News Republic is a news app designed for the iPhone and iPod touch. It feeds stories from AP, Reuters, AFP, and WENN, and allows the user to track specific subjects in the MyNews section. It’s not an RSS reader, and it’s not yet full screen on the iPad. The app tries to cover a lot of ground and ultimately falters as a small screen news app.
News apps, especially on the iPhone with its limited screen size, have a unique hurdle. The app must allow the user to scan major categories of interest, such as sports, business, technology and politics, but then when the user picks such a category, the app must strike a balance between overloading the user with content and visuals or, alternatively, spoon-feeding the user with content poorly filtered by someone else.
This filtering process, whether we like it or not, happens at many news sites. TMO, The major TV news organizations, and the newspapers all have choices to make and limited bandwidth on which to deliver those choices. A major news organization has to decide what’s important and what’s fluff to be covered elsewhere.
The News Republic, it seems to me, has come down on the side of delivering lots of news at the expense of focus and good use of the limited screen area of the iPhone. Right away, that can make the app frustrating to use and some time is required to leverage the app into useful form. For example, here’s the high tech news page in (default) tile form.
As you can see, many of the titles are truncated, some don’t have a corresponding graphic, and the user is left to wonder what’s important, what isn’t, and what’s left out because of the size constraints. It’s far better to switch over to the listing that one can at least scroll through. Here’s the Business section:
The next thing one notices is that the ads are highly animated and change frequently. It’s distracting in the extreme, and many users at iTunes have complained about the ads. I asked the publisher’s rep about this.
We really don’t feel that users should have to pay for a good news reading experience on their mobile device. Our revenue comes from an advertising based model in which we share revenue with the content publishers. Some users have requested a paid version without ads and we have run a SurveyMonkey on that. Twenty-four percent of the 600 respondents would be ready to pay for an ads-free version. This version is planned on both iPhone and Android in the coming weeks. The free version will continue of course with targeted ads based on the users preferences. We use TagNav also for semantic targeting in order to serve adapted commercial offers and ads.”
This is not an RSS reader. Instead, one can, in addition to major categories, create a custom news channel, say, “Apple” or “Egypt” from a search able list. The UI for locking in that channel is not as intuitive as it could be, requiring one to go to the bottom of the display and and hit the star key to create a permanent channel.
Given that news apps like this presents a lot of disparate information, it’s important to strike a balance between graphics and text size. If the headline text size is too small, it’s hard to digest and make a quick decision about whether to read more. I never got the comfortable feeling that News Republic had struck that proper balance.
I created my own news channel, called “Apple, Inc.” and found that there were a lot of stories only vaguely related to Apple, and some not at all. For example, today, I saw “Britain’s TweetDeck Poised for US Takeover.” That’s not the kind of focus I was expecting for the Apple category and is further evidence of a lack of editorial decision making that I described above. That’s the difference between, say, a person at USA Today evaluating headlines and an all out news blitz.
Finally, the first time I launched News Republic, it stalled. I had to quit the app and relaunch. Even then, it takes longer than one would wish to load the first time.
I suspect that a lot of effort was put into this app, but the effort resulted in an app that’s fairly geeky and doesn’t pay enough attention to that subjective science of presenting news in a coherent, digestible way. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. However, I will admit that some people like this cornucopia approach to the news. When the full screen iPad version comes out, I think I’ll like it a bit more.
Of all the news Apps I use on the iPhone, USA Today and BBC News seem to have the best approach to focus, hierarchy, intuitive UI, content, and readability. News Republic is my least favorite and likely won’t survive the next round of app deletions.