August 27, 2014 Last Updated 3:51 pm

Gannett’s nears completion of new app and website efforts for its local newspaper properties

New iPad, iPhone and Android apps replicate the content of the paper’s websites, while the new websites fail to reproduce well on mobile devices

The announcement earlier this month that Gannett would spin off its newspapers is probably a good thing for the papers as far as its digital strategy goes. During the summer the newspaper chain has been launching new apps for its newspapers, but the chain still feels four years behind more progressive digital publishers.

LSJ-iPadGannett has 185 different iPad apps and the same number of apps for the iPhone. Some of these apps are for broadcast properties and so will be the responsibility of the newly created broadcast company. But most are for community newspapers (USA Today apps appear under a separate developer account).

Starting in May, Gannett has been launching new apps for its newspapers and also relaunching the local newspaper websites. As you would expect from such a large chain, all the apps and all the websites look identical.

The strategy behind the new apps is what one might have expected four years ago – something that is not unique to Gannett (see this post on the Chicago Sun-Times). The new apps are your standard news apps, replicating the content that can be found on the newspaper’s website. This is the same strategy the NYT has pursued from the beginning, seeing the iPad as another vehicle for their web content, rather than either either another way to distribute their print newspaper, or as a brand new digital platform (the NYT does not have a replica app for its print newspaper).

LSJ-iPad-webThe apps are, to their credit, a step above some of the news apps that a company like Digital First Media has produced – they at least make sure that the same stories that are deemed important enough to lead the website also lead the app’s first page. They do not, like the outsourced apps from DFM, simply take the RSS feeds and dump the stories into news holes.

But the apps are merely replicating the websites. Generally, more digitally progressive companies would make sure they designed responsive websites that look as attractive on a tablet as they do on a desktop or laptop. But the new Gannett websites are a pop-up advertiser’s dream, and don’t translate well to tablets. (Honestly, I’m not thrilled with them on any device.)

So each newspaper, to compensate, now gets new iPhone and iPad apps that display the news in an acceptable manner. The new Android apps are similar to the iPhone apps (apparently Gannett did not consider it important to build for all those Android tablets being sold).

All the new apps, like USA Today, are stand-alone, as Gannett has eschewed the Apple Newsstand with the exception of two newspaper magazine apps, one of which hasn’t been updated with new issues since September of 2012.

GreenBay-replicaThat goes, too, for the other newspaper apps that were launched long ago to provide replica editions of the print newspapers. These apps open and force the reader to log into their existing print newspaper account. Alternatively, the reader can, in theory, log into a Facebook account. I say ‘in theory’ because my attempt to log in only resulted in an error message.

Gannett’s digital app efforts kind of remind me of a trip to the dentist: no one looks forward to it, and one hopes to avoid going back too many times. There are a lot of papers that need to be serviced, so the idea is to make it as painless as possible.

If Gannett’s current digital strategy is so bad, what should they be doing? Well, first, I would free up some of the newspapers to explore more creative approaches. With so many newspaper properties, spread across the country, centralizing digital publishing efforts works for producing vast numbers of apps and websites, but really stifles innovation. Second, I would insist that any new website launched be tested across devices. Why have each newspaper have three apps (one news app for the iPhone, one news app for the iPad, and a universal app for the replica editions of the print newspaper)?

There Gannett newspapers have a new lease on life, albeit one that comes with the old corporation stealing the interesting digital properties and forcing the papers to sign agreements to use those properties into the future. Congratulations Gannett newspapers, you are no long slaves to the corporation, you are now sharecroppers.

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