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Rocky mobile app strategy? You're not alone -- ask the New York Times

Build it, but people won't necessarily come, the New York Times conceded: It's pulling the plug on some of its mobile apps and axing 100 jobs. Also in Searchlight: 76 million accounts are compromised in JPMorgan Chase hack; PayPal is cut loose.

The New York Times' new app-based subscription strategy just isn't working, its executives admitted this week. The paper reported Wednesday it was shutting down two mobile apps -- NYT Opinion, which focused on editorial content, and NYT Now, aimed at younger readers -- because they failed to attract enough subscribers. The bad news came bundled in with even worse news -- a decision to cut 100 newsroom jobs in order to "safeguard the newspaper's long-term profitability."

Of course newspaper layoffs are nothing new, unfortunately, including at the Times, which laid off 30 staffers in January 2013. But what seemed especially ominous about this round of cuts was the Times' explicit coupling of the staff reduction with an admission that its digital and mobile strategy was still a work in progress (to put it kindly), and there was a price to pay for that.

Digital technology and mobile initiatives will not be affected by the belt-tightening, according to the memo: "The job losses are necessary to control our costs and to allow us to continue to invest in the digital future of The New York Times." How could it be otherwise? The New York Times, and every other business, has to figure out how to adapt to the digital economy.

One way the newspaper could take a stab at this, according to Talking New Media's D.B. Hebbard, is to look at digital devices as new publishing avenues, not simply distribution platforms for recycling the content it's already publishing in print and online.

"The question is not, has never been, whether the Times would support new apps," Hebbard argued. "If it were truly experimenting with the platforms, [it] would be releasing new apps and eBooks based on its rich archives, while developing new voices and products that have absolutely no ties to either the print or Web products."

That's a tall order, especially for an institution that is the best at what it does. Does the Times -- and every other old-economy business -- have the imagination (and determination) to invent new content types for digital platforms?

A baby step in the right direction, said Hebbard and other experts, is the Times' new NYT Cooking app. The recipe archive will be offered for free while the paper gathers usage data to determine whether it could fly as a paid subscription app.

In any case, it's pretty clear that if you're going to get into the app business, you've also got to be willing to roll with the punches when things go awry, especially when your initial vision doesn't turn out to be as profitable as you envisaged.

Or as the New York Times' publisher Arthur Sulzberger and CEO Mark Thompson phrased it: "They are all experiments, which we are determined to treat as such: to learn, pivot and, where necessary, make prompt decisions about them." Amen.

CIO news roundup for week of Sept. 29

And here is more technology news of note:

  • The fallout from a cyberhack on JPMorgan Chase that began this summer turns out to be a lot worse than earlier estimates predicted: 76 million household accounts and 7 million small business accounts were compromised -- not only the largest corporate hack in history, but also the first non-retail one.
  • EBay is setting PayPal free. The spin-off of the electronic payments unit is timely in light of the Apple Pay announcement last month. Who will win the mobile payments battle?
  • Twitter is granting MIT's Media Lab access to all the messages its users have ever tweeted. It's part of a project in which the lab will investigate the ever-changing tide of public opinion and use the insight to develop new communication tools.
  • There's a hidden, virtual battle protestors in Hong Kong are also fighting, it turns out. In a phishing attack, smartphone-equipped dissenters have been receiving a link to a disguised malicious app that one security firm says is likely linked to the Chinese government.
  • Sick of Facebook's status updates? The ads? The constantly changing topics feed? Your data being sold to advertisers? Ello, the new ad-free social network, claims to address all of those qualms -- and boasts a clean, minimalist style, to boot.
  • There's more evidence that humans aren't the only ones capable of cultural evolution. Scientists have discovered that wild chimpanzees acquire and spread cultural behavior through emulation and imitation, which are social learning mechanisms.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on the Bash flaw's impact on enterprises and how Apple's privacy policy puts consumers first.

Next Steps

See Hammond's dos and don'ts on creating purpose-built apps. Then, check out his advice on how to overhaul your app development culture. Lastly, take our quiz to find out how to make the most out of mobile apps.

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