U.S. Markets open in 7 hrs 27 mins

Mobile News Apps Offer More Convenience But Less Choice

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech). 

Did you see the story about the app-ification of news? It was a great Instant Article on Facebook… which I learned of from a Twitter Moment… and then saw promoted on Snapchat Discover… no, wait, it was on Apple News first.

For an industry supposedly devoid of a sustainable business model, the news is getting a lot of attention from social networks and mobile-app developers. As a journalist, I have to say this newfound interest is kind of gratifying.

But the new news is not necessarily good news. Whoever makes those apps determines what you see on them and where you can use them, and these apps can also be influenced and even controlled to some degree by forces even larger than Apple, Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter. 

News you can use

These experiments in compressed news delivery all exist for the same basic reason: To make it easier to read a story, while at the same time discouraging you from clicking or tapping anywhere else to do it. 

Snapchat’s Discover and Twitter’s Moments do so by building a kind of pelletized article format on top of each service’s basic design.

On the left, Snapchat’s Discover news clipping app; on the right, Twitter’s editor-curated Moments. 

Discover, introduced in January, provides snackable snippets of video and text from 15 partner sites. For instance, yesterday Mashable was offering a clip of New York Comic Con cosplayers holding up cards identifying their day jobs, while National Geographic’s “Park of the Week” feature highlighted England’s New Forest National Park.

Moments, launched a week ago, presents selected tweets and vines about a breaking news topic, as selected by Twitter’s editors. The selection Monday highlighted a Lego art project in New York as well as Twitter responses to Iran’s reported conviction of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian after 447 days of imprisonment.

(Full disclosure: Either of those features could be considered competition for the Yahoo News Digest app published by this site’s parent company. We are forbidden to reveal which of these is our favorite.)

Apple’s News (left) and Facebook’s Instant Articles promise to speed your read by removing ads and other annoyances. 

Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News, meanwhile, streamline traditional story formats and lock them into each company’s respective orbit. You get the same words and images as in the original, but each loads dramatically faster—thanks in part to the absence of most of the usual advertising and social-media cruft that gums up too many stories online.

Last week, Google introduced its own answer to Instant Articles and Apple News, a tuned-up mobile-news format called Accelerated Mobile Pages. “AMP” dumps a lot of traditional Web coding for more efficient, open-source replacements, then provides a further boost by caching on Google servers.

Choice versus convenience

Okay, so we’re looking at having the news show up faster and with fewer ads. What’s not to like about that? Well, lack of choice, for one thing.

With all but one of these news-nugget formats, not just any publisher can play. Instant Articles and Discover are each limited to one or two handfuls of name-brand partners, while the creation of Twitter Moments is left to Twitter’s editors.

Apple News is more open but still leaves publishers subject to Apple’s approval, and I’ve already seen one editor of a science publication complain that her site was wrongly rejected.

Google’s AMP seems most open; the open-source nature of its code means individual news sites can take the parts they like and plug them into their own sites. But as Fortune’s Mathew Ingram noted, AMP also breaks many existing systems publishers use to track readership and sell ads.

A search for ‘Mars’ pulls up these Google AMP’d stories.

Platform compatibility is also a major issue here. Snapchat is inaccessible via the Web, while Twitter has yet to bring Moments to its iPad app or its mobile-Web site. Apple News is confined to iOS devices—and publishers will only be able to sell ads and customize their presentation if they publish in an upcoming, proprietary Apple News Format.

But Apple News is still more open than Instant Articles, which remain an iPhone-only proposition five months after their debut. Facebook now says it will add Instant Articles to its Android app “later this year,” but iPad users can only wonder if they will.

Finally, any closed platform is more prone to pressure from powerful outsiders.

Hong Kong resident Larry Salibra discovered this a few days ago, when he connected to a wireless network run out of mainland China and found that his iPhone shut him out of Apple News stories he had already downloaded to his device. On Monday night, Twitter briefly suspended the sports-news site Deadspin’s account after the NFL sent in a copyright complaint about it posting GIFs of highlight-reel plays.

Breaking news

Having gone this far into “get off my printing press” territory, let me now admit that reading the news in these modernized, miniaturized formats can be a pleasure.

Instant Articles and AMP-formatted stories pop onto the screen (you can see a sample by visiting g.co/ampdemo with a mobile browser, then type any term into the Google search window). Apple News, Twitter Moments, and Snapchat Discover can be fascinating ways to browse the news quickly, without the need to curate your own selection of news sources as you would with an RSS feed.

So, yes, traditional news organizations could use some help making their sites more pleasant to read on mobile devices. But you know what’s also not much fun? Trying to stay on top of the news in a desktop browser. I mean, there’s a reason why people use ad blockers.

If, as hashtag inventor Chris Messina wrote last week, tech companies want to “take over the distribution of information from the conventional news industry,” they should remember that we don’t stop reading when we put down their phones. And that we’d still rather choose the devices on which we read, instead of having our reading habits make the choice for us. 

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.