at the San Jose Mercury News, is reorienting the news experience around Google Maps. Stories, events, deals, and rich multimedia cultural features are mapped with hyper-precision by a team of editors. The app is “a platform to tap into local wisdom,” says Jeff Herr, Vice-President of Digital at the California Newspaper Partnership, a newspaper consortium that helped develop the app.
Big-time players have attempted location-aware news, such as Google’s “News Near You” mobile addition to its news website. But Google’s automated app has the granularity of a bag of bowling balls: it pulls up city-wide stories, not neighborhood tidbits. “That’s a myth, that you can use an algorithm to map the news,” says Herr.
TapIn’s approach is to give every user access to the intrigue of a local expert. In addition to a magazine-style layout of local content, a Google Map is overlaid with rich multimedia features, entertainment events, and a smattering of news stories. An Emmy award-winning producer, Mark Stanoch, leads a team that creates documentary-like features on everything from festivals to cultural landmarks.
Indeed, multiple focus groups have shown that after lightly perusing the front page, users quickly delved into the Google Map, soaking in the local culture of their immediate area and those of their friends and family. The goal, Herr says, is to give readers “a little slice of life around the Bay.”
TapIn also seeks to quench the immediate confusion related to interpretive events, like inexplicable traffic jams or squads of police cars. “Instead of putting a search term into Google and trying to find the most recent or relevant result, that stuff is coming directly to you,” says Luke Stangel, cofounder at Tackable, a location-based network powering TapIn.
While the approach is certainly novel, and could become the basis for other media outlets looking to bulk up their local content, TapIn hasn’t figured out how to make themselves profitable. This is concerning, especially given that other organizations, with a lot more cash on hand, have struggled to make hyper-local news work. The New York Times handed off its failed experimental coverage of small East Coast towns to local journalism schools. AOL’s Patch, which pays small amounts to local writers, is growing, but is haunted by its parent company’s looming difficulties.
Stangel is convinced that targeted advertising will compel local proprietors to shell out 1980s-size advertising prices to reach a target audience. Additionally, TapIn will exploit Tackable’s iReporter tool to curate free and low-cost content from neighborhood enthusiasts.
In part, the profitability of the app may depend on how consumers’ willingness to pay for apps change over time. Focus group subjects under the age of 25 had little interest in paying for news apps, and even less interest in local news at all (given that they relocate so often). The bad news for media publishers was confirmed in a recent Nielson survey showing that the news apps were the least likely to be paid for.
For now, Herr says that TapIn isn’t concentrating on profits as much as trying to find a way to save local journalism.