CNN Mobile, a news application from CNN Interactive Group, is available for US$1.99 at the App Store.When CNN released its new iPhone application this week, the big news wasn’t so much that the app was out there, but that CNN had the audacity to charge money for it.
Nearly two whole dollars for news? In this online land of plenty? Bah! The Associated Press has a free news app — as it didn’t fail to point out when it covered the release of the CNN application. Also, a lot of large-scale, general interest news organizations already have special sites designed specifically for the mobile browsers on iPhones and other devices, and they’re just as free to visit as the full-sized versions you see on your full-sized computer. The money comes from advertising, so why would anyone ever pay?
Publishers are working on a good answer for that one. All these sites would love to be able to charge readers something — per month, per visit, per click, whatever. After all, people used to pay a few cents for a copy of a newspaper every day, and those papers also carried ads, so it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition.
The question is, who’s gonna jump in first? Except for The Wall Street Journal and a few other financial publications, I know of no mainstream, nationwide U.S. news site that makes you pay up for a subscription in order to get the goods. The first one that does will likely have to couple its newly built paywall with an incredible site redesign and a wash of new interactive features. Even then, it’ll still probably take a hit in traffic as some readers just go elsewhere.
But if that first one swims rather than sinks, it’ll provide a model for others to do the same. Soon after, we’ll all be back to laying down a quarter or two for the paper. Only by then, actual paper will probably have nothing to do with it, and the whole system will probably have to work out some sort of co-op, since we’re no longer used to getting all our news from one publication anymore.
What CNN has done with its new iPhone app doesn’t take online news back to the subscription model, since it only has a one-time $2 price, and it lets you access the content for as long as CNN decides to support the app. But it is pointed in that general direction, and it seems to understand that if you want to start charging to any degree, then you have to offer more features.
As a dedicated application rather than a made-for-mobile Web page, the CNN iPhone app’s display and presentation are perfectly suited for the device’s screen. No pinch-and-pull zoom necessary, dedicated controls stay where they need to be, and load times are snappier.
Starting up the app, you’re greeted with the top headlines of the day — usually a mishmash of top world and national news, along with some opinions, some sort of coverage of the attention-grabbing gross-out crime of the week, and an entertainment story or two. All these headlines stuff will take you to a text article, sometimes with photos and a link to a video, if one exists. A horizontal scroll bar along the top sorts by section — Heath, Travel, Politics, etc.
The bottom of the screen is devoted to icons for different functions. You start with the headlines described above, and you can also go to MyCNN, iReport and Video.
Video is certainly going to be one of the app’s major draws. Like the Headlines function, Video is divided into sections — Entertainment, World, U.S., etc. — with a horizontal slider at the top. Hold the phone sideways, and the various stories will appear in Cover View style. You can get on-demand clips as well as a live feed from time to time (when a big story breaks, for example).
The videos on CNN’s main Web site used to drive me nuts with their pre-roll commercials. I really do understand that money needs to be made, but from the moment I first tried one many months ago, I decided that a two-minute news clip was not worth sitting through a 25-second life insurance commercial. I found no such pre-roll commercials on the videos in the iPhone app — just a static car ad that displayed as the page loaded. For comparison’s sake, I revisited CNN’s main site and checked out some videos there. Those seem to have finally dropped the pre-roll habit too.
While on WiFi, video resolution is about as good as it gets on the iPhone’s little screen, and I got no hangups or stutters. On 3G, videos took a little longer to get going, and the resolution wasn’t as good, but still no hangups. Fine by me — I’ll take a worse picture over start-stop playback any day.
Two more features extend the CNN app beyond that of a simple news portal.
One bottom-row function takes you to iReport, CNN’s portal for citizen journalists — in this case, basically anyone with a camera who cares to submit images, footage or text of some newsworthy thing going on right now. iReport is great when it comes to spot news coverage — there were numerous reports of the tsunami in Samoa on Wednesday, for example. It’s a little like YouTube in regard to the op-ed content it carries. (Anyone care to know what the guy in the barber chair thinks? Perhaps, but couldn’t they have done this interview when the barber isn’t using those loud electric clippers? I can barely hear the guy.) iReport’s also been targeted by a few pranksters posting flat-out false reports.
As far as the mobile app goes, you can select from a list of featured stories, look into the Assignments section (questions and topics actual CNN editors post to elicit more user activity), or even file your own iReport. If you ever happen to spot something amazing going on in your neighborhood, the Submit function lets you take a photo with the iPhone and post it up.
The My CNN function takes you to an info page personalized to your location and interests. It’ll give you local weather and traffic info, let you follow news and topics by keyword, and access saved stories for future reading.
As a dedicated portal to CNN’s content, the network’s mobile app is well-designed and nicely outfitted with useful features. If CNN is one of your main sources for news, and you’re used to getting news through your iPhone, you’ll probably like it.
The question is, is it fair to charge for this? I think it is. CNN’s mobile site is free, but you can’t get its video on an iPhone, and this mobile app is much easier to navigate overall. It does have ads, but they’re pretty unintrusive, both visually and in terms of the bandwidth they take up. Also, it’s a one-time cost of two bucks, which may be a steal compared to the subscriptions we might have to pay for access to some major online news outlets over the next few years. In fact, an app like this (with more features and access to more news sources, I hope) may one day be tacked onto your monthly phone bill as an added expense.
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